Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ office recently honored four individuals for their efforts to bring more fairness to the criminal justice system during the second annual Southern Justice Summit Awards ceremony.
The virtual event (Nov. 19) was streamed live on YouTube and brought together some of the area’s top leaders to recognize individuals making a difference in the judicial scene.
This year’s awardees were Innocence Project Director of Special Litigation Vanessa Potkin, Tennessee State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk Heidi Kuhn and lawyer Michael Scholl.
With the assistance of co-hosts Dominique Winfrey and Jerri Green, Harris greeted attendees and expressed his gratitude towards the honorees’ dedication to criminal justice reform.
“Each one of these individuals has been in the trenches, working to make our community safer and more just,” Harris said.
Potkin was awarded the Defender of the Year award for her efforts with the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate “the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.”
Most recently, Potkin’s organization assisted in the exoneration of two men wrongfully convicted in the assassination of Malcolm X.
“This was a miscarriage of justice in plain sight for decades. Historians, journalists, activists, who looked into the case, all came to the conclusion that they were innocent,” said Potkin.
Akbari was honored as Champion of the Year. In 2017, she introduced legislation to prohibit lifetime prison sentences for minors and has since fought for additional progressive sentencing laws.
“It is an uphill battle sometimes when we talk about criminal justice reform. Sometimes it feels like we take two steps forward and one step backward,” Akbari said.
“There are too many nonviolent crimes that are still haunting people for the rest of their lives. And we certainly have to tackle our drug laws in a meaningful way. So, the work continues.”
Kuhn’s commitment to securing a second chance for those who have served time earned here the Difference Maker of the Year award.
Her efforts have helped some former inmates receive gainful employment and nonviolent offenders get items on their record expunged.
“To date, the Criminal Clerk Court Office has provided 15 expungement clinics in the Memphis and Shelby County area. We have assisted in over 3,800 expungements. You heard that right,” said Kuhn.
“Receiving this award would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment to the cause by my team for whom I have the deepest respect and appreciation.”
For his role in the release of Alice Johnson, Scholl received the Advocacy Award. In 1996, Johnson was given a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense and served 21 years in prison.
With the help of Scholl and others, including celebrity figure Kim Kardashian, she was given her freedom back through clemency from former President Donald Trump.
Scholl echoed the message of the awardees before him.
“Although there’s a lot of progress being made in the area of criminal reform, sentencing reform, justice reform … we are still having a long way to go,” said Scholl.
“I think one of our biggest problems is that we shouldn’t be waiting 25, 30, 50 years to get justice for people in cases such as these. We need to start back with a system to get justice from day one.”
Nationally recognized trial lawyer Ben Crump delivered the keynote address, referencing the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse. The verdict had come in minutes into the program.
Rittenhouse, the teenager who fatally shot two people and wounded another during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was acquitted of first-degree intentional homicide and four other felony charges.
“My heart is heavy at this moment,” said Crump. “We have to never ever forget about people who have been unjustly convicted but you look at someone who has actually killed people and there’s no accountability.”
Crump expressed how he has not given up in his battle for a more just nation.
“If we keep coming together and say to America, ‘we are better than this, we are more just than this,’ We can have an America where George Floyd gets to take another breath.
“What we’re really doing is helping America be America for all Americans. All we have to do is join hands together and fight for it.”