Nick O’Connell and his father, Frank O’Connell, are checking items off of their bucket list, from whitewater rafting to road tripping across the country. The completion of their list got a late start: Frank was wrongfully incarcerated for murder for 28 years, beginning when Nick was only four years old.
“My relationship with my dad was formed in prison visiting rooms. For me, it was a unique kind of suffering,” Nick said. “To have someone you love be subjected to such injustice on a daily basis when there’s nothing you can do about it takes a very deep emotional toll.”
But throughout all of the suffering, Frank and Nick were able to maintain a close father-son relationship.
“My relationship with Nick has always been close,” Frank said. “I promised him every single day of my life sentence, no matter where you’re at, I’ll be there if I ever get out.”
Nick was born in Santa Barbara, California. He went on study marketing at the University of Colorado, all the while visiting his father in prison and waiting for his exoneration. One semester short of graduating and hoping his father could attend his graduation ceremony, he even decided to postpone his education when it seemed possible his father would be released. Unfortunately, it would be 10 more years before his father would walk free.
On January 12, 1985, Frank O’Connell went to prison for murder for a 1984 shooting in Pasadena. After going through the appeals process, his case was taken up by Centurion Ministries, a Princeton-based non-profit corporation dedicated helping overturn wrongful convictions for rape and murder.
The evidence used against Frank was a single eyewitness who only saw the shooter’s profile and was legally blind. The eyewitness later recanted. The woman who orchestrated the murder also confessed to other people that an innocent man was in jail for the crime.
On March 29th, 2012, a judge announced that she had vacated Frank’s conviction. He was released on April 21, 2012.
When the judge made the decision to overturn the conviction, Nick felt overcome with emotion.
“It was like you had been carrying 1,000 pounds on your shoulders your whole life, and you didn’t know any differently,” Nick said. “With one statement from a judge, it fell off and I felt a lightness that I had never felt before.”
After his father was freed, Nick moved from his home in Colorado to Princeton to begin work as the development director for Centurion Ministries, fueled by his experiences with his father’s exoneration.
“My heart feels like I will always in some form or fashion be advocating for the innocent in prison. I see my job here at Centurion to help Centurion continue to be a voice for the voiceless: the innocent in prison. When you’re in prison, you do feel voiceless, you do feel hopeless,” he said. “To have somebody on the outside, on the other side of the razor wire, on the other side of the walls, advocating for you, proclaiming your innocence, working to free you, means all the world to them. I lived this experience with my dad.”
In his work, Nick works on fundraising as well as exoneree support. He acknowledged that while freeing wrongfully incarcerated inmates is immensely difficult, their lives after prison are also challenging.
“On one hand, you have the exuberance of freeing somebody because its such a herculean task to free someone from prison once they’ve been wrongfully convicted,” he said. “Then begins the process of reintegrating them and helping them get to a place where they can navigate this complicated society that has evolved while they’ve been inside of a cell. Seeing them when they start to progress and live happy fulfilled lives—that’s the ultimate reward.”
This is the perspective he took when his father was released: getting him back on track. Frank temporarily lived with his son after he was freed, which was when Nick took the job at Centurion.
“When my dad was freed, my objective was to help get him on his feet and support him in whatever way I could,” he said. “During that time, I had written a proposal to Centurion and asked if I could help them.”
Frank said that his son was instrumental in helping him after he was freed, and is proud that his son has chosen a career that helps others like him.
“When I got out, he was really like my mentor. He helped me so much getting used to society, getting acclimated here on the outside. He never was impatient with me,” Frank said. “I’m just so proud of the career path he’s taken.”
Now, when Nick is not working to help free other wrongfully incarcerated inmates, he works on finishing the bucket list he made with his father throughout all those years of prison visits.
“It was kind of like a bizarre father-and-son honeymoon for a year. It was excellent,” he said. “Every day our dreams were coming true because for 27 years that’s what we talked about in prison: ‘One day you’re going to be free. Eventually the truth will surface and you will be exonerated and when you are, we’re going to go ride motorcycles, we’re going to go white water rafting, we’re going to go the beach, we’re going to do a road trip across the country’.’”
They had planned to visit every state in the U.S., and used their recent road trip to not only visit other exonerees, but also check more states off of their list.
27 states down, 23 to go.