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UPDATE: On August 11, 2023, a federal judge issued a remarkable ruling on behalf of Maleek Jones, whose case is among those at the heart of '"Holding Me Captive." For more than three decades, Jones has fought to prove his innocence in a murder case, alleging that he was subjected to egregious misconduct by police, prosecutors, and his trial counsel. In 2021, Ram Vishwanathan shed light on these allegations in his reporting for English 480; he published his feature story, which documents a range of injustices in Jones' trial, in The New Haven Independent. Now, 32 years after Jones's arrest, a federal court has affirmed many of his claims, in a groundbreaking ruling. You can read more about this news from English 480 alum and Independent staffer Laura Glesby here ("Maleek Jones Conviction Overturned"); James Jeter also shares the latest details at the Full Citizens Coalition's page on Jones's case.
In 1991, Scott Lewis, a 24-year-old native of New Haven, Connecticut, was driving in the town of Milford when a cop pulled him over for a minor traffic violation. Moments later, the traffic stop took a surprising turn: the officer informed Lewis that he was wanted for a double homicide. The young father insisted on his innocence. But in 1995, Lewis was convicted and sentenced to life. Only from prison did he begin to uncover the complex web of misconduct in his case – misconduct committed by police and prosecutors alike. These discoveries helped Lewis to recruit a Yale Law School team to prove his innocence. In 2014, he won his freedom, and a full exoneration.
In 2016, a group of Yale student journalists set out to document the surreal arc of Lewis’s story. In an investigative reporting class taught by New Yorker writer Sarah Stillman, Caroline Wray interviewed Lewis about his journey of reentry, documenting the challenges he faced: rekindling his ties to his children, finding employment, and learning the fashion perils of wearing M.C. Hammer pants and a sparkly gold shirt (the only outfit he still owned from the ‘90s) after two decades of incarceration. Meanwhile, three more students – Matt Nadel, Lukas Cox, and Keerthana Annamaneni – produced a 35-minute documentary film about Lewis’s case. The film, 120 Years, painted an unnerving picture of systemic abuse within the New Haven Police Department, and the prosecutor’s office, that had led to Lewis’s wrongful conviction. Those abuses, we’ve learned, were only one part of a much larger story.
Across the next several years, students in English 480 kept investigating wrongful convictions and other allegations of law-enforcement misconduct that had emerged from New Haven in the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s; they worked with leads provided by community members, and were guided, in particular, by the leadership of New Haven native James Jeter, the founding Director of Civil Allyship at Dwight Hall. With each reported profile, a disturbing pattern came into sharper view. In case after case, students found that the New Haven Police Department had used a specific set of largely-discredited investigative tactics, many of which are illegal, to secure criminal charges. Detectives aggressively “pre-interviewed” alleged witnesses before beginning their tape-recorded interviews, for instance, often coercing or pressuring vulnerable witnesses to offer up a manufactured narrative. Prosecutors, too, repeated specific forms of misconduct – most notably, a failure to turn over critical evidence favorable to defendants.
Equally telling, students examined how, in many instances, the city of New Haven faced civil lawsuits for systemic misconduct, and settled individual wrongful-imprisonment claims for millions of dollars. Lewis, in a civil suit, secured $9.5 million from the city. Darcus Henry spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and won $4.2 million. Derrick Hamilton, falsely imprisoned for twenty-three years, received $7 million. But even as the state affirmed, in each of these instances, a clear pattern of abuse, no larger change ever came. No larger reckoning. What implications, students asked, did this have for the dozens of people who were still locked up in prisons across Connecticut, with similar officers involved in their cases, and credible-seeming claims of wrongful convictions?
“Holding Me Captive” is our effort to connect these dots. At the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab, students collaborated with community members and local leaders – most notably, Jeter – to draw connections between proven exonerations and suspected wrongful convictions. We branched out beyond the cases of state-affirmed exonerations, documenting the stories of several men who remain behind bars with highly-credible claims of innocence: men like Maleek Jones and J’Veil Outing. Jeter helped students to identify a list of cases, and to venture into prisons, courtrooms, public-record repositories, news archives, and more, to document these claims.
Students also traced how these wrongful convictions connect to broader patterns of abuse, some of which continue today. They interviewed more than a dozen New Haven residents who had experienced diverse forms of law-enforcement misconduct, including routinized acts of street harassment, detention without probable cause, and coercion in low-level drug crimes. We published many of the resulting stories in collaboration with campus outlets and local news partners, particularly the New Haven Independent; now, we're going a step further – not just gathering these stories in one place, but showing readers how they intertwine.
“We have a culture that looks at exonerations as one-offs,” Jeter told us, “and never looks at the fact that they might be part of an intricate system of fraudulent police work, and of prosecutors who upheld that fraudulent police work in courts.” For too long, Jeter notes, New Haven has been responsible for a grossly disproportionate number of Connecticut’s wrongful convictions. Now, he said, “The State of Connecticut has a chance to lead the nation,” by reversing that trend. In 2021, the state launched a Conviction Integrity Unit to reexamine old cases and “ensure justice.” But in its first twenty-two months of operation, the Unit did not call for the release of a single known individual. Jeter hopes this will change. He told us, “We all need to reckon with this city’s legacy.”
Stefon Morant shares a similar hope. Following his release from prison after more than twenty years of wrongful incarceration, Morant struggled to survive, and to prove his legal innocence. For years, when applying for jobs, he had to check a box acknowledging his former incarceration, which felt like salt on an old wound. “I wasn’t in prison because I committed a crime,” he told us. “I was there because they were holding me captive.”