Celebrating Black leaders in the innocence movement

On the first day of Black History Month, the Montana Innocence Projects is celebrating four Black leaders in the innocence movement who inspire us daily:

Ricky Kidd: Artist; Exoneree; and Midwest Innocence Project Community Engagement Manager

Ricky was wrongfully convicted of murder based on eyewitness misidentification, false testimony, and official misconduct. After 23 years, he was exonerated with the help of the Midwest Innocence Project in 2019. One month after his release, Ricky became employed as their Community Engagement Manager. He also serves on the Innocence Network’s Board of Directors. 

In addition to advocating for innocence, Ricky is a public speaker, poet, and playwright. He shares his original motivational content on his Patreon. According to his bio with the Midwest Innocence Project, he “uses his ability to speak from the soul to connect with others, while utilizing his infectious energy to help the organization promote awareness about the causes and impact of wrongful convictions.” His infectious energy helped his story go viral on TikTok. His videos, in which he discusses his journey of resilience, have over three million views. 

Christina Swarns: Innocence Project Executive Director 

Christina is the Executive Director of the Innocence Project where she has been actively transforming the innocence movement into one that prioritizes racial justice. Armed with a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a B.A. from Howard University, Christina served in multiple legal and racial justice advocacy roles prior to joining the Innocence Project in 2020. She was President and Attorney-in-Charge of New York City’s Office of the Appellate Defender; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Litigation Director; Supervising Assistant Federal Defender in the Capital Habeas Corpus Unit of the Philadelphia Community Defender Office; and a Staff Attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division in New York. 

Christina regularly contributes and is featured in pieces that advance racial and criminal justice topics including “The Supreme Court Should Reject Arizona’s Death Penalty Gambit” and “Who is Dangerous, and Who Dies” both appearing in The New York Times. Among her most inspirational achievements is being one of the only Black women to ever argue in front of the United States Supreme Court. In 2016, she won Buck v. Davis, which challenged the introduction of explicitly racially biased evidence in a Texas death penalty case.

Bryan Stevenson: Founder and Executive Director of The Equal Justice Initiative 

Bryan founded the Equal Justice Initiative after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1989. Since then, he and his organization have won countless legal victories about excessive and unfair sentencing, the abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, innocent people on death row, and children being prosecuted as adults. His dedication to protecting the rights of the most vulnerable in our society has won him countless honors including the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” Prize, the ABA Medal, and the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union after he was nominated by Justice John Stevens. He has over 40 honorary doctoral degrees and is a professor at the New York University School of Law. Bryan may be best known and celebrated for his groundbreaking book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which was named by Time Magazine as one of the 10 Best Books of Nonfiction for 2014.

Dr. Yusef Salaam: Writer; Member of the “Exonerated 5”; and Innocence Project Board Member

Yusef was wrongfully convicted at just 15-years-old in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case. He and the other four Black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully convicted became known as the “Central Park Five” and later the “Exonerated 5″ after DNA evidence freed them. Their stories are famously documented in Ken Burns’ documentary “The Central Park Five” and Ava DuVernay’s Emmy award-winning Netflix limited series “When They See Us.”

Today, he is a father, poet, speaker, and activist using his platform to educate about the impact of mass incarceration and the police brutality rooted in the criminal legal system. He has authored two books: his memoir, “Better, Not Bitter,” and “Punching Air,” a fictional book about a boy who is wrongfully convicted, co-authored by Ibi Zoboi. Yusef serves on the Innocence Project’s Board of Directors and is a 2016 recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama.