It’s incredibly difficult to get an innocent person out of prison. The wheels of justice don’t just turn slowly, they barely move. 

Photo by Hédi Benyounes / Unsplash

In 2016, I was living in Venice, California, and developing an idea for a television show that took place in my neighborhood. Venice is an interesting two square miles of extremes. Homelessness, drug addiction, rampant crime and abject poverty live on the sidewalks outside the homes of some of the wealthiest, most powerful people in Hollywood and technology. I mapped out a story that combined these worlds and began researching drugs and gang culture and pawn shops and prostitution, but my research was missing some grit. What I really needed was to talk to someone who’d lived it, so I made arrangements to visit Hector in a supermax prison in Youngstown, Ohio.

Hector was a friend of a friend. He’d had an unbearably difficult childhood, grew up in the inner city, and learned how to fight for himself and his sisters as a matter of survival. His future options were limited. Joining a gang seemed obvious and advantageous, even though he knew he’d trade his life for it. He never expected to survive his teens, certainly not his 20s. But he did. At 38, most of his skin was inked with tattoos, even his scalp, giving him the menacing appearance of someone who’d earned his OG status. He’d been through some things, of course, he wasn’t an angel, but he’d never killed anybody and he was starting to slow down. Gangs are a young man’s playground. With age came wisdom, and he was turning his life around. Then he was wrongfully convicted of murder, set up by law enforcement who’d been targeting him for years in an effort to get him off the streets. The case seemed clearcut to his friends and attorneys. Hector wasn’t even in the same room when the murder occurred. Nonetheless, he was found guilty, and he’d been locked up for three years by the time I went to visit him.

I’d never met anyone in prison before, never seen a real jail cell, barely even saw the inside of a principal’s office, but on an early morning in November, I was on my way to one of Ohio’s 43 prisons.

Take that in for a moment: there are 43 prisons in the state of Ohio! 

In the three hours it took to drive from my parents’ house in northwest Ohio to the other side of the state bordering Pennsylvania, I had a lot to think about. Because I wouldn’t be able to take anything into the prison with me, no pens or paper, I had to remember not just the questions I wanted to ask as well as the answers, but I also had to memorize Hector’s cadence, his word choices, his grammar, his demeanor. While none of that was going to be easy, it wasn’t the most pressing thing on my mind. The day I’d been approved for visitation happened to be the day after the 2016 presidential election. I’d voted by mail in California the week before, and when I arrived in Ohio wearing my Hillary shirt, I was fairly certain the election was in the bag. Then, the morning after, instead of fully assimilating what had happened, I was driving to meet Hector as waves of emotions crashed through me. I was devastated, deflated, shocked, angry, appalled and not completely inhabiting my body.

Everything about going to a prison is both surreal and terrifying. The fencing, the razor wire, the metal bars, the cameras, the protocol. It’s a place utterly void of color. Even the people are drab, angry, and unwelcoming. After signing in, I was led past a common visitation area and locked inside a soulless room that was divided by an inches-thick glass barrier with holes in it and a chair on either side. I was nervous. I’d never met Hector before, and I didn’t know what to expect. After several minutes, he waddled slowly down the hallway in leg shackles followed by a guard who uncuffed him from behind and chained him to his seat. It was a lot more startling and inhumane than anything I’d ever felt watching it on television.

I met Hector’s soft brown eyes, and he quickly brightened into an embracing smile. He thanked me for coming, hoped I had a nice drive, and genuinely wanted to know how I was doing. How am I doing? We had to shout at each other to be heard through the glass, but soon enough the armed guards, the cameras, and the random clanging faded away. He started talking and didn’t stop for the next five hours. He was warm, smart, open, funny and boyishly innocent. All these things betrayed his outward appearance and shocked me. I didn’t think someone who’d spent three years in prison would have the kind of light he did. Or be as well informed. When we spoke about the results of the election, I couldn’t stop my eyes from welling with emotion. He softened and did his best to soothe me.

You know, I thought it was a mistake to nominate Hillary. Don’t get me wrong; she’s the right person for the job. There’s nobody better than her to lead this country, and she deserves to lead this country ‘cause sometimes when everything is as fucked up as it is, you just have to put a woman in charge. I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, man, you wouldn’t be sitting on this bunk if you’d just listened to your woman.
 I was hoping for the best, but I was expecting the worst because I knew they were going to do to her what they did to me. See, here’s what happens when you’re someone like me. First, you get arrested for small stuff. They don’t just charge you with one thing; they list all this shit so you start to get a record with a lot on it. If they charge you with one thing, you might be able to get off, but with 10 or 15 charges, now it seems like you have to make a deal: plea to 4 of them and they’ll drop the rest. Seems like a good deal so you do it even if none of it is the truth about who you are or what you did. But that gets set in stone. Then, ‘cause you lead the kind of life I did, it happens again and again. Now I’ve got a wrap sheet a mile long. So when someone gets killed, and I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s real easy to pin that on someone like me. They put my mug shot on the television with a long list of charges, it doesn’t matter what the truth is anymore. It gets real easy to say: of course he committed murder, look at that record.
 What they did to Hillary was put her mug shot on television, called her a criminal, made her a criminal, told everyone she should be locked up.
 We don’t believe the best in people; we believe the worst.
 I tell my homeys: you want things to change, you got to get politically active. You want to know how to change the world? Start electing poor people. They’ll tell you the Constitution. They’ll tell you how to make effective change so that the rules don’t just apply to some people and not others. They’ll point out that this idea of “liberty and justice for all” isn’t true. It’s liberty and justice for some. They’ll tell you that you’re afraid of us because we take what you have, but if you didn’t rig the system so that we didn’t get what’s right and fair for ourselves, we wouldn’t be interested in taking your shit.
 I get it, man. What they did to Hillary is the same thing they did to me. But now I got a bunch of white women fighting for me. They’re gonna get me outta here, and then you’re really going to be afraid of me. ‘Cause I might run for public office.

It’s incredibly difficult to get an innocent person out of prison, even if the evidence of innocence is overwhelming, even if a bunch of white women at the Wrongful Conviction Project in Ohio have been working diligently for six years. The wheels of justice don’t just turn slowly, they barely move. 

I was moved by my visit with Hector, and we stayed in touch. I’d write to him every few months, never knowing what to say. He’d write back in his exacting handwriting, his letters always three times as long as mine. It seemed impossible that he was ever getting out. The years dragged on. Three years became eight years. But then, his attorneys were given the opportunity to present the judge with new evidence in the hope that Hector would be granted a new trial. My friend Dawn, who was Hector’s fiercest advocate, had been a part of the Jacob healing group, and she wondered what we could do for Hector. I wondered, too. So in May of 2021, the Hector group began. 

We spent a lot of time imagining ourselves in prison with Hector, especially during the oppressive heat of the long summer or when he was in solitary confinement. Each member of the group took turns expressing what they loved about him, talking to him as if was sitting among us. More than anything though, we focused on his innocence, not only as a judicial verdict but as a human, as a boy, as a man. We unraveled time and saw him as a baby. We imagined the man he is now holding himself as a baby, looking into his own infant eyes and seeing himself again as pure love. We envisioned him sitting across from himself as a boy, a boy who was afraid, a boy who was forced to grow up too fast. We held him as he cried. We invited the judge to sit across from Hector and look into his eyes as we told the judge who Hector really is and why he deserved his freedom. We sent the highest vibrational energy to the mound of paperwork that outlined his case. And at the end of every weekly call, we imagined Hector walking out of the prison gates with his head held high.

The wheels of justice barely moved. It took the judge another fourteen months to make a decision on the new evidence. A hearing was set for July 19, 2022. Hector’s attorneys knew what we were asking for: freedom. But they knew the odds were against us. They also wanted to manage our expectations. There was no chance Hector would be walking out of the courtroom as a free man. The best we could hope for was a new trial, which would likely take several more years to get to. We persisted in envisioning Hector walking out as a free man.

So many people had shown up at the courtroom, they had to arrange an overflow room with a monitor. When the judge arrived, he looked admonishingly at the prosecuting attorneys and then the defense. I’m told he said some version of, “You two need to get together, and you better make a deal.” Court was adjourned for the following day.

Up to this point, the prosecution had not been open to a deal. That afternoon, they made an agreement: if Hector agreed to an Alford plea of guilt, he would be sentenced to time served. An Alford plea would mean that Hector could assert his innocence but accept the sentence. It would mean he would be a free man.

The following day, the court had arranged a live stream of the hearing, and I was able to watch it thousands of miles away. The judge asked Hector to stand. He asked Hector how old he was. Hector hesitated, said he was 47, then no, 48. “I’m sorry,” he said, clearing his throat, “I haven’t been counting birthdays.” There was a long series of legal formalities about the plea and did he understand it and did he accept it. Then the judge did something surprising. He made the most legally appropriate form of apology for the nearly ten years lost, he said that Hector would not need to be monitored, and he told Hector he was a free man. Hector walked out of the courtroom with his head held high and a smile so bright, it momentarily lit the world.

Hector's first moment of freedom.