Education: Bachelor of Arts degree, Wesleyan University; JD, University of California, Berkeley School of Law; LL.M, Georgetown University Law Center. Age: 47
When Innocence Project New Orleans holds its annual benefit, there are posters of IPNO clients, men, most of whom are Black, placed around the room with information about them. What stands out are the numbers: 20, 35 – and 45 for Wilbert Jones. It is the years they were in prison before the organization was able to exonerate them and/or get their release. Jones, who was released in 2017 and exonerated in 2018, is the client who had been in prison for the longest.
The path from incarceration to freedom is guided by IPNO Executive Director Jee Park and IPNO’s dedicated staff, which has taken on the case of its first woman client, Cheri Hayden, who “is innocent and has been wrongly convicted and imprisoned for over 10 years for a crime she knew nothing about and did not commit,” states the IPNO website. Hayden, who battled lung cancer in prison, now has terminal brain cancer.
For Park, her path to this job started as a teenager when her father was murdered.
“I became aware of and exposed to the criminal legal system as result of this horrific tragedy to my family,” she says. “I saw for the first time the over-representation of Black people in the criminal legal system. I have always been conscious of race and racism as an Asian American growing up in a predominantly White community, and yet the stark racial disparity I saw in the criminal legal system was eye opening.”
She saw people being criminalized for their poverty, addiction, mental health issues, homelessness and choice of profession such as sex work.
“Not a lot of this made much sense until I went to work for Equal Justice Initiative,” Park says. She began to see what was happening currently in the U.S. criminal legal system through the historical lens of slavery, convict leasing, Jim Crow law, lynching of Black people, racially discriminatory housing policies and government programs and the war on drugs.
“I think my dad would be really proud that I was a public defender and now represent people wrongfully convicted,” she says. “He believed in forgiveness and redemption, treating everyone with dignity and humanity, and doing what’s right, even at a cost.”
How many years have you been with this organization? I started in January 2017 as IPNO’s senior policy attorney then moved into the executive director role in June 2018.
Tell us what IPNO does. IPNO frees innocent people sentenced to life in prison and those serving unjust sentences.
Founded in 2001 – this is our 20th anniversary year – to date IPNO has freed or exonerated 46 individuals who spent a combined 1,060 years in prison. IPNO is one of the most successful innocence organizations in the country. The organization supports our clients living well and fully in the world after their release by providing them with wraparound support and services. IPNO endeavors to address the root causes of wrongful convictions and unjust sentences by advocating for just and equitable criminal legal policies.
What have been the biggest, or most important, accomplishments while you’ve been with the organization?
- Under my leadership IPNO has freed or exonerated 10 innocent men who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes they didn’t commit
- Started the Unjust Punishment Project, which has freed seven men who received unjust life sentences for nonviolent crimes
- Received federal grant funding to begin a Wrongful Conviction Clinic at LSU Law Center this fall
- Expanded IPNO’s client services, investigations and operations
- Increased wrongful conviction compensation to innocent exonerees
- Reformed eyewitness identification law and procedures
- Helped to pass Louisiana Amendment Two in 2018, returning unanimous jury verdicts to criminal trials.
Is there a person who inspired you? Before law school, I worked at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, with Bryan Stevenson. EJI attorneys represented individuals sentenced to die with dignity and humanity, truly embodying the organization’s ethos that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Additionally, I clerked for Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, a federal district court judge of the District Court for the District of Columbia after law school. He is a fearless, principled, independent jurist who didn’t bow to political pressure or popular opinion and always sought to do what was just.
Secret ambition? I would love to train for and run another marathon!
What’s something about your organization that people most likely don’t know? People often think IPNO is an affiliate or a programmatic arm of IP-NY, but … IPNO is a freestanding, independent organization.
We are also one of the only organizations in Louisiana providing direct representation to poor, imprisoned individuals in post-conviction proceedings at no cost to them or to their families. Without representation from skilled lawyers, wrongfully convicted individuals can rarely prove their innocence and win their freedom.
Is there a moment (in addition to your father’s murder) that changed your life? When I was 23 years old, I met my first death row client who was Vietnamese American. As a Korean American, he and I had an immediate and profound connection as Asian Americans living in the South in this country.
He came to Mobile, Alabama, as a refugee from the Vietnam War and I understood the racial discrimination he experienced. He wasn’t innocent and committed a terrible crime, but as I got to know him and learned about him, his family, his upbringing, I began to understand how it is that he ended up on death row. He became a friend and person who’s more than the worst thing he’d done.
What are you reading now? The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson; a biography of the brilliant scientist Jennifer Doudna. Also, The Sympathizer and The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
What’s your idea of New Orleans bliss? With the sun setting, enjoying the last set of a great show at Jazz Fest with a cool drink in my hand.