Maggie Freleng was pushing and practicing social justice before she even knew the concept’s nomenclature. As a child growing up in Long Island, New York, Maggie championed the underdog and spurned the scourge, making sure to step between every bully and their intended target.
Years later, when Maggie left Long Island for college in Massachusetts, she found herself writing about luxuries only the fortunate could afford — travel, fine dining, and good wine. But she knew that was neither her passion nor her purpose. Thankfully, Maggie quickly shifted gears, first landing herself an opportunity at Women’s eNews, then NPR’s Latino USA — an experience that would lead to her in-depth coverage of incarcerated individuals and the shocking realization that multitudes of innocent people were sitting behind bars.
Today, Maggie is an award-winning reporter, producer, podcast host (Murder in Alliance and Unjust & Unsolved), and social justice activist. On May 2, in conjunction with Lava for Good and philanthropist Jason Flom, she launched Wrongful Conviction with Maggie Freleng – a much-needed podcast that not only parallels Flom’s Wrongful Conviction, but tend to the growing number of backlogged cases. Her first episode features Patty Prewitt, the 72-year-old mother of five accused of killing her husband.
SPIN caught up with Maggie to talk about the impactful podcast, discuss the importance of Prewitt’s case, and gain some statistical insight as to how defective the system can be.
SPIN: What will your role be as a host on this podcast?
Maggie Freleng: As a journalist, I always strive to uncover the truth and tell stories based on the facts rather than my personal beliefs or opinions. I believe that laying out the facts of each of these cases will make the truth clear to our listeners. I think listeners will be just as surprised as I was at the ways in which wrongful convictions of innocent people are obtained. And I hope that each of these stories will be a call to action — not just for each individual case, but for change throughout our criminal legal system.
How will your episodes differ from Flom’s?
Maggie: Jason has been hosting his Wrongful Conviction podcast since 2016, telling stories of men and women who are behind bars for crimes they maintain they didn’t commit. The podcast and its counterparts have been real success stories: executions have been stopped, innocent people have been released, exonerated and compensated, and laws have been enacted to protect people from police manipulation and misconduct.
However, last year, Jason realized that he had a problem. Even though he was doing as many episodes as he possibly could, there was a huge backlog of hundreds of cases, and he was growing increasingly uncomfortable at having to tell people that he couldn’t tell their story or couldn’t get to them for another year.
My series, Wrongful Conviction with Maggie Freleng, will bring my voice to the Lava for Good team and double the number of stories we can showcase each week.
Why did you decide to go with Patty Prewitt for the first episode?
Especially with Mother’s Day approaching, Patty’s story hit me really hard. She’s a 72-year-old mother of five, grandmother of thirteen, and a great-grandmother who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of the murder of her husband Bill, a crime for which she has unwaveringly maintained her innocence. Her conviction also highlights so many of the ways women face an uphill battle when it comes to society and our legal system. Patty’s trial was riddled with sexism and slut-shaming that ultimately convicted her in the face of no evidence.
What are your hopes for the podcast?
I hope that Wrongful Conviction with Maggie Freleng continues to build the momentum we’re seeing in the innocence space. Jason has covered the stories of Rodney Reed and Melissa Lucio on his podcast; they were each just days away from being put to death in Texas when their executions were stayed. They were both saved after a media firestorm and public outcry.
But those are only two stories, and there are so many more innocent people who are having days, months, and years stolen from their lives as they sit behind bars — sometimes as the clock ticks down towards their execution date — as the real perpetrator is free to live their life and potentially commit other crimes. My mission is to find justice for those people and help move the needle to create change so that fewer people end up wrongfully convicted in the first place.
What do you wish more people were aware of when it comes to the prison system and wrongful convictions?
Most people hear stories of wrongful convictions and think, “Oh, that’s a one-off. It rarely ever happens.” I think people would be stunned if they knew the frequency at which wrongful convictions happen. A study from 2018 found an overall wrongful conviction rate of about six percent in a general state prison population. As of January 2020, the Innocence Project has documented over 375 DNA exonerations in the United States. Twenty-one of these exonerees had previously been sentenced to death. The vast majority (97%) of these people were wrongfully convicted of committing sexual assault and/or murder.
It’s heartbreaking when you think of so many people having their lives essentially stolen — time with their families, experiences, and opportunities they can never get back. But when you look at those statistics and think about the number of people we execute each year, that’s when it truly gets blood-chilling. How many men and women are we putting to death for crimes they didn’t commit?