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Innocent man released from prison after 2 decades starts nonprofit

Posted at 10:48 AM, Jun 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-18 10:48:55-04

PHILADELPHIA, Penn. -- The first time we met Terrance Lewis was a couple weeks after he had been released from prison.

“My name is Terrance Lewis. I’ve been a home a year now after spending 21 years in prison for a murder I did not commit.”

He had successfully proven his innocence. However, 21 years of life were spent behind bars.

“I can’t believe that I’ve been home an actual year already," Lewis said. "Sometimes it seems like it’s only been three weeks. Being in captivity for so long for a crime you didn’t commit and then be able to be free is breathtaking to say the least.”

His freedom gave him motivation to have a positive impact on this world.

“There would be no good having bitterness or resentment and hanging on to anger and rage. So, I channeled those frustrations and those emotions and I used them as propane or premium gas to do what one would consider a righteous work.”

In his process of reintegrating back into society, Lewis has been working to get bills passed in the state of Pennsylvania – that would expunge records and compensate those wrongfully convicted. He’s also working at a homeless shelter. His love for supporting others is very clear.

Among all these accomplishments in only 365 days, perhaps his greatest achievement he says is the creation of a nonprofit.

“I have successfully launched the Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation," Lewis said. "The Liberation Foundation is dedicated to advocating for those who are wrongfully convicted and who do not have legal representation.”

The Liberation Foundation is still in its early stages. But with the help from students at the University of Pennsylvania, they’ll soon be helping people who say they were wrongfully convicted, but who don’t have the resources to advocate on their own behalf.

“It takes a village and this is me, I guess, creating and manufacturing that village with the Liberation Foundation.”

The Liberation Foundation is another nonprofit to add to the list of groups seeking justice for innocent people.

“My name is Abd’allah Lateef, I am the Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network which is a program for the National Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth headquartered in Washington D.C.”

The National Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth’s primary goal is advocacy and legislative work to abolish life without possibility of parole sentencing for children across the nation. Terrance – who was 17 at the time of his arrest -- was originally sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“He’s one of the more fortunate ones who has been able to prove actual innocence and be fully exonerated,” Lateef said.

Lateef says that’s not the case for a majority of people in black communities.

“Black folks are – black children in particular – are three times more likely to be sentenced to life without possibility of parole in the state of Pennsylvania. And actually, across the nation those numbers hold true as well,” Lateef said.

Lateef says people of color are charged, incarcerated and sentenced at rates more extreme than their white counterparts. According to the NAACP, Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. He believes it has to do with the way people of color - especially young people - are viewed in the criminal justice system.

“They characterize black youth as being super predators, as being immoral, as being monsters in some cases, and all of the descriptors that are used to dehumanize youth in a way that doesn’t apply to their white counterpart,” Lateef said.

Terrance says what happened to George Floyd hit him on a very personal level.

“It’s real. It’s really, really real. Because I’ve been there before having my life taken from me, and I just think, ‘wow, what would be the next traffic stop of pullover for myself? Would my fate be like the fate of George Floyd?” Lewis said.

Lateef and Terrance both agree the criminal justice system has a lot of work that needs to be done to assure people of color are treated fairly, work that requires commitment from everyone.

"That shouldn’t be the onus of black and brown people, but that’s the onus of every American with a conscience who thinks of this country as being a great country, who thinks of this country being a land of opportunity," Lateef said.

A land of opportunity that Terrance is now fully embracing to help other people who claim innocence.

“The gray in my beard comes from having the tenacity not to quit even when you know you feel the pressure on your back and you just push forward. So that’s what I’ve been doing, and thus it’s showing on my face,” Lewis said.