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Wrongfully convicted man speaks out after governor’s full pardon

ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Last month outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a full pardon to John Huffington, who spent years in prison for a murder that he didn’t commit.

Huffington and his attorneys worked for years to get his conviction overturned, especially after DNA evidence exonerated him. In 2013 he took an “Alford plea,” which is a special type of plea by which the defendant asserts his innocence and does not admit to the charged act while acknowledging that a plea is in his best interest, according to his attorneys.

Huffington and his attorney Chong Park spoke with ABC News Live Thursday about the governor’s pardon.

ABC NEWS LIVE: John, you were released back in 2013 on a plea agreement, but that agreement still left a felony conviction on your record. At long last, your record is now clear. How has that changed your life from a practical standpoint and also emotionally?

JOHN HUFFINGTON: Well, from a practical standpoint, it sort of removes the neon sign above my head. There’s a full declaration of innocence pardon the governor, Larry Hogan of Maryland, gave me. [It] was a long journey to get to that point.

It’s definitely changed, and I’m still sort of absorbing it right now, how to, how it affects me personally.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Understood. Tell us what you’re doing right now and how you are coping.

HUFFINGTON: Work-wise, I work for a construction company, Holdings Management Company, and I basically do business development for that. And we have our own community foundation, the Kinetic Capital Community Foundation. I guess my career pathway since I’ve come home has always been in the nonprofit arena. I work with returning citizens. I do a lot in the realm of workforce development and job training. And then with the Kinetic Capital Community Foundation, I’m able to do more and work with marginalized communities and try to deal with financial inequities and things like that. So it’s been my passion. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a career that lets me give back and have some impact, I guess you could say. And so that’s what I enjoy doing.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And Chong would like to bring you in here briefly. Give our viewers some background on John’s case. He was tried and wrongfully convicted on two counts of first-degree murder back in 1981. A year later, a Maryland court of appeals reversed his conviction. And then what happened?

CHONG PARK: And then he was tried a second time. And unfortunately, he was convicted, put on death row. He spent 10 years on death row. He was re-sentenced to life. And then what happened was, in 1999, the prosecutor received a memo from the Department of Justice talking about one of the key pieces of evidence that was used to convict John, which was the expert testimony of FBI analysts that had done what he called microscopic hair analysis that said the hair that linked John to the crime scene, to the murders was a 99.9% match. But then main justice sent this prosecutor a memo in 1999 saying there are some serious deficiencies and that the FBI expert had testified beyond his expertise. And what did the prosecutor do with that memo? Nothing. It wasn’t until 2011 that a Washington Post reporter sent that memo to us at Ropes and Gray.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And John’s pardon ultimately took more than 40 years, more than 160 attorneys dedicated to overturning his conviction and proving his innocence. Do you have a message for others who are dealing with wrongful convictions?

PARK: Fight. Fight for people and fight to do the right thing. In this case, the prosecutor did not do the right thing. It took legions, as you said, 13,000 pro-bono [attorneys], free legal hours dedicated to getting John the justice he needed. It took the attorney grievance commission to take our ethics complaint and to prosecute the prosecutor for ethics violations. The highest court in Maryland now, the Maryland Supreme Court, then the Court of Appeals, unanimously set forth a decision barring Joseph Castelli, the prosecutor, only the fifth prosecutor in U.S. history, to be disbarred. And then finally, in January of this year, Gov. Larry Hogan gave John a full innocent pardon. And so it took a long time and it finally took people doing the right thing to achieve justice for John.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And John, just want to give you the last word here. We just heard from Chong and the perspective from an attorney as far as what one should do. But for the many people who are behind bars, who said, like you, they could go free if they just admitted to guilt. But then they’re saying, “Look, I actually didn’t do this, and so I’d rather fight my way out.” What would you recommend to that person behind bars?

HUFFINGTON: Well, to keep fighting, I mean, you know, you have to stand on your truth. That’s all we have. And my battle, you know, I could have taken the plead guilty deal and it would have been over. I could have let it stay with the [2013] plea, and it would have been over. But my quest was for my name. That was it’s kind of unfathomable to explain that to somebody that hasn’t experienced it. But when they take your name, they take everything. And I just, I had to keep fighting.

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