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.
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. He described a typical days as “just waking up, just praying, just hoping I don’t get killed or have to defend myself — have to end up, you know, doing something that’s not even me (and) hurting somebody just to defend myself.”
He feared that if he was put in a situation where he needed to protect himself, he might commit a violent crime against another prisoner and blow his chances at a retrial.
One time, an inmate ambushed Deshawn from behind a door, stabbing him in the arm with a makeshift knife called a “shank.” Deshawn believes he was mistaken for someone else and that the attack had not been intended for him. But no matter the reason for the violence, Deshawn was left to fend for himself.
“It’s like everybody don’t see nothing,” he said. “They turn it off. When I got stabbed in my arm…a lot of people see it, but ain’t nobody seen it.”
Marvin, who called his incarceration a “nightmare,” was dogged by the same constant threat of violence without adequate protection from the guards. One of the worst experiences he remembers is when he was put in an isolation cell for two days after he got into a fight with a fellow inmate.
“I mean, when I say a nightmare, you know you can only deal with this so long,” he said. “You just get tired. You wanna just get about ready to break. I just wanna end all this pain and suffering and all this stress, you know? It was terrible.”
While solitary isolation was soul-crushing for Marvin, it was probably safer than being with his cellmate. Marvin and Deshawn were placed in cells with men who were convicted of rape and murder, among other violent crimes.
“You might be put in a room with a guy who’s been in prison for 40 years, probably killed four people…and he might be a homosexual and he got no respect, not even for himself,” Deshawn said.
To deal with the unbearable, Deshawn busied himself by studying law and scrutinizing his case, while Marvin helped with prison yard work and played basketball.
“You gotta occupy your time doing something busy, to get out of prison mentally,” Deshawn said.
But finally, one day in 2008, hope showed up at Deshawn’s jail cell in the form of a dozen Innocence Clinic law students. They had decided to investigate Deshawn’s case after learning about it from his friend. At first, the Innocence Clinic only planned to work on Deshawn’s case because of the concern that the prosecution might try to offer Marvin a deal for a lessened sentence if he testified against Deshawn.
But Deshawn refused to accept their assistance if they did not help his uncle, too. Family came before anything, even his freedom.
The Innocence Clinic agreed to take on both cases, and worked diligently to attain a retrial and build a case for the defense. Without the clinic’s help, Deshawn said, “we wouldn’t be sitting here. Period.”
After the clinic took their cases, Marvin and Deshawn agonized and fantasized over the idea of freedom for 14 months before their appeal began. When they met in Wayne County Circuit Court in 2008 — the first time they had seen each other in nine years — they expected a bitter fight from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office.
To the Reeds’ joy and bewilderment, though, that fight never came. On Aug. 11, 2009, Marvin and Deshawn went to court for what they thought was going to be a routine appeal. But the prosecutor simply stood up and dismissed all charges — there was no case, and therefore, never should have been.
It took the judicial system nine years to realize that they had made an appalling mistake.
WHEN THE WORLD WENT ON WITHOUT THEM
That Aug. 11 court date, too, played out like a surreal dream — but a happy one, the happiest there ever was.
The first thing on the Reeds’ minds upon being freed: family, food and all the comforts of the home that they had been taken from all those years ago.
Deshawn was craving lasagna and salad, while Marvin wanted to eat a little bit of everything.
“Whatever they sat in front of my face, I was going to eat it,” Marvin said.
The Reeds’ family and friends were more than happy to oblige their wishes at a welcome home party they threw for the men. Even though the justice system had written off the Reeds’ claims of innocence for years, Deshawn said they never lost the support of their community.
“After so many years, usually people forget about it,” he said. “It’s on the back burner. Like forget that, and lose hope, but they never lost hope.”
Deshawn’s children were the most ecstatic about their father’s release. Deshawn described the reunion with his kids as “a bunch of tears.” Marvin said that Deshawn’s youngest son — who never knew his father outside of prison visiting rooms — still refuses to get off his father’s lap.
But after the party ended, the Reeds were left with the task of dusting off what remained of their long-stalled personal lives. While they were suffering the horrible monotony of prison, the outside world had kept changing. The World Trade Towers in New York had fallen. A costly United States war had begun. There was now a black president in the White House.
Even once-simple daily activities had become barely recognizable. Fresh out of jail, Marvin ran into a little trouble at a grocery store when he encountered a self-checkout station for the first time. Deshawn, meanwhile, couldn’t wrap his head around society’s obsession with text messaging.
But what had most drastically changed for the Reeds were their families. Faced with the prospect of waiting two decades to continue their relationships, Marvin’s wife and Deshawn’s fiancé had both left them. Deshawn’s toddlers had grown into older children who he really didn’t know. He had missed the birth of his youngest son, now eight years old. Both the uncle and the nephew had missed funerals of relatives and close friends they never got to say goodbye to.
But on top of the pain of missed moments, the Reeds had to deal with the practical problem of supporting themselves. After granting the men their freedom, the state justice system released them without further assistance. If it weren’t for their supportive family, the Reeds said they would be homeless.
“We’d be on the streets,” Deshawn said. “We’d be livin’ with somebody up under a bridge somewhere. We’d be in a box. We’d be somewhere, livin’ in a vacant house.”
Now four months out of jail, the two are slowly piecing their lives back together.
“It’s like turtle steps,” Deshawn said.
For Marvin, getting back on his feet is a clerical headache. He is in the process of re-obtaining vital forms of identification like his birth certificate and Social Security Card, which were taken from him in prison and never returned. Without those documents, he faces even a harder time reestablishing his claim to Social Security money that he had depended on before prison. After he was found guilty, he lost his right to those benefits and now must negotiate a tangled web of bureaucracy to get them back — a challenge that his learning disability makes even harder.
Today, he receives $200 in food stamps every month, but nothing else. Having remarried a few months ago, Marvin said he’s lucky he has his wife to support him.
Deshawn also struggles with depends on his family financially, since household funds had been tight to begin with. He wants to support his children like he had before the incarceration, but with his decade-old resume and the state’s record-high unemployment rates, finding a way to do that has been slow.
“The man’s supposed to be the one take care of the household, and we not in the position because we got eight years taken out of our lives and just got kicked back out to society with nothing,” Deshawn said.
RECLAIMING DREAMS DEFERRED
The thought of his children made Deshawn fight harder to get out of prison. It had always been his desire to make sure his children had better opportunities than he had, and the last thing he wanted was for them to grow up without a father.
Deshawn, who only finished school through the ninth grade, is determined to see his children escape an environment that so often sets people up to fail. It hurts him to think that if he hadn’t been falsely convicted, he would be working in real estate with his brother and their ambition to send their children to private school might have been realized.
“It was our dream,” he said. “It really weren’t about me no more. When those kids came, it was about them kids.”
But Deshawn is grateful that he escaped his sentence with time to help his children on the road to success. During his time in prison, their grades had slipped and they had been acting up in school. But his children, ranging in age from 8 to 12 years old, are still young enough to overcome much of the disadvantage of having an incarcerated father — something that would have gotten harder with every passing year Deshawn was in jail.
“Now my kids can be happy, and they can get on the right track and they can go and have a future instead of with this hanging over their head like this for some more years,” Deshawn said.
But getting back on track is easier said than done, especially in the same environment that allowed Deshawn and Marvin to go to jail in the first place. With not enough money to move out of Ecorse, the Reeds expressed resentment at being stuck in the city.
“We gotta go back to the same neighborhood who put us in this predicament,” Deshawn said. “You know, you see the same officers who lied on you, and they smirk at you, and they do things, but you gotta be around these people. You don’t want to, but you have no choice.”
Despite their rightful freedom, the Reeds live in constant fear that they could be re-incarcerated at any moment. Deshawn makes it a point to meet the owners and managers of places he frequents, like the local gym, so that he can build trust with people around town. Marvin said he calls his sister four to five times a day so that someone always knows of his whereabouts in case he needs to prove his alibi.
“I really don’t feel comfortable because I think someone else is going to try to do something like that again, so I just want to make sure that next time, I have some kind of way to prove (my innocence),” Marvin said.
While the Reeds will never forget the circumstances that led to their incarceration, they have forgiven Gholston, the drive-by shooting victim who wrongly identified them as the driver and shooter in the attack. After Deshawn’s release, Gholston visited to apologize. The two former schoolmates made amends by going out to the club.
“He apologized several times to the point I told him that I accept your apology,” Deshawn said. “You don’t have to apologize. Let’s go on with our life and put that behind us, and let’s just move forward because we out, but you still in the condition that you in.”
While the Reeds have endured years of heartache and encountered an array of obstacles, they said they don’t harbor bitterness over the time they have lost. It could be a lot worse —they, and the Innocence Clinic students, well know there are other innocent people still suffering in prison right now.
“When I even feel like I’m getting bitter, I think of all the other innocent ones in prison that I met that don’t have the opportunity to get the representation and get the blessing me and Marvin got,” Deshawn said.
The road to reclaiming the lives they lost a decade ago still has many bumps ahead, but Deshawn still wants to realize the career aspirations he had started to pursue in his 20s. He would like to obtain his real estate license and use the dismal economy to his advantage by purchasing depreciated houses that should rebound in value after the repression.
But mostly, Marvin and Deshawn aren’t too worried about kicking into hyper speed to try to make up for lost time. After spending the last eight Christmases in prison, they want to spend this holiday season savoring every moment with their family.
“Prison makes you appreciate the small things,” Deshawn said. “Not living your life watching your back every second of a minute, every minute of an hour, every day of the year. You can just be around normal people and you’re just free.”