Wrongly convicted, Danbury Army vet fights back
By Nelson Oliveira Updated 1:02 pm, Tuesday, December 29, 2015
A fully-exonerated Michael Seri reads poetry he has written.
DANBURY — One of the worst moments in Michael Seri’s life was when a probation officer knocked on his neighbors’ door to let them know he was a registered sex offender.
“At that point in time, I wanted to scream,” Seri said.
It was 2002 and Seri was under house arrest after spending six months in jail for public indecency, a crime he did not commit.
Although the charges were dropped in 2003 after fingerprint evidence linked the case to a known sexual offender, Seri, 57, knew his life would never be the same. Even after his conviction was reversed, Seri struggled financially, suffered physical and psychological pain, and was barred from seeing child relatives.
“I had to deal with stress and pain for a lot of years,” he said.
But 14 years after the wrongful conviction, Seri — a Danbury artist, poet and Army veteran — says his experience could have been a lot worse if not for his uncle, a retired FBI agent who helped him with the case. Now he wants to advocate for wrongfully convicted people in the state.
“Despite the pain and suffering that I endured, which was a lot, I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “You have to put it all in perspective.”
Last week, the state awarded him $170,000 in damages, which came with an apology from Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. The ruling comes six years after Seri received $200,000 by successfully suing Newtown and its police department for mistakes made in the investigation.
Newtown police charged Seri in 2001 with masturbating in front of a 15-year-old Girl Scout at the town’s public library, even though the victim described her attacker as a Hispanic man with dark hair, while Seri was white and balding. The girl failed to pick Seri out of a police lineup.
At trial, however, the victim and two witnesses identified Seri as the man they saw on the third floor of the library that day.
Their testimony was bolstered by a fingerprint expert who said he couldn’t rule out the possibility Seri’s prints were on two library books found at the scene.
In June 2002, as Seri sat in his maximum-security prison cell, a second incident occurred at the same library.
A girl studying for a Spanish exam reported she saw a man masturbating. His appearance fit the description the Girl Scout gave to police about 15 months earlier.
Police found two fingerprints at the scene of the first incident but refused a request by Seri’s uncle, Richard Macko, to check those prints against a national crime database.
Macko instead arranged for the analysis independently. A fingerprint expert confirmed at least one fingerprint on the books matched a convicted sex offender, Angel Laporte.
“It’s been a hell of a fight and nothing came easy,” Seri said. “But, again, I was one of the fortunate ones because if I didn’t have an uncle in the FBI, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
Macko said one of the mistakes police and prosecutors made in the case was the fact that most sexual predators begin committing offenses early in life. Seri was 43 at the time of the Newtown incident.
“I know from my own training that people don’t start exposing themselves at this age,” Macko said. “It wasn’t in his nature and it was not something he had exhibited in his lifetime.”
Mike Lawlor, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven, said Seri’s case is “a classic example” of a phenomenon he calls “tunnel vision.”
“That’s when investigators focus on one individual,” Lawlor said. “All of a sudden, you can’t see anything else.”
Seri described the day the jury convicted him as the worst of his life.
“You’re sitting there thinking, ‘This cannot be happening to me,’” he said.
The mixed-media artist, who has written several poems about his ordeal, will now push for new laws to prevent cases like his from happening.
“I hope to be the voice for everybody who’s been wrongfully convicted in the state of Connecticut,” he said.
Seri’s father, Michael “Tweezer” Seri, was a former state representative, Danbury town clerk and World War II veteran. He died last year at the age of 90.
Seri thanked the claims commissioner for being “very sympathetic” to him. Despite the 14-year battle to clear his record, Seri also thanks the American justice system for allowing him to seek redemption.
“Life is not fair for a lot of people,” he said. “But in the end, the same system that failed me also exonerated me and I have to take that into consideration.”
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