In 1997, Christopher Scott, a Dallas native, was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man during a robbery, a crime he consistently maintained that he did not commit. Scott spent thirteen years behind bars, talking with other inmates he believed were also innocent and dreaming of someday being set free and working to fix what he saw as a broken criminal justice system. Two years after he was exonerated in 2009, Scott established House of Renewed Hope. The nonprofit, which he founded and now runs with fellow exoneree Steven Phillips (exoneree Johnnie Lindsey also worked with the group but died in February), investigates potential wrongful-conviction cases, its small team taking on as many as four cases at a time. The Coppell-based House of Renewed Hope has yet to secure an exoneration, but its work hasn’t gone unnoticed: True Conviction, a documentary that airs April 30 on PBS, follows the men on their quest for justice.
Texas Monthly: You were released because a man named Alonzo Hardy confessed to the crime that put you in prison. You later met with him face-to-face. What were your expectations for that interaction?
Christopher Scott: I wanted closure. I wanted to look at the coward and ask him why it took him so long to confess to the crime. I told him, “I appreciate you because you took my life and you gave it back to me. I thank you for that. But that’s all you get.”
He wanted to shake my hand, and I told him, “No, I don’t want to shake your hand. Because we are not friends, and we’re not going to ever be friends. At the end of the day, I get to leave here knowing that I ain’t gotta come back. But you have to go to your cell and think about the guy that you let go home. Now you’re stuck in prison.”
TM: When did you get the idea to help other wrongfully convicted prisoners?
CS: [In prison] I just kept seeing people that looked like me saying the same thing: “I’m in here for something I didn’t even do.” Eventually I got together with some broad-minded people and we started to have an open discussion about life, society, being back out there again, and what we could do to help. I told them, “Look, there are a lot of us that keep saying we’re here for something we didn’t do. Let’s talk about it, let’s come up with a plan, let’s come up with a strategy.” And they were like, “Hey, it sounds good, but somebody’s got to get out first.” I was the first out of that group to get out, to get exonerated.
TM: Throughout the documentary, you, Lindsey, and Phillips talk about hope a lot: what it means to have hope while in prison, and the meaning of it in the context of your nonprofit. What role does hope play for you in the work that you do?
CS: It’s a must-have, because if you don’t have hope, what do you have? As long as you have hope, you have life. We always hoped that one day we would be free. We hoped that one day we would be with our loved ones again. We hoped that one day we could put this behind us. We hoped that one day we could help other innocent people. If you ask anybody that’s been exonerated, anybody in the world, what they would want in life, the first thing they would say is “I hope I will be a millionaire” or “I hope to have a better life” or “I hope to be married one day.” It’s always hope, it’s not a wish.
When I looked around and saw the white jurors and the white judges and my white attorney, I was thinking, “Man, ain’t nothing of color in this court but me and the furniture.”
TM: In your initial trial, you had a white judge, an all-white jury, and a white prosecutor. You said in the documentary that as soon as you heard these people were all white, you knew you were going to be convicted. What role do you think race plays in the criminal justice system?
CS: Race plays a big part in our criminal justice system, because at the end of the day, when it’s dominated by white individuals, they are going to look at us men and women of color in a different light. When I looked around and saw the white jurors and the white judges and my white attorney, I was thinking, “Man, ain’t nothing of color in this court but me and the furniture.”
African Americans and Hispanics make up over half the population of the prison system—over half. The criminal justice system is biased against people of color, and that’s something that we have to change. Nowadays, our court system is diversified. Black judges and black prosecutors understand our people, the struggle that we’ve been through. So now when we go to court we may feel like we’ve got a fighting chance because the court system is more diversified.
TM: What improvements can be made to reduce the number of false convictions?
CS: What we have to do is talk about it more. We’ve got to get out there more. We’ve got to get it seen on TV, because a lot of times people lose focus on wrongful convictions because they don’t see it enough. Once they see it, people are going to pay more attention because it’s in their face every day.
You’ve got to go to Austin. You’ve got to go to our state capitol, because, number one, someone has to have checks and balances. I just told you why wrongful convictions happen: biased judges and prosecutors and jury panels in our courtrooms are why people get convicted of crimes. Laziness by the police department. If you can get things put in place that hold these people accountable for wrongful convictions, giving them prison time, then they’ll see how it feels.