Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Graterford Redemption

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By Mwandishi Mitchell

I uzed ta stand on tha block
Sellin’ cooked up rocks, money bussin’ out my socks...
Money, jewelry, livin’ like a star
And I wuzn’t too far, from a Jaguar car...

Hustlers are just like rappers, always trying to get to a dollar. Kool G. Rap was my favorite artist when I was a teenager. "Road to the Riches“ is an urban classic. It was my soundtrack. I remember coming off the step at thirteen. I started using marijuana, pills, and codeine cough syrup. I stepped onto the corner in 1988, when I was fifteen years old.

My main man was Dupot, who was a supreme hustler and he showed me how to shave down crack cocaine with a razor blade, and bag it up into jumbo caps. I remember the 7 grams of crack he gave me. I capped up $650 off of that quarter and gave Dupot $200 off the top from my flip.

As time went on, I grew larger. I had my cousins hustling with me. Life was good. I had a BMW 325i, money and the most gorgeous girls. In 2000, I met my partner, Glenn Taylor, who told me he was doing some big things up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was purchasing heroin wholesale in the Bad Lands of North Philly, bagging it up into $80 bundles and selling them for $260 in Harrisburg. I distributed the bundles to the workers and made sure the corner ran smoothly. It didn’t take long before I was making a grand a day—more money than my partner.

One afternoon, I gave a bundle of heroin to a young female named Hayde Freytes, who was called Cachi (cheeks) in the neighborhood. If not for the demon of drugs holding her hand, maybe I would’ve been. Her firm waist and voluptuous body were no doubt filled out by Goya beans, platanos, and Canilla rice which made her very attractive. Chicks strung out on heroin or crack often propositioned me for sex. It was nothing to see your friend’s mother or sister offers you a blowjob for a $5.00 vial of crack. Instead of giving me sexual favors, the deal allowed this young woman to keep part of the proceeds and drugs and simply return the remainder of the money to me. She was a reliable worker I’d done business with a few times. But when I gave her the third bundle of dope—she never returned. I was making too much money to be concerned with losing one bundle of heroin. So I chalked it up as a loss, and a lesson learned. But please let me state, that even though this young woman was a drug addict, and sometimes turned tricks due to her addiction, I in no way want to diminish or belittle her as a human being. We are all humans and have our faults, so it isn’t wise to look down on others because of their shortcomings.

Horribly, Cachi was found murdered on November 01, 2000, at Italian Lake Park in uptown Harrisburg. Someone had put a bullet in her head. There was also a bullet wound in her hand. There were signs of a vicious struggle. Her breasts were exposed. And whoever the killer was—he left his DNA. Fresh semen soiled the young woman’s underwear. Saliva appeared on the ground, only twenty-seven feet from Cachi’s body. Her cold dead hand clutched a strand of light blonde hair.

The following day, Harrisburg Homicide Detectives canvassed the strip where prostitutes were known to frequent, and also where heroin was being sold. They also questioned several drug addicts who allegedly told them that Cachi "owed the Philly guys money." The detectives raided my apartment a month later. They claimed to be looking for drugs and money, but they found neither. Then they asked me to accompany them downtown to headquarters. The detectives interrogated me for hours about the murder of Cachi, but I maintained my innocence. I was then asked to submit a DNA sample and with no hesitation I consented. After all, I was innocent and had nothing to fear. The DNA test would exonerate me.

Over the next three years my life moved along at a snail’s pace. I was still involved in the drug culture and lifestyle. My life was headed nowhere. One night, I went to buy some drugs and got caught up in a drug sting back home in Philly. The police informed me that there was a warrant from Harrisburg for my arrest, although they couldn’t tell me what it was for. I was brought back to Harrisburg and charged with 1st degree murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, and weapons violations. My co-defendant was also charged with the same crimes. According to the State’s star witness—a crack addicted prostitute named Rose Shroy—my co-defendant and I accompanied by his fiancée and son, picked up Cachi on a corner and drove her to a secluded area in the park, where she said Cachi was brutally beaten. According to her, Cachi’s jaw and face were swollen, her eyes were closed shut, and her lips were bloodied and split from the assault. Yet, the autopsy report revealed no evidence of traumatic injuries to Cachi’s head, back, or neck.

The prosecutor called a list of well-known jailhouse informants who all testified against my co-defendant and I in exchange for leniency on their pending charges. One of the witnesses even boasted that jailhouse snitches often fabricate testimony, in order to curry favor from law enforcement. 

The jury deliberated for three long, harrowing days. They asked the judge to read back the testimony of the Commonwealth’s star witness to them in its entirety. I needed to believe that the jury saw what I saw. Heard what I heard. And that they were struggling with the credibility of the Commonwealth’s witness. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Rose Shroy’s testimony was filled with many inconsistencies. She even changed her testimony at trial, now saying that Cachi wasn’t beaten (as she was more than likely made aware by the prosecutor that her preliminary hearing testimony of a vicious beating was the complete opposite of the factual evidence.) Unfortunately, the jury must have been struggling—I was found guilty and sentenced to Life without parole and a consecutive twenty to forty years on the remaining charges. For years I have wondered what possessed Shroy to do this to two innocent men? But in the back of my mind I can assume why. Whether the detectives put her up to it or not, she was trying to get back onto the streets to resume her drug life. The lives of two innocent men, who stood to lose everything, meant nothing to her. She died of cancer on August 3, 2005, a day before my 32nd birthday—and eight months after my trial!

In 2010, I discovered something about myself that I never realized; that I had a gift for writing. One day, I just picked up my pen and started writing short stories, articles, essays and poems. The words seemed to pour out of my soul. It only took three months for me to complete my first novel titled, The Prodigal Son. I utilized my prolific writing skills to write my own legal motions and appeals.

There were still a lot of unanswered questions in my case. The immediate police investigation produced no eyewitness to the crime. Almost one and one half years later after the crime, Shroy claimed she had information about an "unsolved murder" and contacted authorities from her jail cell in Dauphin County Prison. What promises were made to her in exchange for her perjurous testimony? Neither my incompetent attorney nor the court would grant my request to have DNA tests performed on the light hair fragment found in Cachi’s hand. I am an African-American man, and the blonde hair found could lead to the arrest and conviction of the actual killer. DNA tests performed on the semen found in Cachi’s soiled panties excluded my co-defendant and I. DNA tests done on the fresh saliva excluded us as well.

Doing a life bid is depressing and filled with melancholy that consists on a daily basis. There are some days that are better than others—but for the most part your life is in the doldrums. At least that’s the way I feel, I can’t speak for anyone else. Compound that with the fact that you’re innocent, and it’s multiplied tenfold.

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching for the past thirteen years. I am one who believes in a God that is the Creator of the galaxies, solar systems, and every living organism on earth. My first few years were brutal. I cursed God. Even tried to reason to myself that God didn’t exist! How in tha hell can there be a God and He allowed me to be convicted fo’ sum shit I didn’t do? would be my rationalization. Not knowing, that the divine plan of action of God is beyond any human comprehension. I’ll come back to this subject in a little while.

So there I was...stuck. A malevolent thirty-one year old, mad at the system and the world. I became a regular daily patron of the law library. For the first year or two I had court appointed attorneys handling my direct appeals. During this time I was reaching out to various Innocence Projects—Point Park, Duquesne University, Northwestern University, Centurian Ministries, Innocence Project of New York—you name it, I’ve written them. All were dead ends. The out of state ones only dealt with convictions in their state, and Point Park and Duquesne (Pennsylvania), catered to Pittsburgh. At times I didn’t know what to do. But, I continued to try and learn as much of the law as I could. My direct appeals were denied, and then I was on my own. In Pennsylvania, only Capitol cases (death row) have court appointed attorneys to represent them all the way to the United States Supreme Court, if need be.

I filed my first PCRA (Post Conviction Relief Act) motion in propia persona, or pro se. Actually, there’s a difference, but then again, there really isn’t. You’re entitled by law to a court appointed attorney at this stage by the state. It’s only lip service, though. The attorney reviews your PCRA motion and informs the court and you, that your claims are without merit, and that he/she is filing a motion to withdraw from your case. This is what is called a Finley letter. Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 95 L.Ed.2d 539. The court then dismisses your PCRA, and then you must appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, then onto the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to petition for allocator. You have to petition the Supreme Court (ask permission), and they never hear a pro se case, ever!

Around this time, the beginning of ‘08, Temple University started its own Innocence Project reverently calling itself, The Pennsylvania Innocence Project. I remained mostly and outsider while in here. When I was younger I always wanted to fit in. Nowadays, I’m content with being different. Different is good. Different is unique. Not like anyone else. Sui generis. Sort of like my name—haven’t run into another Mwandishi in forty-two years (besides the original whom I’m named after, Herbie Hancock), don’t think I ever will. Anyway, I write Temple and they’re so enthusiastic! They want my transcripts, appeal briefs, and discovery. And in my head I’m like, they’re really going to do it! They’re really going to expose the state for the frauds that they are! The Director of the Project, Marissa, comes to the penitentiary with about twenty-five of her legal students. I’m in awe of this woman. After all, she was my "savior." A very slim woman with curly brown hair and Caucasian features. I would hug her and we would converse jovially. Seven or eight of us inmates would get passes to meet Marissa and the law students in the Deputies Complex. I usually had two students assigned to my case. We would sit there and go over certain aspects of my case and the strategy of how we would attack the prosecution. After a year and a half the Pennsylvania Innocence Project sent me a “Dear John" letter. Something about how they wouldn’t be able to argue my DNA issues because I had already filed a petition to get DNA tests done, and it was denied by the trial court. They told me that they wouldn’t be able to re-litigate the claim.

That was all there was to it. I was utterly disgusted and downtrodden. It’s not like I had any faith in the justice system anyway. I held resentments of the politics of it all. I got hit in the gut, dropped to one knee, then stood for the ten count. The fight wasn’t over, just the round. By the time the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the allocator of my PCRA, it was the beginning of 2011.

In my spare time I was dibbling and dabbling in creative writing. Like I mentioned before, my book got published, but nothing more came from it. However, I began to realize that I could be pretty good at it—if I applied myself.

The next appeal stage in the appeal process was filing a §2254, which is a Federal Writ of Habeas Corpus. The federal courts are very much aware of the corruption, railroads, and shenanigans conducted by the state courts. They are very specific in the case law citations about the acts that will bring about reversals in federal court. I filed my writ in 2011. In Pennsylvania, you have one year to file your writ after the Supreme Court allocator is denied. I filed my petition and memorandum of law to the Assistant Attorney General, and then he filed his reply. In July of 2014, the federal court denied my writ, then it was onto the United States Supreme Court.

In the meantime, I’m concentrating on perfecting my writing skills. I’ve come to love writing. It’s freeing and exhilarating. I can express myself, and cry through a pen. I know no other medium for which I can accomplish this besides art and drama. I still consider myself a neophyte and a novice when it comes to writing, but I’m learning more as each day passes. 

One day, out of the blue, l got a letter from the Innocence Project of New York. They sent me another questionnaire and informed me that they wanted to investigate my case further. At first I was skeptical over the whole affair, due to my experience with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. In any event, I filled out the questionnaire and sent it back. Maybe three weeks later (which is considerably fast), they sent me another letter informing me that they needed more documents, i.e. trial transcripts, motions, and appellate briefs. I am very happy about these developments. I know deep down inside that there is a greater power than me at work in all of this.

I’ve come back to that divine plan of action of God. Everything that has happened in my life happened to me for a reason. There is something that has to be learned from my experiences. During my lifetime I’ve sold drugs, gotten high on drugs, and have had numerous relationships with women who weren’t married to me. I didn’t get the memo that all the things of that lifestyle came with a cost. I understand now, that even though I didn’t commit the crime that I’m in the penitentiary for—the lifestyle I was living was a direct consequence of it. This has caused me to have a greater relationship with God. I can see much more clearly. As long as I stay true to the god in me, the closer God will come to me. This is the occult that many may not know. Even if they knew, many would not be able to accomplish it. It takes discipline to get that close to Him. It’s easy to say we believe when things are going right in our lives and we have everything we need at our disposal. The real test of faith comes when we lose everything. This is when we can really prove how much faith we have!

There is a definite change in store for me in the near future. I know for sure that I’m not going to serve out this wrongful conviction. When I’m released, a more spiritual and more intelligent human being will emerge from behind this forty foot wall. This, I am sure of.

The movie, The Shawshank Redemption, is very special to me. I cry every time I watch it. The main character, Andy Dufresne, is serving Life for a crime he didn’t commit. In the end he realized that even though he didn’t kill his wife—it was his actions that led to her adulterous affair that caused it. It was my own wrong doings that led to me being convicted for a crime I didn’t commit. 

I also look up to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. He is one of my idols. The same thing that happened to him, happened to me; and through his perseverance, he overcame the hurdle and proved his innocence.

Writing is my redemption. It is a gift that was given to me by the Creator that I never knew I had until I came to jail. I can touch people through this gift, there’s no doubt in my mind that I can’t. There’s nothing like expressing yourself and letting your voice be heard. I will keep writing until I prove my innocence. But, even then, I doubt if I will ever stop writing!

Mwandishi Mitchell GB6474
SCI Houtzdale
P.O. Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA16698-1000

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1 comment:

Sandee said...

It I'd refreshing to read this story and see that redemption is always available!