What it's like to meet former convicted murderers who aren't murderers at all
I remember the first time I heard the names Raymond and Thomas Highers. I was instantly drawn to their story. The two men were head-thumpers and self-admitted hellions in their twenties. They were no angels. But they were not murderers, either.
They had been wrongly convicted of killing a neighborhood dope-guy. A murder is a murder, but they didn't do it. And after doing 25 years of time in prison, new evidence turned up on Facebook. I think that's what fascinated me. The computer application that has the ability to connect long lost lovers, reconnect high school pals, spread good news and bad with the lighting speed of a click, turned up a new witness in a casual post who could prove they didn't do it.
When the Highers brothers went to jail, many of us lived in a vacuum. We got our news from the radio, the television and the newspaper. If you missed a story, you missed it. But ever-present social media means that people are talking and connecting in a never ending loop, and when the crime came up in a post, someone who didn't realize these two neighborhood toughs had taken the rap for it -- spoke up. The brothers were released and somehow I snagged their first real interview. I showed them how to use Google on a computer. They were fascinated to see their faces pop up. Their aunt drove them to a cellphone store. Each got their own flip-phone and were fascinated with their new purchases. They had a long road ahead of them. They needed to learn to drive and how to use the internet. They needed to learn how to use cellphones. They needed to rejoin life, somewhere in the middle of theirs.
They were a little rough and raw. Tommy seemed a little abrupt--though certainly polite. I couldn't imagine how they were coping. I grilled them to find out how. They were graceful, excited, appreciative and exhausted.
Skip ahead four years later and last week I wanted to see how they were doing. Davontae Sanford had just been released from jail after serving nine years for four murders he did not commit. How do you screw up four murders and a kid? How does that happen? I wanted to know. And mostly I wanted to know if this kid, now 23 years old, had come out of an adult prison system emotionally intact. I chatted with his attorney and arranged for the first and only sit down, face-to-face interview the day after his release. I found an incredibly self-possessed, focused and flustered young man. He was getting a little frustrated with the demands for his time between phone interviews, satellite interviews, press conferences. He was tired and wanted more Chinese food. He wanted time to process.
But he was polite, he answered all of my questions and he promised me that when I do a follow-up on him in six months he wouldn't go the way of Nathaniel Abraham, another young man convicted of the very adult crime of murder--only he was guilty. I did his first sit-down interview when he got out. He had big plans. He talked about how the streets had raised him. He liked the streets. It turned out the streets were waiting for him when he got out. He seemed more comfortable in prison, and that's where he went back to.
Davontae seems different. There is a calm about him. His mother is doting. His attorney, Valerie Newman is protective. Everybody seems to get the idea that this young man needs a gentle re-entry and so when all the cameras disappeared he was whisked off away from the prying eyes of the curious and the cameras. But before he disappeared for a few days he told me he wants to be successful. He wants to have a non-profit for teenagers so they understand their own power to avoid pitfalls. He wants to make sure that no other young man or woman, coerced into a confession would be giving me a first interview should they escape wrongful incarceration.
I thought it would be a great idea to catch up with Tommy and Ray Highers to see what Davontae would face and so I arranged a visit with them last week. My crew showed up at Ray's suburban home. We found out the Brothers-Highers are doing wonderfully. Ray is engaged and has two adopted pet-dogs. He administers oral insulin to one of the dogs. They are small, yappy dogs and he is a big, burly ex-con, who shouldn't be an ex-con. More craziness to navigate, particularly when filling out job applications. Ray is gentle and patient with these pets he's inherited. He's excited to get married. He loves their mother and so he loves her dogs. He is proud of the home he owns and has a job. It is a success story. His brother Tommy is married to a gorgeous lady who is a rehab counselor. She's Masters educated and can help him through life on the outside. Both Tommy and Ray look amazing. Healthy. Fit. Happy. But their spirits felt clean, too.
As we prepared to do our interview, in walked Valerie Newman and Davontae Sanford. Ray immediately pulled Davontae to him for a hug and said, "Welcome home, brother." He meant it. You could see it in his embrace, he understood what this young man was feeling, thinking, processing. Turns out the Highers brothers have been in touch with Davontae and his family. Ray drove Davontae's mother, Taminko to the same jail he spent time in to see her son. It was Thanksgiving and Davontae's birthday and Taminko's ride fell through. Ray didn't want her to miss the visit and so he drove her to the big house. It was his first time back since being released. He drove slowly. He didn't want to get a ticket. He's still weary of police in many ways. Ray and Tommy have been sending letters to Davontae. Giving him encouragement. They have been part of his life on the outside while he was still on the inside.
I saw these three men bonding in front of me, meeting face to face for the first time. I wondered if they would have been friends on the 'inside.' Does the culture of prison allow white men in their fifties to be friends with black men in their twenties. I wondered if they would be adversaries on opposite sides of the yard. I was glad they didn't have to find out. I felt honored to see this powerful meeting and bonding. These guys were sincere in helping this young man through his re-entry. Tommy offered to help teach Davontae to drive. Ray showed him his house and told him that if he works hard and stays clean, he could have his own home some day. There was laughter. Lots of it.
All three are waiting for a final passage of a compensation bill for those wrongfully convicted. All three would qualify for 50K a year for every year of wrongful conviction. There's quite a bit of rigmarole for lawmakers to still figure out, but there seems to be wide support for it and after all, it was the State of Michigan against these guys when the judges gavel came down on their convictions. Still to be determined, whether or not the money from the State of Michigan will be tax free. Whether or not anyone will see anything within the next year. But there's the promise of the money, the need for it and the hope it will come soon for the 67 Michiganders currently on the National Exoneree Registry. The bill has already gone through the house and is awaiting a full legislative vote. When passed, Ray and Tommy would be owed $1.25 million. Davontae would receive about $450,000. Not a lot of money when you divide it by 60 years. But a big lump sum of cash can be dangerous to anyone. Valerie has already arranged for financial advice in her ever-present way of helping these guys out. Ray would like to pay off his house. Tommy would like to buy a house. Devontae wants to send his sister to school and start his non-profit to help other teenagers. When he talks, he still sounds like a teenager in many ways. In many ways, he still is.
Davontae told Ray and Tommy that he plans to be a success. His escape from prison was a mental one, where he learned about business plans and non-profits and he would spend hours thinking about ways he could help other young people from falling in the direction he had fallen.
When these three guys met face-to-face, they shot the breeze about everything from Cedar Point to staying straight.
They belong to a fraternity no one wants to be a part of. Their initiation into this club has been brutal. Prison is not fun. It's not supposed to be. But there is life after injustice and Davontae has a village that has surrounded him. One that includes these two brothers who've pledged themselves to him.
As I write these thoughts, I think about one of my favorite lines from my all-time favorite movie, Shawshank Redemption. I've seen it more than 40 times in several different languages. But one of my favorite lines seemed to fit when I watched these three men become brothers. "They crawled through a river of sh**, and came out clean on the other side".
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