By Celine Klosterman
Corbin Gardner believes a key to social justice lies in storytelling.
Years from now, the native of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa envisions working as an attorney who uses well-told narratives to advocate for people in need. To prepare for that future, the 22-year-old is spending a year volunteering in Philadelphia with Witness to Innocence, which helps exonerated death row survivors speak out against the death penalty.
A 2013 graduate of Creighton University in Omaha, Corbin started thinking about doing a year of service after making a volunteer trip to East St. Louis, Ill., during fall break his senior year. Experience working with poor and marginalized people will prove valuable when he serves them as a lawyer, he said.
So he looked into volunteer organizations including the Pennsylvania-based Mercy Volunteer Corps (MVC). With about 35 volunteers this year, the group offered an appealingly small, family-like atmosphere, he said.
In May, Corbin began an application process that included essays, interviews and recommendations. MVC accepted him, then offered several service sites from which to choose.
One of those opportunities was working as a program assistant with Witness to Innocence. “I was immediately drawn to it,” he said. “They’re giving death row exonerees a chance to share their stories in order to change hearts and minds about the criminal justice system, especially the death penalty. Storytelling, for me, is a vital part of enacting social change.”
He’d begun thinking more about the death penalty months earlier because his father, Steve Gardner, has been serving as the defense attorney for Corbin’s high-school classmate who is accused of murder. Corbin said: “Though Iowa doesn’t have the death penalty, I’ve often thought, what if Iowa did? What would be the loving, merciful, appropriate response?”
With that question in mind, he interviewed with Witness to Innocence. In late July he began serving with the organization and moved to Philadelphia, where he lives with three other MVC volunteers.
Witness to Innocence’s support staffers, with whom Corbin volunteers, set up speaking engagements for its 50 members, who include 30 people exonerated from death row and their loved ones. Support staffers also fundraise and plan an annual gathering for members. “We work on repealing the death penalty on a state by state basis,” Corbin said. Thirty-two states, the U.S. military and the federal government currently have capital punishment.
He’s encouraged by stories like that of Reginald Griffin, who was exonerated from death row in Missouri in October. And Corbin’s faith offers motivation, too. “There are many practical arguments for abolishing the death penalty: the cost, prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias,” he said. “But knowing all those things doesn’t keep me from doubting: If my family member was murdered, what would I do? The only thing that can dispel those doubts for me is the mercy of God. That’s what gets me out of bed every morning — the mercy that has been shown to each of us and that we are called to show to each other.”
Everyone is entitled to legal representation, he said. With a bachelor’s degree in economics, he plans to apply to law school next July and would like to eventually practice criminal law in Ottumwa. He hopes to learn more Spanish in order to serve Spanish-speaking clients in his hometown, which has a large immigrant community.
Corbin is a blessing where he’s serving now, according to Suzy James, a community coordinator for MVC. “He holds his community accountable to the tenets of MVC (spirituality, simplicity, community and service),” she said. He is friendly, curious and passionate about his work. “Corbin desires to learn everything he can about those who have been exonerated in order to serve them better.”