St. Paul man freed after 10 years; judge commutes sentence in burglary case
BY DAVID HANNERS
A slight cold drizzle fell from a colorless sky. But after a decade behind bars, Sherman Townsend was ready to take any sky as long as he was free to walk beneath it.
"Oh, man!" exclaimed Townsend, tears in his eyes as he walked out of the Hennepin County jail a free man today. Less than an hour before, a judge had commuted his 20-year sentence on a burglary conviction to the 10 years he'd already served.
"When I get over to St. Paul, I'm just going to walk for a little bit. Get in before dark," said the 57-year-old Townsend, 57, a printer and a singer in an RB band before he was sentenced to prison in February 1998 for a crime he says he didn't commit.
He has maintained his innocence all along, and in a court hearing last week, another man - who'd been a key prosecution witness against Townsend - now said that he, not Townsend, committed the crime.
In a split-the-baby decision that everyone accepted but no one was completely happy with, District Judge Deborah Hedlund granted a joint motion by prosecutors and Townsend's attorneys to commute the sentence.
Both sides called it an imperfect solution, but the best they could get. Lawyers for Townsend said it leaves an innocent man with a conviction on his record, but it gets him out of prison right away. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman says Townsend is guilty but that it'd be impossible to re-try him for the 1997 home-invasion burglary in Minneapolis that started it all.
"We believe Mr. Townsend did it," Freeman said. "We no longer have the evidence to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt."
Lawyers with the Innocence Project of Minnesota, who fought for Townsend's release, said the St. Paul man was innocent and believe a jury would've agreed had the judge granted him a new trial.
"Is this total justice? No. But this is a very real, practical decision that Sherman made," said Michael C. Davis, a law professor at Hamline University School of Law who works with the Innocence Project.
"Our primary job was to show Sherman's innocence," said Davis. "Frankly, I believe we have done that. I believe we've accomplished that goal."
On the night of Aug. 10, 1997, Sherman Eliaz Townsend was a 47-year-old ex-con from St. Paul who, according to his family, had acquired a trade as a printer, worked in a $15-an-hour job and was starting to turn his life around. But that night, he was picked up near the scene of a daring home burglary in Minneapolis' Marcy Holmes neighborhood.
A couple had been sleeping on a mattress on a floor of an upstairs room when a man opened the door and, in the darkness, stumbled over them. The intruder seemed as surprised as they were; he got up, flew down the stairs and dashed out the house.
The couple didn't get a good look at the man, but they described him as beefy and black.
As police were investigating the break-in, a man who lived across the street, David Anthony Jones, came out of his apartment and told officers that earlier, he had been walking outside when a man came running from the house and knocked him over in his haste.
Police spotted Townsend a few blocks away and picked him up. He fit the general description of the burglar and had previous felony convictions for burglary. Officers didn't buy his story that he was in the neighborhood to visit a musician friend who turned out to not be home.
Officers had Jones, the witness, view Townsend in a "show-up," and he identified Townsend as the man who knocked him over. Townsend was arrested and charged with first-degree burglary.
Within a month of the arrest, Jones began changing his story. He later told police that Townsend was not the man he saw, and he testified to that at a pre-trial hearing.
As Townsend's trial drew nigh, prosecutors offered him a plea bargain. As a man with previous felony convictions, he was looking at a 20-year sentence if convicted, so they told him that if he would plead guilty, they'd recommend a four-year sentence.
He maintained his innocence and went to trial. Prosecutors called Jones as their key witness and, as he had originally done, identified Townsend as the man he saw. Townsend was convicted and sentenced to 20 years.
Jones had his own problems with the law. Unbeknownst to prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, he had burglary convictions in Illinois. And in 2001, he was convicted of criminal sexual conduct with minors and sent to prison.
He wound up in the state prison in Moose Lake, where Townsend was also serving his time. In May, while Jones was working in a food-serving line, he spotted Townsend. They eventually talked and Jones admitted he had committed the 1997 burglary.
Citing Jones' new statements, Townsend's lawyers filed a motion for a new trial. In a hearing before Hedlund last week, Jones testified that he was coming forward because it had been wrong to send Townsend to prison for a crime he didn't commit.
"I'm trying to regain what I can of my screwed-up life, and I don't think I can do that if I've sent innocent men to prison for something I did," he told the judge.
Townsend had 10 more years to serve on his sentence but would've probably gotten out in four, his lawyers said. Faced with a key witness whose testimony they could no longer depend on, prosecutors decided to fold their hand and see if Townsend would accept a commutation.
Both sides agreed to the deal this morning.
As he walked out of the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center shortly after noon, he was dressed in a gray T-shirt, jeans and white athletic shoes. He was met by his lawyers and his sister, Mary Collins, of St. Paul. He was asked what he wanted for his first meal. He replied unhesitatingly, "Kentucky Fried Chicken, extra crispy."
He was asked if the time he spent in prison was wasted. He said it wasn't; already a singer of some note, he learned to play piano, he developed his skills as a sketch artist and he worked in printing, his trade before he went to prison.
He was philosophical about the time in prison.
"I can't say it was wasted time. I refuse to believe it was wasted," he said. "I don't think they took my life away. I go from this day forward."
He was asked if was good to be out. He dabbed at tears as he replied.
"Yes, it is," he said. "But I can make it from here. With the help of God, I can make it."
David Hanners can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (612) 338-6516.
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