Living a Nightmare of Wrongful Conviction: The Case of Clarence Moses-EL

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Living a Nightmare of Wrongful Conviction: The Case of Clarence Moses-EL

Clarence Moses-EL, center, accompanied by his wife, Stephanie Burke, photo left, leaves prison for the first time in 28 years. (Photo: Denver Post)

As dusk settled over Denver on Dec. 22, the first day of winter, Clarence Moses-EL walked out of the county jail, free for the first time in 28 years. The shortest day of the year would be the end of the longest nightmare of his life. It was all because of a dream.

Moses-EL was charged with rape in 1987. Initially, the rape victim named the three men she had been drinking with as her possible attackers. Then, a day and a half later, she dreamed that her neighbor, Clarence Moses-EL, was the attacker. She told the police, and they arrested him. The three men she first named were never investigated. There was no physical evidence linking Moses-EL to the crime. The dream was the only piece of "evidence" offered against him.

There was, however, real evidence available to the prosecution: the victim's rape kit, along with bedsheets and the victim's clothing. These items were never tested for DNA. In 1995, after years in prison, Moses-EL won a court order mandating the forensic analysis of the evidence, which could have freed him. He managed to raise $1,000 from fellow inmates to pay for the tests. The judge instructed the Denver Police to turn over the evidence. The police marked the evidence box "Do Not Destroy," then, inexplicably, threw it into a dumpster.

"I literally broke down in the cell," he said. "I was blown away. Broken," Moses-EL told Denver Post investigative journalists Susan Greene and Miles Moffeit in 2007. "They broke their own rules and threw out the only key to my freedom." Greene and Moffeit wrote about Moses-EL and other prisoners across the U.S. who had potentially exculpatory DNA evidence destroyed. They were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for their series "Trashing the Truth." Greene has since become the editor of The Colorado Independent news website, and has never stopped reporting on Moses-EL's case.

Clarence Moses-EL languished in prison until, in 2012, he received a handwritten letter from another Colorado prisoner, L.C. Jackson. Jackson was one of the three men initially named as a suspect by the rape victim, until she gave Moses-EL's name following her dream. Jackson wrote: "I really don't know what to say to you. But let's start by bringing what was done in the dark into the light. I have a lot on my heart. I don't know who's working on this. But have them come up and see me. It's time. I'll be waiting." Jackson is serving two life sentences for a double rape of a mother and her 9-year-old daughter, a crime which bore many similarities to the rape for which Moses-EL was convicted.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey sat on Jackson's confession for close to two years. Moses-EL and his legal team were eventually able to obtain a court hearing to introduce Jackson's confession and other new evidence. Two weeks ago, a Colorado judge vacated Moses-EL's convictions, ordering the DA to either retry the case or drop the charges. At a bond hearing on Tuesday, the DA asked for a trial date, which the judge set for June. Several hours later, Moses-EL walked out of prison, no longer incarcerated, but still not truly free.

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Mitch Morrissey is stepping down as district attorney after 10 years in office. So far, two of the candidates who are running to replace him, Beth McCann and Michael Carrigan, have said they would drop all charges against Moses-EL, should either win the November election.

As he walked out of the Denver jail, Moses-EL told the gathered media: "It's wonderful. I waited a long time for this." When asked what kept him going all those years in prison, he replied, "My spirituality, and my innocence." Clarence Moses-EL expresses no vindictiveness. At a small celebration at a supporter's home that followed his release, Moses-EL said: "There's still some days in front of me. I know things are going to turn out in my favour. I never doubted, even though I felt like at times I was under a ton of bricks, couldn't breathe."

Clarence Moses-EL is eager to get to work, to give back. "I want to be instrumental in the community, in programs, wherever I could be to share my experience, my wisdom, my talent, my creativity." Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey says he represents the people. Now is the time for the people of Denver to demand that the charges be dropped against Clarence Moses-EL.

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 1,100 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.

Denis Moynihan

Denis Moynihan

Denis Moynihan is a writer and radio producer who writes a weekly column with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman.

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