One year ago, Anthony Faison, 35, and Charles Shepherd, 37, walked out of a
Brooklyn courthouse after spending 14 years in prison for a crime they did not
commit. The Kings County district attorney admitted that these two men were
completely innocent of the May 1987 slaying of a livery cab driver. The actual
killer had been captured, confessed, and his fingerprints matched those found
at the crime scene. The prosecutors and the judge apologized.
Faison and Shepherd's fight for innocence was extraordinary. Faison never
gave up hope, writing an astonishing 60,000 letters seeking help from every
journalist, lawyer and politician in the phone book. One of his missives landed
on the desk of Michael Race, a gruff-and-tough retired New York City Police
Department detective turned private investigator, who became convinced that the
two men were innocent. Race found the trail of the real killer, prevailed upon
a William-Kunstler proteg�, aging-hippie lawyer (me) to take up the case, and
the two were released on May 14, 2001.
What's happened since their innocence was affirmed?
First the good news.
Neither man has had any additional encounter with the law. They do not use
drugs and rarely have more than a social drink. After several months of looking
for work, Shepherd found a job with a group providing assistance to indigent
persons with AIDS. Faison sells cars. He is engaged and just became a new
father of a baby boy. Shepherd lives with his mother and helps to care for her
and his disabled sister. Both men are very happy to be out of prison.
Now the bad news.
The youth and promise of life was stolen from them both. When most young
men were starting families, Faison and Shepherd were fighting off predators
behind the walls where they were consigned forever. They missed the opportunity
to watch their children grow up. They missed the shared joys of family
weddings and births, and weren't there to provide comfort in times of death.
Faison's first marriage ended. Shepherd was abandoned by many who considered
him a murderer. Both men suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and are
They are also poor. They were struggling, working-class young men when they
went in, and they came out poor middle-aged men. The skills they learned in
prison don't easily translate into the world of work. They are old to be
starting in the labor market, and their future earning prospects are bleak.
They're a paycheck away from homelessness.
The State of New York cannot restore the time that it snatched away from
these two men, but it can cure their poverty by compensating them for the time
they were wrongfully incarcerated. New York State enacted a law in 1984 to
compensate innocent people who were wrongfully convicted. Faison and Shepherd
filed their claim last July, but Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has refused to
make any settlement offer, preferring instead to delay the case with endless
depositions and demands for more information. Faison and Shepherd have been
forced to endure humiliating questioning about subjects as diverse as their sex
lives and their mothers' employment, and still no trial date is in sight.
What is the price of innocence? No amount of money can ever replace 14
years of lost relationships with spouses, children and parents. However
imperfectly, the law assigns economic value to these types of cases. Awards
average $150,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment, plus lost wages and lost
The attorney general's "obfuscate and delay" tactics are typical of those
employed in wrongful conviction cases, which can take years to wend their way
through the courts. The longer it takes to resolve the case, the more desperate
the claimants become and the more likely it is that they will settle for less
than what they are entitled to. If the attorney general is really lucky,
perhaps bitterness and desperation will drive these two men to destroy their
own lives with drugs or drink, further reducing any payout.
These cynical litigation tactics are not the product of the law, but of a
conscious policy pursued by successive attorneys general, more concerned with
the public purse than with compensating victims. The state wants them to fail.
But the first obligation of New York's highest law enforcement official is to
do justice, and the case of Faison and Shepherd is a good place to begin.