Recently, our office recognized warriors who have led the way in the fight for public safety reforms across the South. The 2nd Annual Southern Justice Summit: Awards Ceremony honored individuals who have been in the trenches, working to make our communities safer and more just. We can and we must do both.
This year's awardees were chosen for their innovative approaches and unyielding commitment to advance these causes.
Tennessee State Senator Raumesh Akbari
Senator Raumesh Akbari advocated for clemency for Cyntoia Brown, who was trafficked while a minor and sentenced to a minimum of 51 years in prison for a murder committed when she was16. Senator Akbari's advocacy has continued with proposed legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly to outlaw life sentences for minors. Additionally, Senator Akbari has been leading the charge in Nashville to end money bail, to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, and enact more progressive sentencing laws.
Attorney Vanessa Potkin
Attorney Vanessa Potkin is the Director of Post-Conviction Litigation with the Innocence Project and represents Shelby County resident Pervis Payne. Last month, one day before the Southern Justice Summit, the years of hard work from Attorney Potkin and the Innocence Project paid off. Payne's death sentence was vacated due to his intellectual disability. Attorney Potkin was the first staff attorney for the Innocence Project and has overseen the exoneration of over 30 innocent individuals.
Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk Heidi Kuhn
Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk Heidi Kuhn has dedicated much of her time in office to giving those who have served their time in prison a second chance. In 2021, Clerk Kuhn lobbied the state legislature to end fees for expungements. In addition, Clerk Kuhn has hosted clinics for ex-offenders and works tirelessly to ease the way for those trying to return to life after incarceration.
Attorney Michael Scholl
Attorney Michael Scholl, a Memphis defense lawyer, was hand-picked to be part of the legal team that secured clemency for Memphis native Alice Johnson. Attorney Scholl was contacted by Kim Kardashian, because of his experience in federal court, to help gain Johnson's release. Johnson had never sold drugs or handled drugs, Attorney Scholl said. He called her sentence "a quintessential case of how the system is broken." When Johnson was released in 2018, she had spent 21 years behind bars.
In addition, rapper YelloPain (Tyheir Montre' Kindred) gave a live performance of his 2020 hit "My Vote Don't Count." The song revisits civics lessons on the three branches of government and the importance of voting in every election and at every level of government.
Attorney Benjamin Crump
Our keynote speaker for this year's summit was super-lawyer, Attorney Benjamin Crump. He has gained a national following and well-deserved admiration for his tenacious advocacy for equity within the criminal justice system. He joined our virtual ceremony moments after the verdict for Kyle Rittenhouse had been announced. Rittenhouse was 17 when he killed two men and wounded a third during a protest over the shooting of an unarmed Black man by police. A jury in Kenosha, Wisconsin acquitted him on all charges, including murder. That verdict, Attorney Crump noted, illustrates the inequities in a criminal justice system that regularly convicts and imprisons African Americans in highly disproportionate numbers.
This year's honorees remind us of how far we have come and how far we have to go.
Our office held the first annual Southern Justice Summit in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer caused the nation and the world to erupt in protests. That virtual summit included leaders with fresh approaches to reshape the criminal justice and public safety systems.
These are stressful times for our families and communities. We see this manifested all around us, whether you're talking about the killing of George Floyd, who was murdered in broad daylight in front of bystanders by a police officer or rapper Adolph Thornton, Jr., (aka Young Dolph), who was shot down in broad daylight here in Memphis by unknown assailants. We can advocate for any number of social issues, health care, or the environment. But anytime a person can be killed on the streets in this country, almost nothing else matters.
We need to push forward on many issues in our nation and our community. But we cannot have progress until we first have justice.
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