Aimee Maxwell (M.Ed. ’83, J.D. ’87) Receives Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award
“Public service involves making a choice to embrace the needs of others at some sacrifice to oneself and in Aimee Maxwell we honor someone who made such a choice,” said Steven J. Kaminshine, dean and professor of law at the the 2016 Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award ceremony on May 5.
Maxwell (M.Ed. ’83, J.D. ’87) is the 23rd recipient of the Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award, presented annually to a Georgia lawyer whose life and career reflects the high tradition of selfless public service that Georgia State Law’s founding dean exemplified during his career.
Maxwell, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, was honored for her work in exonerating those wrongfully convicted and her efforts to change the policies and legislation that allows wrongful convictions to happen.
In accepting the award, Maxwell said Georgia State Law helped her find her voice – one that would speak for those whose voices weren’t being heard. She credited her family and the many teachers throughout her life that inspired her for laying the foundation that led to the work she does. “I got here because of the people who encouraged me,” she said.
She is also inspired daily by the dedicated interns who work with her, and by those wrongfully convicted that she helped exonerate, she said.
“They lived something I can’t even imagine living,” she said. “They were in prison, every single day shouting that they were innocent—and no one cared, nobody listened. And so I am really thrilled to get this award, but what I am really thrilled about, is getting to be one of the people that listened,” she said.
“Aimee is more than just someone who is doing their job,” said Clarence Harrison, who was the first person exonerated with the help of the Georgia Innocence Project. He was released from prison in 2004, after serving 17 years for a rape he didn’t commit.
“I was waiting for more than 15 years for someone to hear my cry of innocence,” Harrison said, stating that he lost count of the number of people he wrote to asking for help. “I don’t know how she did it, but Aimee got me out. At that time, she was the best friend I ever had.”
Maxwell began defending the underprivileged as a criminal defense attorney, and served with the Georgia Indigent Defense Council (now the Georgia Public Defender Council) for a decade. In 2002, she joined the Georgia Innocence Project and was named its executive director.
“Aimee has spent her professional life advocating for the weak and poor and disenfranchised. If my father were here… he would be extraordinarily proud of the kind of service that Aimee’s work represents and he would be very proud that she is being recognized with the award, and he would be very proud of the fact that she is the second graduate of Georgia State Law to receive the award,” said Ben F. Johnson III, the son of Georgia State Law’s founding dean.
There is a tendency within the judicial system to put finality ahead of justice, which means innocence projects are not always well received by many, said Emmet Bondurant of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, the 2011 recipient.
“The effort it takes to rectify those wrongs [in the criminal justice system] is super human,” he said. “Aimee has done that. She has been a determined leader in that fight for many years.”
When many lawyers think back on their legal careers, they may be proud of successes such as corporate mergers or real estate deals.
“How does that compare to saving the life of a person serving time in prison for a crime that person did not commit?” he asked. “I have admired Aimee’s work and am amazed that she has the determination and endurance to do this difficult work.”
“Aimee fights for justice every day,” said Judge Jan Wheeler of Gilmer County Juvenile Court. And she has many obstacles in that fight, Wheeler said, including limited finances, those in the system obstructing justice and an often unfavorable public opinion of the people she is fighting for.
“But every day she fights as enthusiastically as the first,” Wheeler said. “She still gets worked up. This is her life’s work — it’s not glamorous or well-paid and there are not that many ‘feel good’ moments. She does it because she believes in it.”
And the work doesn’t end when a person is exonerated, Wheeler said. Part of the work of Innocence Project is supporting people after they are released.
“Every problem I have I always talk to Aimee,” Harrison said. “I need Aimee. People sitting in prison who haven’t committed the crime they are in for, they need Aimee.”
Harrison often visits Maxwell at the project’s office and works with her to solve cases.
“I see her sincerity in what she is doing,” he said. “She is so dedicated …. She could be at a law firm making good money—and sometimes she doesn’t even get a paycheck. As a human being, she is the best I ever met.”