- Sam Wolson/Daily
Imagine that tomorrow, you will barely exist. You will spend the next 20 years in a cell so claustrophobic that the walls seem to creep toward you. It’s so hot you can barely move or breathe. The smell of body odor, urine and shit is so strong that it seeps into your skin. In order to stay alive, you eat slop a dog wouldn’t touch. Every morning you worry you might not make it through the day alive.
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Welcome to prison. It’s just as bad as it sounds — and for prisoners who are locked up for crimes they didn’t even commit, it’s even worse.
Marvin Reed and his nephew, Deshawn, know that all too well. It was their hellish reality for nine years after they were wrongly convicted of assault with intent to murder.
Last August, though, they walked out of prison as free men. Their convictions were overturned thanks in part to the Innocence Clinic, a Michigan Law School student program that litigates cases for which new evidence could prove a convicted prisoner’s innocence. The Reed case, the clinic’s first success, is a beacon of hope for several other prisoners who the clinic is in the midst of defending.
But the Reeds’ story didn’t end on the day of their release, when family members cried tears of joy and the former prisoners counted their blessings for being alive and liberated. Often passed over in the heartwarming tale of an innocent man set free is the struggle of rebuilding a life that was suddenly put on hold. Dropped into free society in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Marvin and Deshawn must now piece together a livelihood in a world that has been forbidden to them for almost a decade.
A FATEFUL ACCUSATION
Ten years ago, Marvin and Deshawn were a couple of family men living in Ecorse, Mich., a suburb outside Detroit.
Marvin, then 32 years old, was married and raising his stepchildren with the Security Disability Insurance that he received because of a learning disability that prevents him from holding a job. As Marvin puts it, he was “just living day by day (and) staying out of trouble.”
At 24 years old, Deshawn was busy working as a party promoter in Detroit and completing the process of obtaining his real estate license. He had recently become engaged and had three children, with his fiancé pregnant with a fourth.
But on March 12, 2000, their world came crashing down on them when they were accused of attacking their neighbor Shannon Gholston, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a drive-by shooting that night.
“About 100 police are outside my house saying, ‘You were in a drive-by,’ or something,” Marvin said about the day the shooting occurred. “And I’m like, ‘When did this happen,’ you know? You’re just messing my head up, you know. (I started) running around explaining to them you got the wrong person.”
Gholston identified the Reeds as the assailants, but that was the only piece of evidence against them. No physical evidence tied them to the crime scene, and other prosecution witnesses fingered another suspect who police had found with the gun that was used in the shooting. But despite that evidence, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge found the Reeds guilty on Aug. 27, 2001 and sentenced them to 20 years in prison. Gholston later recanted his testimony, but the appellate court denied a request for a retrial.
Deshawn said that while in custody, he fully believed he and his uncle would be found innocent. When the judge announced a guilty verdict, he was dumbfounded.
“We were like, ‘OK, this is gonna blow over once we go to court and we get found not guilty, ‘cause we never did this. But when we got found guilty, it was like a dream,” he said.
SEEKING FREEDOM FROM BEHIND BARS
Deshawn’s dream quickly became his reality. The seemingly impossible guilty verdict turned into a one-way trip to a Level 4-security prison, which is just one level lower than maximum security. In a Level 4 prison — which holds prisoners with longer sentences — Marvin and Deshawn had to stay in their cells for 23 hours a day for four straight years.
“Just imagine being in a real, real deep hole, and you yelling for help, and it like don’t nobody hear you,” Deshawn said. “And when somebody do hear you and they look down — and you thinkin’ that they gonna help you, give you the help you need — and they just walk off.”
Throughout their decade-long incarceration, the two men moved frequently from one prison to another, but never together. Every time they entered a new prison, they were stripped naked and searched for smuggled goods — a reoccurring humiliation that Deshawn still bitterly resents.
The roughly 6-by-8-foot cells they lived in reeked of human waste, or what the Reeds called “boo boo.” During the summer, the walls themselves sweated in the stifling heat.
Every waking moment, Deshawn worried if he would be alive by the time he went to sleep that night.