Issue of wrongful convictions played out on a Brooklyn stage

Four men who spent a combined 63 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit talked about the consternation they experienced when they realized that they might be surrounded by hardened criminals for decades, the tribulations of denied appeals, and the ultimate relief of being vindicated and released from prison.

This past Friday evening, St. Francis College presented a play titled “The Exonerated,” featuring the stories of individuals wrongly placed on death row.

Fernando Bermudez spent 18 years in prison for murdering a teenager outside a Greenwich Village nightclub after an eyewitness misidentified him. He was acquitted in 2009. Jabbar Collins spent 15 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murdering a Brooklyn rabbi. He now works as a paralegal and is suing the prosecutors and DA who wrongfully put in him in prison.

Jesse Friedman served 13 years in prison before his 2001 release. He continues to fight to overturn his conviction after an appeals court ruled, “The record here suggests ‘a reasonable likelihood’ that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted.”

Finally, Martin Tankleff spent 17 years in prison after falsely confessing to murdering his parents. In January 2014, he was awarded over $3 million to settle his wrongful conviction lawsuit.

St. Francis English Professor Virginia Franklin directed the play, written by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen.  Proceeds from the admission tickets went to support Hudson Link Post-Prison at SFC, an extension of the Hudson Link program, which breaks the cycle of crime by helping prisoners earn college degrees. St. Francis College aims to help offenders who did not complete their degree in prison.

In an unrelated case, the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office agreed to drop the appeal of a wrongfully convicted man who spent 22 years behind bars in error.

Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis barred the DA's Office from retrying William Lopez for murder after a key eyewitness recanted.

Upon Lopez's release from prison, the prior DA administration re-arraigned Lopez for murder and vowed to appeal Garaufis' decision. Anticipating such action, Garaufis noted that Lopez would not receive a fair trial. Given that “over 20 years have passed since the murder … and all of the prosecution’s trial witness have died or are missing,” Garaufis contended, it is “virtually impossible that a fair retrial could occur.”

District Attorney Thompson appears to have agreed. Thompson’s office chose not to comment further on the decision to drop the Lopez appeal.