Dewey Bozella on His Wrongful Conviction

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Dewey Bozella on His Wrongful Conviction

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This episode profiles Dewey Bozella, a former professional boxer and WilmerHale client who spent 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Bozella is interviewed by WilmerHale Partner Ross Firsenbaum and former WilmerHale lawyer Shauna Friedman, two of the lawyers who worked tirelessly to establish his innocence and ultimately secured his freedom. Bozella speaks about the circumstances that led up to his arrest and wrongful conviction, his multiple trials and the injustices that kept him imprisoned, and how he’s maintained a resilient and positive mindset despite the overwhelming challenges he’s faced during his life.

Bozella’s story of courage and perseverance has inspired millions across the country. In 2011, Bozella was honored at ESPN’s annual ESPY Awards show as the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and in 2012, ESPN aired a 60-minute documentary entitled “26 Years: The Dewey Bozella Story,” which chronicled Bozella’s quest to earn his freedom and pursuit of his single dream to fight a professional boxing match as a free man.

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    Speakers: John Walsh, Brendan McGuire,  Ross Firsenbaum, Dewey Bozella and Shauna Friedman

    Walsh: Welcome to In the Public Interest, a podcast from WilmerHale. I’m John Walsh.

    McGuire: And I’m Brendan McGuire. John and I are Partners at WilmerHale, an international law firm that works at the intersection of government, technology and business. In this episode, we are honored to be joined by Dewey Bozella, a former professional boxer and WilmerHale client, who spent 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. We are also joined by two of the attorneys who worked tirelessly to establish Mr. Bozella’s innocence and ultimately secure his freedom, Ross Firsenbaum, a partner here at WilmerHale and Shauna Freedman a former WilmerHale attorney who is now at American Express.

    Walsh: Before handing it over to Ross and Shauna, let us tell you a bit about Dewey Bozella’s story. Mr. Bozella endured a traumatic childhood. When he was 8 years old, he witnessed his father beat his pregnant mother to death. When he was 16, one of his brothers was stabbed to death. Another brother was shot to death and another brother died of AIDS. Mr. Bozella, himself, had trouble with the law at the age of 17, with arrests for theft and attempted robbery that landed him in jail for three years. Despite his troubles, Mr. Bozella was an up and coming boxer. In 1977, 92 year old Emma Crapser was murdered in her apartment in Poughkeepsie New York. Mr. Bozella was arrested for Ms. Crapser’s murder shortly after her attack, but charges were dropped because there was no evidence linking him to the crime. Six years later, Mr. Bozella’s nearly three decade nightmare began when he was again arrested after two inmates told prosecutors that he had committed the murder. Based on their testimony alone, Mr. Bozella was convicted of murder, and sentenced to 20 years to life. So in 1983, at the age of 23, Mr. Bozella arrived at Sing Sing Correctional facility in New York to serve his sentence. During his incarceration he picked up boxing again, earning the title of Sing Sing’s light heavyweight champion. Also, while in prison, Mr. Bozella met his wife, Trina, and earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in theology. Although Mr. Bozella was a model prisoner, he was denied parole multiple times because he refused to admit that he was guilty of the murder.

    McGuire: Mr. Bozella was granted a new trial in 1990, but he was convicted again based on even less evidence than his first trial because witnesses had recanted their testimony. Before trial, he was offered a deal that would have let him leave prison if he confessed to the crime, but he refused. Mr. Bozella eventually sought the help of the Innocence Project, but the physical evidence in the case had been destroyed. The Innocence Project then reached out to WilmerHale to handle the case. In 2009, based on exculpatory evidence that lawyers at WilmerHale discovered had never been turned over from prosecutors to Mr. Bozella, including a fingerprint at the scene of the crime that matched another individual who committed a nearly identical crime around the same time. A judge ruled that Mr. Bozella should have a new trial. The Duchess County district attorney’s office declined to retry Mr. Bozella for a third time, after an assistant district attorney announced in open court that the prosecution did not have any evidence available to retry him. On October 28 2009, Mr. Bozella was finally released from prison.

    Upon being released after 26 years, Mr. Bozella’s dream was to fight as a professional boxer. On October 15th 2011, Mr. Bozella’s dream was realized when he fought in his first and only professional fight at the Staples Center in Los Angles in front of his wife and friends as well as the WilmerHale attorneys who fought for his freedom. Former President Obama even called Mr. Bozella before his fight just to wish him luck. Mr. Bozella won by unanimous decision. Mr. Bozella’s story of courage and perseverance has inspired millions across the country. On July 13th 2011, Mr. Bozella was honored at ESPN’s annual ESPY award show as the recipient of the Arthur Ash courage award. And, in March 2012, ESPN aired a 60 minute documentary entitled 26 years, The Dewey Bozella Story, which chronicled Mr. Bozella’s quest to earn his freedom and pursuit of his single dream to fight a professional boxing match as a free man. Mr. Bozella’s story is both tragic and inspiring and we are delighted to have him on our podcast. With that, I’ll pass it over to Ross and to Shauna.

    Firsenbaum: Thanks so much, and Dewey and Shauna, thank you both for being here. Dewey, when Ms. Crapser was murdered in 1977, the police focused their investigation almost immediately on you. Why do you think that happened?

    Bozella: I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. Put me in a situation like that.

    Firsenbaum: When you say you were hanging out with the wrong crowd, who were you hanging out with at the time?

    Bozella: Well, I was hanging out with a bunch of other guys at the park. I was just, you know, getting familiar, kind of reminded me of New York City, when I been to Madison Square Park and some of the things I did when I was young, and so I just got involved with it and the next thing I know, I’m arrested for a crime of murder.

    Firsenbaum: Did you have the sense that race played any role in the fact that the police were pointing their finger at you and trying to pin this on you?

    Bozella: At first I really ignored it. I thought it was a joke. You know, I was saying they got the wrong man. But, as time went along, they became very serious about it, and then they came after me strong to where the police kept harassing me and messing with me in whatever I was doing, whatever, and it just became monotonous. I didn’t know what the heck to do, I was like, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me. And then the next thing I know I’m arrested for the crime and going to jail for the murder of Ms. Crapser. I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me, I didn’t kill no old woman. Nothing pointed to me at all. Nothing showed me at the scene of the crime. Nothing informed evidence. Nothing at all pointed me to the nature of the crime. Even to the fact where when they arrested me I was supposed to be home in three days, and they kept me for 28 days when the judge told them they had to let me go. Let me explain something. I did not say or believe that all police officers are bad. That’s not true. Like anything else in life. The few that make it look bad for the many. That’s what going on with me. Just a few. I realize that there’s a lot police officers that are good. I had ran into them, I had talked to them, sat down with them. So, you know, I just feel that, you know, when it comes down to the law, the law, the law, that’s where you have your difficulty at. Once you’re in it’s hard as heck to get out.

    Firsenbaum: Jumping ahead all the way to the present year now in the Atlanta Georgia area, and you’re starting to do volunteer work with kids who are in juvenile detention. How do you take how your experience from the time sort of hanging out with the wrong kids that sort of led to all of this. How do you incorporate that into the message that you give to the kids in the Atlanta area who are in juvenile detention?

    Bozella: The first thing that I give them is honesty. I don’t try to sugar coat anything. I just let them know that, hey, these are the mistakes that you can make; the first mistake I made was hanging out with the wrong crowd. This is the reason why I was arrested for a crime in 1977, and it took me over 32 years to prove my innocence. The second mistake I made was getting high, which was smoking weed and drinking, and the third mistake was just being around them. And, stage by stage, the police were looking at and probably realizing it. The next thing I know, I’m involved in a murder. And so I try to implement things like that to them to let them see that you don’t have to do that if you have something that you can put yourself involved into by learning how to get a trade, learning how to be involved in different types of things. When I got involved in the program that helped me to learn about carpentry, it put me on another level (inaudible) education but you can do, learn and take advantage of your situation where you’re at right now because if you don’t have nothing to offer to society, society will have nothing to offer to you.

    Friedman: After you were arrested, as you said you were released, they didn’t have any evidence on you and that was 1977, and then six years went by until 1983 until the case picked up again. What was going on during that time in your life?

    Bozella: Well, the first thing I started doing was I realized that, wait a minute, this street life is not doing anything for me. So, the first thing I went and I did was I went back to going to school, and I got into school with a basic community college where I can get my GED and, at the same time, receive college credits. And so, I went and I got my GED in 1983, but the whole thing was during that time I was going to school I was going to (inaudible) boxing camp, and I also got in the Poughkeepsie Journal for got (inaudible)  community college for playing on the baseball team. And so I knew I had the potential and I knew that I was making changes in my life and as soon as I started making changes in my life the case popped back up.

    Firsenbaum: Dewey, you were tried in 1983, and you heard the announcement from the jury finding you guilty. How do you react to a jury finding you guilty for the murder of a 92-year old woman when you didn’t commit that crime?

    Bozella: I didn’t understand the law, but I did understand being convicted for murder meant that I could receive life without no parole, so I actually fell down on the floor and I told them “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, you got the wrong man,” seven women and five men started breaking down crying. You know I said “it’s too late, it’s too late you convicted me for a crime I didn’t do. It’s too late. And that’s what I said leaving out the court room because it was devastating. It was devastating.

    Friedman: That was your first trial in 1983. You were retried in 1990, and your constitutional rights had been violated in that first trial because of Batson violations. Black jurors had been excluded from the jury. When you were retried again, the prosecutor’s case was even weaker than it had been in 1983. There were witnesses who had recanted. During the time when the jury was deliberating, you received an offer from prosecutors that would’ve resulted in your immediate release. Take us through that. You refused to take a plea at that point even though you would’ve been out. What was going through your mind and why did you decide not to do that?

    Bozella: While I was in what they call Sing Sing Correctional facility up in Ossining New York, I did six and a half years. During that six and a half year period in the beginning of my time—I’m gonna be straight. I was angry and there was a guy by the name of Sharif, he walked up to me and he said “yo man I need to talk to you, you’re frontin’,” and what he meant by that was, you know,  I was being a person that I’m not.  And then I asked myself one question, if they ever let you out right now, this very moment, and they found that you didn’t commit the crime, what would your life be like? And then I asked myself, I answered the question by asking myself, you would be a bum. I didn’t like that answer at all. I didn’t have anything that made me feel good about myself in terms of what I needed to do. And, that’s when I understood what he was trying to tell me. I went and I got my GED, and then I went and I got my (inaudible) certificate in law then I went and I got 32 certificates so when six and a half years passed by and I went to my second trial, I said well, shoot, I could offer society something, you know, so when the deal came during the trial, they said listen to me, Mr. Bozella, we’ll give you what we call manslaughter. You’ve got six and a half years in, and we’ll give you seven to 14. You’ll see the parole board in six months. And I said no, I’m not taking the deal. And then they came back with another deal. They said listen, Mr. Bozella, we’ll give you what we call time served. All you got to do is tell us how you did the crime and you go back to Sing Sing Corrections facility and from there, you’ll be released. I said no, no. So, then, as the jury was starting to come in, the district attorney said listen, Mr. Bozella, we’ll give you what we call a (inaudible), all you got to do is sign a piece of paper and walk out the court room right now. Now look, I said, no, I didn’t do it. Because of that, when I said no, the jury found me guilty. Everything pointed to someone else. And not one single shred of evidence pointed to me. I was like you’ve got to be kidding me. So from that day forward after I got sentenced 20 years to life, I was like, you know, okay, this is how it’s going to be. If they’re waiting for me to tell them I did it, then I’m going to die in prison.

    Firsenbaum: So, Dewey, you spent another 19 year in prison for having the courage to not admit to a crime that you didn’t commit. What kept you going?

    Bozella: The first thing I did was I became academically inclined. I just said to myself, you know I’ll keep doing the things I need to do to make myself a better person. During that time for the next 19 years, I went and I got 52 certificates, three trades, a bachelor’s degree in bachelor’s of science, and then I went and I got a master’s degree in New York Theological Seminary with professional studies dealing with religion, and, so, this is what helped me to better myself and not only better myself, I was also choosing classes and because of me choosing classes, it helped me to prepare myself for everything I needed to do, but there was one time that I went to my first parole board and after 20 years behind the prison walls they wanted me to admit to the crime which I couldn’t do. So, there were two more years added on to my sentence. That’s when I started realizing, you know, there’s a possibility of me never going home because they wanted me to admit to the nature of the crime and I said I can’t admit to something that I didn’t do.

    Friedman: While you were in front of the parole board after WilmerHale took on your case, you were telling the parole board, look there’s this new evidence that wasn’t disclosed to my lawyers that show I’m innocent, but because that piece was missing of acknowledgement of the crime which you couldn’t do because you didn’t commit, you were denied, but at the same time, Donald Wise, who’s fingerprint was at the scene of the Crapser murder and who had been in prison for a similar amount of time for another murder, he was released while you were still in prison. How did you react to that?

    Bozella: How could I react to that? You know, I was like, man, what is it going to take for me to get out of prison? You know, it’s very difficult to be in a situation like that. The first thing I had to do was find my peace. The second thing I had to do was find out what I want to do with my time so this way when the possibility does come I have something to offer society, and if it doesn’t come out that way then at least I could say I died trying to do something with my life on the inside.

    Firsenbaum: I think that what happened to you in parole in the contrast with Donald Wise is really it’s such a powerful illustration of a problem that continues to this day in the New York state parole system and likely elsewhere, there is powerful evidence showing that the prosecutions key witnesses were lying at your trial and there was powerful evidence showing that someone else, the person who’s fingerprint was found inside of Ms. Crapser’s bathroom window was committing the same exact crimes with the same specific MO’s both involving stuffing objects down the victim’s throat and yet with all of that evidence that the court ultimately said was quote “compelling indeed overwhelming,” the parole board said we don’t care. You were still denied, and had to serve another two years in prison until we were able to get the court to order your release. Let’s talk a little bit about the litigation. We had presented all this evidence to the court and the district attorney who was in office at the time of your prosecution in 1983 was still the district attorney in Duchess county in 2009. They just ignored us at first for months, and then finally when they responded they just opposed everything we said and had no interest in cooperating or testing whether the claims that we had made were true and whether they had gotten the wrong guy. What did you make of that?

    Bozella: What people need to understand is that if you don’t admit to the nature of the crime you’re never going home. That’s number one. Number two, when y’all put it in the document, Wilmer Cutler Hale law firm put it in a document to actually show my innocence and not only that but me going to a psychologist to prove that I’m no threat to society, all the work that was done to show that I’m innocent was ignored, period. Because of that, I was on my way to my fifth parole board. That means that was 10 more years added onto my sentence. I never made it because of what you’re talking about right at this particular time. But, what is persistent is the parole board keeps denying you and every time I was denied there was another two years added on to my sentence. That was real reckoning. That was to the point where I just said I already know they’re not going to let me go home because the simple fact is I will never tell them that I did it. So, I made up my mind. This is where I’m going to die at then so be it and I meant that with all my heart, you know. It is what it is. My faith in the law system was horrible. It still is. They show you on national TV, they show you in the movies, and they show you in real life, you know, when they want you, they’ll do what they’ve got to do to get you, period. So when you, WilmerHale law firm, took it to the judge in 2009, you actually did something that was remarkable to where the judge said this is overwhelming evidence anyone else at the two trials, it would have been a different verdict and that’s when I was found not guilty.

    Friedman: After all of those disappointments with the parole board and the years and years you’d spent how did it feel that day in the courtroom when your conviction was finally overturned?

    Bozella: I couldn’t believe it. I sat there saying to myself, you know, I won’t believe it until the judge said dismissed. I won’t believe it. This time I didn’t cry like I did the first time. I had tears coming out of my eyes. Finally, finally, finally. At the age of just turning 23 to 24 to the age of 50 years old. I got this verdict overturned. And that was the first time that I felt that justice was done.

    Firsenbaum: A lot of people are under a false impression that it’s easy to obtain compensation for what you went through for serving 26 years in prison for a murder you had proven you had not committed, but, in fact, the law isn’t so straight forward, and, in your case, there was no automatic compensation and you had to fight pretty hard for it. Tell everyone sort of what that experience was like to fight for compensation and to live as a free man for the first time in 26 years without any compensation or protection from the government.

    Bozella: I never went back to pick up my forty dollars of bus ticket money, whatever I have in there they can have it, I never went back. That’s how much I didn’t care about what they gave me. They’d have made my life totally miserable to the best of their ability to not paying out that compensation. If I didn’t have Wilmer Cutler Hale law firm backing me, God knows how long that would have took. There’s a lot of people that come out and don’t receive a dime in certain counties and certain states and even in certain countries that I feel is wrong, absolutely wrong, because when I got out, the guys that were on parole had more benefits than I had. They were able to look for a job with the parole officer or whoever they assigned as their counselor to help them to find a job, to help them to find a place to live, to help them readjust themselves back to society whatever the circumstances may be that they have a need for that’s what the parole officer was supposed to do. Me, I had none of them rights. I was completely on my own. I do not wish that on any person, on any person because that’s a bad situation to be in, especially if you don’t have anybody.

    Friedman: You talked about the struggle when you first got out of prison, just adjusting to a lot of resources you could draw on personally, your education and some of the support that you had and your personal resilience. Can you talk a little bit about adjusting to that.

    Bozella: Well, first and foremost, I want to explain the coincidence that happened to me when I was learning how to drive and I finally got to pass the test, and I made to what we call the Poughkeepsie Galleria. I parked the car and I went inside and when I went I got something to eat and it was Chinese food and I picked it up and then I went and I sat with my back up against the wall, and when I sat with my back up against the wall, I finally got hit with reality. I don’t know where it came from, how it came, it just came, and the way it came was like ‘yo, man, what are you doing’ and I got up and I went where all the table were and I sat in the middle and I bust out laughing, and I know people must have thought I was crazy, but they didn’t understand that I bust out laughing because I said ‘yo, man, I’m free’. ‘I’m really free’. This was like six months after I was home and when I did that, it was like the best feeling I could have had because I finally realized I was free because at that time I didn’t know I was that institutionalized, you know, of being in jail all that time, sitting in the corner watching my back, you know, maybe someone would sneak up on me and do that and do that. Then when I realized I was free, I sat in the middle of the floor, that was the completion of me saying thank you, Lord, thank you, I’m free, man.

    Friedman: And boxing really, we haven’t talked about it, but boxing was kind of a way back for you when you got out.

    Bozella: Boxing helped me understand moral obligation, responsibility and discipline. Boxing helped me to actually be free even while I’m in jail because the anger, the pain, the hurt, the frustration, and everything I had inside me I can go work it out.

    Firsenbaum: If there’s one thing that you want folks to take away from your story, our listeners today or the kids that you speak to at the juvenile detention center, what is your message?

    Bozella: Completely take control of your life. Don’t be afraid to be your own person, male or female, young or old. Don’t be afraid to say to yourself I want change and then make a commitment and that’s what boxing does to me. I’m not saying you have to deal with it through martial arts, you have to deal with it through boxing, I’m just saying find that peace that’s inside of yourself that’s going to actually make you feel better about your situation and find the person that’s about what you’re about, and get away from all the negativity so you can put yourself in the better position. If you don’t do that, then it’s just a matter of time before you put yourself in a bad situation that you can’t come out of. So my message is to tell people and explain to people that there’s a better way, but your environment is the key to everything that you need to be and find out what you really want to do with your life.

    Firsenbaum: Dewey, I think that’s a great message and your courage has inspired so many people. ESPN learned about your story shortly after you were released from prison and awarded you the Arthur Ash Award for courage at the ESPY Awards because of the courage that you showed to stay true to who you are to not admit to a crime that you didn’t commit even when it would have resulted in your immediate release from prison multiple times. That courage has just been so impactful on Shauna, on myself, on everybody at WilmerHale who has gotten to know you over the years  audiences, literally around the world who you’ve spoken to at schools and churches, corporations. Your message is powerful and inspiring, and so we thank you for joining us on our podcast at WilmerHale to continue to spread that message and to continue to highlight the injustices that caused your wrongful incarceration and that unfortunately still require our attention and effort today. And also I want to thank Shauna for joining us. It was just such a pleasure working with Shauna on your case and other cases for many, many years while she was at WilmerHale, and it’s great to have her back and working with her again.

    Friedman: Thanks, Ross, it’s been great to connect with both of you and just echo what Ross said. Dewey, you are truly an inspiration and your courage has inspired me and everybody that you meet, so thank you.

    Walsh: Thank you so much, Dewey, Ross and Shauna. We continue to be inspired by this story, and appreciate you sharing it with us and our listeners. Thank you, everyone, as well for joining us on this episode of In the Public Interest. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a minute to share it with a friend, and subscribe, rate and review us wherever you get your podcast. I hope you will join us for our next episode. See you then.