Dewey Bozell 26 years in prison – wrongly convicted

Wed, May 11, 2011 5:50:07 PM

Dewey Bozell May 9th Times Herald Record article
Bozella did 26 years in prison – wrongly convicted
Dewey Bozella of Beacon, at age 52, wants a shot at a pro fight. After what he’s been through, anything seems possible.TOM BUSHEY/Times Herald-Record
Times Herald-Record
Published: 2:00 AM – 05/09/11
Dewey Bozella was 50 when he walked up the steps of the Newburgh Boxing Club near the corner of Washington and William in the City of Newburgh. He was ready for a second chance in boxing, in life.
Bozella reached the top step and slipped into a room of heavy bags and speed bags and a ring, and was overwhelmed by a singular feeling that moment 18 months ago.
“I was home.”

Family rolls with the punches

Trena Boone-Bozella had her own battle while her husband fought for his freedom.
Dewey Bozella spent the first 13 years of their marriage in prison, and there were times, Trena said, when “I felt like I was incarcerated too. Mentally and physically, I was.”
She cared for daughter Diamond, 3 years old when the couple met, while struggling financially and trying to find money to finish her undergraduate studies at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. She said it took her awhile after they met to be fully convinced he was innocent. Trena later had health problems and is out of work recuperating from four surgeries.
“After 10 years, the struggle failed me,” she said. “Stress. I thought I was strong, but it ate me up mentally, physically, emotionally and financially.”
Yet they kept the marriage alive by supporting each other. And the past 18 months since Dewey’s exoneration have been – well, let Trena tell: “It’s been a true blessing when you look at the whole situation. There is no man like Dewey. He is ‘The Man’ when it comes to taking care of his family.”
— Kevin Gleason
Now he could get on with his life. He could work toward that one pro fight — at least one — that eluded him three decades earlier. He could fulfill the promise to club trainer Ray Rivera when they met in 2005. Bozella would counsel kids on the pitfalls of the street while whipping them into shape with torturous workouts.
“This is something where you are taking a kid to another choice in life, ” he says. “This is a peaceful sport because it gives a person peace once he realizes what he wants to do with it. The same things I say to them, I say to myself. It’s not easy, but there are things that you have to deal with.”
Bozella, 52 now and living in Beacon, has a key to the gym. He arrives each weekday from his job at RECAP, which in part helps folks from the penal system readjust to society. Bozella’s priority is helping kids not unlike himself, a budding pro before his life turned upside down at age 18. His work here is entirely volunteer.
“Hate me for it now/love me for it later,” 2-0 pro Tre’sean Wiggins says, repeating Bozella’s workout mantra while the coach joins in every session. “He’s a big role model.”
Twice a week, Bozella applies headgear and the gloves and steps into the ring to spar. Just one pro fight. OK, maybe two … “He was one of the best middleweights in the state,” says Rivera, who is working on getting Bozella a fight.
“You gotta understand, for 20-something years I haven’t abused my body,” he says. “I got a young body. I would love to win some bulljive belt and say ‘Sayonara.’ That would be the epitome of my life.”

Beating the odds

He had so many chances to become a victim — of a broken home, of the streets, of a flawed justice system, of prison. Each facet of Bozella’s remarkable life could have left him a breathing carcass to be picked apart and discarded, especially after the gavel dropped and the words dug a divot in his heart.
Guilty. Twenty years to life.
That was it for Dewey Bozella. That had to be it. He was going to prison for murder. And he didn’t do it.
What more could he take? Wasn’t it enough that his mom was dead, that his dad had disappeared by the time Dewey was 9, growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn? Enough that he ran from foster care and wound up in the streets as a teen? Enough that a brother had been murdered in Queens when Dewey was 17?
Now this? Now he was getting pinned with the gruesome murder of 92-year-old Emma Crapser, returning from bingo night and stepping into a burglary inside her Poughkeepsie apartment at about 11 p.m. on June 14, 1977. She sustained blunt-force injuries, was bound with cord and eventually suffocated as the result of several pieces of material stuffed down her throat, court transcripts said.
Bozella was no angel. He hung with the wrong crowd, found some trouble. But he was no murderer.

Fight of his life

He had just turned 18 when he was taken into custody soon after the murder. He was set free when a grand jury issued a “no bill,” meaning no reasonable cause to believe he had committed the murder. But Bozella’s fight for his innocence had just begun.
The case was reopened in 1983 and he was convicted and sentenced to 20-to-life. The conviction was reversed in 1989 on the basis of a Batson violation — jurors dismissed without a valid reason — and Bozella got a second trial in ’90. The result, however, was the same: 20-to-life.
Key trial witnesses repeatedly changed their stories over the 13 years leading to the second trial and testified against Bozella after securing sparkling deals from prosecution. The only forensic evidence connecting anyone to the crime was the fingerprint of a man named Donald Wise, who was later convicted of committing a nearly identical murder of another elderly woman in the same neighborhood.
“The whole situation was very disturbing in terms of the kind of proof that was utilized,” said David Steinberg, who along with Mickey Steiman defended Bozella in the two trials. “They were literally being given get-out-of-jail cards.”

Proclaiming innocence

Bozella could have taken a plea bargain before the 1990 trial. He said he was offered a 7-to-14-year sentence. Or, time served if he copped to manslaughter. He could have walked out of the courtroom, he said, if he signed a piece of paper admitting to the crime. Why not? Why risk another couple decades, maybe a lifetime, behind bars?
“Because,” Bozella says, his eyes widening, “I was innocent!”
By the time of his second conviction, Bozella was no longer the person who arrived in 1984 at Sing Sing Correctional in Ossining, Westchester County, the person, he said, who spent his first 21/2 years as a “walking zombie” whose life “meant nothing to me.” He had begun instead to surround himself with positive people who stressed education. Bozella, though imprisoned, earned a GED, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.
And, he excelled inside the walls at boxing, a sport he cherished, a sport that helped instill discipline and meaning into his life, a sport, he would say, that “has been the key to my survival.”
One day in 1995, he was doing his job taking photos of inmates and their families in the visiting room. He offered to take a picture of a woman with her brother, whom she was visiting. They got to talking, and a year later, Dewey and Trena Boone were married.
She was going through a tough time when they met. She had a 3-year-old daughter and had just broken up with the girl’s dad. Trena’s financial aid ran dry and she could no longer afford to attend Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. You gotta make it happen, Dewey told her, gotta keep fighting.
“A lot of people that are in prison play with marriage; it’s a game,” Trena says. “To me, marrying someone — it’s real. He was so positive about life and what he wanted to do. To listen to that man who didn’t really have a lot of family members visit him and he was still kind, still friendly — he really inspired me.”

‘Amazing record’ behind bars

Four parole boards denied Bozella’s release. They wanted him to admit his guilt. He told them he wasn’t guilty.
He started writing letters to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, every week after his second conviction. The Innocence Project took his case in 2005, about the time he met Ray Rivera, the Newburgh Boxing Club trainer who was working in construction at Sing Sing.

The Innocence Project handed off the case to Wilmer Cutler Pickerin Hale and Dorr, known as WilmerHale. The firm took the case pro bono in 2007.
Explaining the high-powered firm’s decision to accept the case, Ross Firsenbaum of WilmerHale’s New York City office said, “Reviewing the record and reading the trial transcripts, you’d say, ‘How in the world is an individual in the United States of America convicted based on this?’ I don’t even want to say it was based on evidence because there was no real evidence at all.”
The other factor drawing WilmerHale to Bozella: “He had an amazing record in prison — clean is an understatement. He didn’t strike me as someone who could have done these horrific acts.”
Firsenbaum and his team volunteered some 2,500 hours on the case. The breakthrough came when he met with retired police Lt. Art Regula, the lead investigator who had testified against Bozella at both trials. Regula still had a file that would play a critical role in Bozella’s exoneration. The file, records and tape recordings the firm had collected from the police department and DA’s office included four crucial pieces of evidence undisclosed by the prosecution to Steinberg and Steiman, Bozella’s original lawyers.
On Oct. 14, 2009, acting Dutchess County Court Judge James T. Rooney ordered a new trial in the killing of Emma Crapser. “The legal and factual arguments advanced in support of the motion are compelling, indeed overwhelming,” Rooney wrote.
Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady chose not to charge Bozella with the murder a third time. Two weeks later — after 26 years in prison — Dewey Bozella walked out of the Dutchess County Courthouse in Poughkeepsie. Within days, he walked up the steps of the Newburgh Boxing Club.

In his future: Helping kids

Bozella has filed a $26 million civil lawsuit against Dutchess County, the City of Poughkeepsie, former DA William O’Neill and another party, alleging they violated his constitutional rights.
He wants to get involved in acting and directing, having helped found the Rehabilitation Through Arts program at Sing Sing. He says that he might attend film school at NYU, and that he’ll definitely continue helping kids. And he still wants that pro fight … at least one.
He used to think society owed him something. Now he thinks he owes something to society.
Bozella looks at the ring a few feet away inside the Newburgh Boxing Club and says, “There are dreams that you should never give up on.”

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