There’s nothing sweeter than an exoneration. And also nothing sadder.
November 16, 2016
Clarence Moses-EL following his acquittal. Photo by Marie-Dominique Verdier.
Twenty-nine years, two months, and 28 days.
That’s how long it took Clarence Moses-EL to disentangle himself from a rape he didn’t commit, a 48-year prison sentence for a wrongful conviction, and the web of deceit spun by Denver authorities.
A jury on Monday acquitted Moses-EL, 60, of charges stemming from the 1987 sex assault and burglary of a woman in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s office re-prosecuted Moses-EL even though new evidence led a judge to vacate his convictions last December after he spent 28 years in prison. That evidence included the confession of a convicted rapist who was the first man the victim identified as her assailant. It also included the testimony of the confessor’s former girlfriend that he slipped out of her house in the middle of the night right when her best friend and neighbor was attacked. And forensic analysis showing that sperm found in the victim’s body matched the confessor’s blood type, not Moses-EL’s.
I’ve followed this case for more than a decade. Yet the details still seem as surreal as when I first read the court records and interviewed Moses-EL in prison.
How, I wondered, could Denver authorities not have bothered to question the men the victim first identified as possible assailants? How could they have prosecuted Moses-EL solely because the victim claimed, a day and a half later, that his identity came to her in a dream? How, after Moses-EL won two court orders and raised $1,000 from prison to test the DNA evidence, could they have tossed the box of evidence – marked “DO NOT DESTROY” – in a dumpster? And why did they refuse to grant Moses-EL a new trial in the late 1990s as a remedy for their foul-up?
Questions kept mounting as I followed the story.
Why did Morrissey refuse to reopen the investigation in 2006 when he realized that LC Jackson, the first man the victim identified in her outcry, was a serial rapist? How could Morrissey get away with misleading the media and state lawmakers about the case? Why, since 2012, did Morrissey try to keep Jackson’s confession from coming to light? And what prompted the district attorney to insist on retrying such a flimsy case after a judge vacated Moses-EL’s convictions and let him walk free?
The gravity of those questions weighed on Moses-EL’s family, friends and supporters as they sat in Denver District Judge Kandace Gerdes’ courtroom early Monday afternoon awaiting the verdict jurors took four hours to reach.
The strain of Moses-EL’s 10,317 days behind bars was evident in the face of his son, Anthony, who was 3 and riding on the handlebars of his dad’s bike in August 1987 when police stopped them and hauled his father away.
The enormity of the stakes was obvious in a defense lawyer’s wringing hands, the prosecutor’s shaking leg, and the ready stances of the dozen or more sheriff’s deputies posted inside and outside the courtroom as we waited.
Back straight, head tall, and eyes wide open, Moses-EL sat steady and calm before word came about whether a case that has eaten half his life would swallow the rest of it, too. If he has learned anything over the years, it’s patience.
The judge walked in at 1:19 p.m. and warned everyone that displays of emotion would not be tolerated in her courtroom. Then everyone rose and the jurors filed in with a collective ease that buoyed the crowd in the gallery.
Their verdict was unanimous. Not guilty on all counts.
What followed next was a group hug among the legal, religious, family and moral supporters who embraced Moses-EL and his exoneration fight. Behind him, they walked a path of camera flashes and fuzzy microphones out of the courthouse where, suddenly, everyone wanted to hear from the man the system had worked so long to silence.
“Yeahhhhh,” Moses-EL told reporters. “Oh yeahhhhh!”
What can you say? How do you feel? What do you think? What were those 28 years like? How did you withstand it? Why did this happen? What was broken? What can be fixed? What’s next? Where will you go? What will you do? Who might you sue? How long would that take? What did this cost you? What does this mean? What’s the moral of this story?
Moses-EL said his innocence had grounded him and his faith had carried him. He said truth is unbreakable, no matter who tries bending it and no matter how hard or how long. He said he wants a quiet, peaceful life and aims to help other prisoners facing bum raps. He thanked Allah and his mom, who didn’t live to see him exonerated. And he thanked his legal team, friends and family who broke from the circle of journalists and walked a few blocks toward lunch.
On their way, an off-duty Denver sheriff’s deputy saluted, two skateboarders stopped to look, and three drivers honked at the procession. A young woman heading into the Denver Art Museum asked, “There was a verdict? Not guilty? Aw, thank goodness. Thank God.”
In the warm autumn afternoon, Moses-EL and his people took over the terrace of a restaurant that overlooks History Colorado Center. “Check this out. Let’s set this straight,” a friend of Moses-EL called out, as if asking the building itself to record the moment. “Brother Moses is innocent! Always has been.”
There was champagne. There were toasts. There were stories about decades in prison, moments of despair, weeks of court hearings, and years of waiting for this day. There were chicken wings, crab cakes and group shots of gratitude and relief.
“This is the best day of my life,” Moses-EL told me.
He took time to eat it up, soak it in. He took care to thank everybody, including the waiter and waitresses, for helping him. He took phone calls from friends in prison and family in Baltimore who wished they were there to celebrate.
After all, there’s nothing sweeter than an exoneration. And also nothing sadder.
Sad because every wrongful conviction is, in effect, a cold case. If Jackson had been questioned and prosecuted for the assault in the first place, he likely wouldn’t have gone on to rape a 9-year-old girl and her mother at knifepoint six years later (and who knows how many others?).
And sad because locking up innocent people and throwing away the key makes the public even more suspicious of an already wayward justice system. It should gall every Denverite that city authorities let “The people v. Clarence Moses” rot for more than 29 years in our names.
Mayor Michael Hancock released a video Tuesday assuring Denverites that, under a Trump presidency, city policy makers and law enforcers will stand up to government overreach and civil rights abuses.
“I want to be clear. You can count on me, and you can count on your city. We’ve got your back,” the Mayor said.
That same day, Hancock wouldn’t comment on the Moses-EL case for which his administration likely will be named in a civil rights lawsuit. Among the many questions for which the city has to account is why its police department ignored Jackson, who should have been a prime suspect in the investigation, and let him roam free to commit at least two rapes in the 1990s.
For his part, Morrissey has spent years refusing to comment on Moses-EL because the criminal case was pending. Now that it’s settled, he still won’t talk about why – after ample evidence of a wrongful conviction – he needlessly forced an innocent man to spend years behind bars for the sake of “victim advocacy.”
“I forwarded your invitation to Mitch and he is declining,” his spokeswoman, Lynn Kimbrough, wrote in response to my request for an interview.
There’s footage of Morrissey defending his handling of the case in an interview I did for The Denver Post in 2007.
The DA wanted the video shot in front of a wall of law books in his office. I remember him checking his hair and straightening his tie before it started. After a string of mistruths, contradictions and chest puffing about the case, Morrissey had this to say when I asked if he could empathize with Moses-EL or put himself in his shoes:
“No. I’ve never raped anybody.”
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