Seeking Truth: Stories of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project

Stories teach. Stories touch.
— David Richman, President of PalP

Like millions of other story fans, I was addicted to Season 1 of the podcast Serial. I mean, I’ll pretty much listen to anything that Ira Glass tells me to. But once I heard the first few episodes, I waited anxiously for the following week’s download. For those of you who haven’t heard of this podcast here is the premise as stated on its website:

“Serial tells one story - a true story - over the course of an entire season. Each season, we'll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. And we won’t know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us.”

And here is some backstory of Season 1, from the show’s website:

“On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.”

One of the organizations that was key in the continued investigation over Syed’s presumed innocence was a national organization called The Innocence Project. So when I got an email from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, I immediately connected this local organization to the podcast that had taken over my Thursday mornings for months. 

It turns out that the PA Innocence Project’s board members were also fans of Serial and wanted to explore the idea of storytelling further by making it the theme for their annual fundraising event. 

As the founder of Tell Me A Story, I worked with PaIP and their event planner Michelle Meltzer of Bread & Butter Productions to create programming for the event where attendees could listen to stories and also tell stories of their own. Members of the Pa Innocence Project and two honorees, who were telling their stories at the event, participated in a two hour storytelling intensive. This workshop focused on crafting these personal experiences into a story that would immediately connect with the audience and take them on a journey. 

In the program booklet for the evening's festivities, PaIP Board President, David Richman, had this to say about the art of storytelling:

“I appreciate that every life in the hands of a skilled storyteller is full of fascination. Our everyday conversations are studded with personal anecdotes, little stories drawn from life….The stories that we tell in our legal papers and in court are utterly true, which makes them all the more heartbreaking.”

On May 12th, we set up a Story Station at the event. This was an interactive program where guests would record their own stories in front of a camera. All of the participants were given a list of prompts to choose from, all relating to the mission of PaIP. Videographer Bob Sweeney  helped each guest feel comfortable in front of the camera and I encouraged them to tell the story like they were talking to a friend. 

Here are some photos of the Story Station by photographer Steve Weinik:

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After the event, Bob and I worked together to edit all of the stories into a Video Podcast. We wanted to capture both stories of past exonerees and of those who also had experienced injustice in unexpected ways. 

Here is the full length video podcast. Enjoy. 

More about the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, from their website. 

"The Pennsylvania Innocence Project works to exonerate those convicted of crimes they did not commit and to prevent innocent people from being convicted. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has a four-fold mission to: (1) secure the exoneration, release from imprisonment, and restoration to society of persons who are innocent and have been wrongly convicted; (2) provide clinical training and experience to students in the fields of law, journalism, criminal justice, and forensic science; (3) collaborate with law enforcement agencies and the courts to address systemic causes of wrongful convictions; and (4) strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania through public education and advocacy."

Tell Me A Story would love to work with your organization to help tell its story. Our Story Station is available for fundraising events, conferences and more. Email us for more information.