Q&A: An advocate for the wrongfully convicted

Name: Jon Eldan

Age: 46

City: Oakland

Position: Founder and director, After Innocence, after-innocence.org

You were in corporate litigation when you saw a movie that determined the direction your work would take. How did that happen?

Jon Eldan: I was an attorney in a San Francisco law firm doing business litigation and I saw the documentary “After Innocence,” which shows how exonerees are typically pushed out the prison gate and left to fend for themselves. One in the film complained that he had been out of prison seven years but still hadn’t had his record expunged, and I thought, “Why not try to help this guy?” He was in Philadelphia, so I cold-called a few lawyers there, and one took the case pro bono. I realized this was a very efficient way to help exonerees across the country with legal problems, and continued to do that pro bono work.

You volunteered for 10 years before starting After Innocence as a nonprofit last year. How many people do you estimate you’ve helped by now?

342 exonerees across 33 states.

Jon Eldan

You didn’t take a salary in the beginning and lived off savings. Who funds this work now?

I spent the first 18 months as a full-time volunteer in order to build the organization. I am just now starting to receive grants so that I can take a salary — including a large donation from the Reva and David Logan Foundation, which also gives to Jewish social justice causes — but I will need to raise more money to reach more of the nearly 2,000 exonerees in the United States.

Social services tend to be better for those who served their sentences and are released on parole than for those who had their convictions overturned on evidence of innocence. How many states offer financial compensation to the wrongfully convicted?

It depends on where you are: In 20 states, you are not entitled to anything at all. In the remaining states, it’s really a mixed bag. In Montana, you get free tuition at the state university, but no money. In Wisconsin, it’s $5,000 per year. In Missouri, you get compensated if you prove innocence through DNA evidence, but nothing if you prove it through some other evidence. Some exonerees successfully sue the government, but that takes years and is only possible where there was official misconduct, which occurs in only half of wrongful conviction cases. The bottom line is that most exonerees never receive meaningful compensation or help rebuilding their lives.

When someone is exonerated, is it usually through DNA evidence?

DNA is a factor in about 25 percent of exonerations. Other major causes of wrongful conviction include mistaken witness identifications, junk science, bad lawyers and official misconduct.

How do you help your clients?

I call each exoneree and ask about three areas: health care, social services and legal services. I stay with them start to finish to ensure they are getting and know how to use the health care and social services they are eligible for, and they can — and do — call with questions down the road. If they are having a problem a lawyer can help with, I will find them a lawyer who will help them pro bono. In the future, I hope to help in other areas, like housing and employment, but for now the focus is on getting to as many exonerees as possible. Nearly all have no help at all right now.

One of your clients once said about you, “I love the guy. I would drive a truck with his name on the side of it if I could.” Does it ever come up that you’re Jewish?

Many of my clients have found religion in connection with surviving their wrongful imprisonment. On occasion they ask me about my faith, and a few have noticed that there are many Jews involved in the innocence movement. I am learning about what Jewish sources say about our obligations when we find that we have made mistakes. I hope to develop some ways to engage the Jewish community on these issues, and more broadly on criminal justice reform. We have a lot of work to do.

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Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."