Court clerk, minister aim to start group to aid wrongly convicted

Religious alliance backs idea, pushes for funding

March 08, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Looking to launch an organization that assists prisoners who feel they've been wrongly convicted, Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway and the Rev. Gregory Perkins took their proposal yesterday before the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

But Conaway and Perkins, president of the ministers' group, have yet to line up financing for their Ministerial Alliance for Justice, modeled after Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey group that works to secure new trials for convicts who claim they are innocent.

Both said they were inspired by the story of Michael Austin, the Baltimore man who served 27 years in prison before being released in December, when a judge overturned his conviction. Centurion Ministries hired lawyers who helped free Austin.

"I want to make it clear that I'm not for releasing people who are guilty of committing crimes," Conaway said. "But there are people out there who, we feel, are languishing in jail and should not have been convicted."

Austin, who had another commitment, could not attend yesterday's meeting at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on Eutaw Street, where about 40 local clergymen approved Conaway's proposal.

On Wednesday, however, Austin gave the idea his backing.

"If a program like this does exist, I think it's something that would benefit Baltimore and Maryland," Austin said. "It's feasible if it's organized right. It's just a question of the people involved and how much passion they have."

Conaway's first goal is to hire an executive director who can spearhead the fund-raising efforts. Realizing that salary alone might cost about $40,000, Conaway said, he hopes to raise the money through donations from local congregations and foundations, such as the Abell Foundation.

Robert C. Embry Jr., Abell's president, said about one in five organizations that apply for funding through the foundation are approved. "But we are certainly interested," he added.

Perkins, who serves as president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and as pastor at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East Baltimore, thinks the plan will draw donations. "This is something we will champion in the faith community," Perkins said.

The idea received support from Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor. "It is the right goal," he said, "but I have a question about whether this is the right group to achieve the goal."

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