NEW HAVEN — Protestors gathered at the New Haven County Courthouse on Wednesday in opposition to what they say are a number of wrongful convictions dating back to the 1980s and 1990s in the Judicial District of New Haven.
One protestor, Darcus Henry, said he spent nearly 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
“It was horrible,” said Henry. “I had children. My children grew up without me. I had a six year old and two four month olds. I came home to teenagers that didn’t have their dad.”
The National Registry of Exonerations shows that 32 people have been exonerated in Connecticut since 1989 after having been imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Of those individuals, who lost an average of 11.5 years in prison, at least 14 were convicted in the Judicial District of New Haven.
Henry was convicted of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison. He was 21 years old.
He said that in prison, he managed to stay hopeful, despite the fact that it was “a horrible situation.”
“I kept hope, because I knew I was innocent and I always felt I [would] be free again,” he said.
Henry was eventually exonerated after it became clear that a witness in the case had made an undisclosed deal with prosecutors and then given false testimony in court. He was released on June 25, 2013.
“That’s my new birthday,” he said.
Henry later sued the state and received compensation for the false conviction — the state paid him $4.2 million. He is now the owner of the New Haven restaurant La Isla, and is building a relationship with his children. But he said no amount of money will be able to make up for the time he spent behind bars.
Other formerly-incarcerated individuals are still fighting to have their names cleared. Gaylord Salters, one of the organizers of the protest, was released in July after spending over 20 years in prison.
In 2018, the witness who identified Salters signed an affidavit attesting that he had falsely identified Salters after the detective who took his statement promised to keep him out of jail, according to reporting by the New Haven Independent.
While he was in prison, Salters wrote and self-published three books.
“I needed a way to provide for my family and I had to figure things out. So I started writing and I realized how, well, hard it was to get published. So I got a good job in the prison. I saved my prison checks and I started a publishing company from the inside,” he said.
Now that he’s released, he splits his time between running the publishing company, Go Get It Publishing, with his daughter Gabrielle Salters, and bringing attention to his wrongful conviction. He’s working to have his record erased.
Salters’ attorney, Alex Taubes, who is representing a number of individuals who claim to have been falsely convicted, said that they wanted to see accountability for the State’s Attorneys office and for the New Haven Police Department for the wrongful convictions that have taken place. He said that the victims should receive compensation for their time spent behind bars.
According to the registry, nine of the 14 erroneous convictions in New Haven — including Darcus Henry’s case — involved “official misconduct,” including misconduct by prosecutors or police, withholding information that could have been used to prove the person innocent, or giving false testimony in court.
“There are so many more cases just like this. There are so many things that need to be uncovered. Many of the people who are incarcerated are the most knowledgeable people about this misconduct. If [they were allowed] to be out and have freedom, they would be right here standing with us, speaking with us, and they know of even more cases,” said Taubes.
Also outside the courthouse, Keith Davis said he was protesting for his brother, Larry Davis, who has served nearly 20 years of an 80-year-sentence for robbery and assault — a result of a “three-strikes law” or “persistent offender” law that allows for longer sentences for people who have been convicted of multiple felonies.
“He’s been locked up 20 years already. He did his time. Who gets 80 years for a robbery-assault charge?” he said. “I believe he did enough time and I believe he should be released to be able to come home, be with his family.”
Salters said he hopes the state’s new Conviction Integrity Unit will be able to overturn erroneous convictions that involved official misconduct.
In Spring 2021, the State of Connecticut set aside about $360,000 to create a Conviction Integrity Unit within the Chief State’s Attorney’s office. The money would fund the hiring of a paralegal, a prosecutor and a police inspector, along with providing money to pay independent consultants who could advise on things like scientific testing and forensic evidence.
Then-State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo told CT Examiner at the time that he planned to supplement those positions with three additional positions already staffed out of his office.
Protocols for the Conviction Integrity Unit published in December 2021 give the unit authority to receive any requests for a review of a case, determine if the case meets certain criteria, and then bring it to a Conviction Review Panel made up of two prosecutors or former prosecutors, a retired Connecticut or federal Judge and a Connecticut attorney. That panel then reports its findings to the Chief State’s Attorney and the State’s Attorney for the judicial district where the crime took place.
Alaine Griffin, communications director for the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Division of Criminal Justice, told CT Examiner that the unit has been fully staffed as of two months ago. She said the unit has 80 pending cases and one case that is before the Conviction Review Panel.
But Taubes expressed frustration with the unit and what he perceived as its slow motion.
“How is it that with the governor actually taking the time to appropriate special money to investigate wrongful convictions, over a year later, they have not overturned a single wrongful conviction in this state?” said Taubes.
Taubes told CT Examiner that having Salters imprisoned for so long also deprived them of the work he would have been doing to call for accountability and bring attention to the wrongful convictions.
“He would’ve been leading this charge for years. And instead he’s been behind bars and we’ve been denied all this brilliant organizational ability, speaking ability,” said Taubes.
Salters said that, with his organizing work, he hasn’t had the chance yet to really take in what it means to be free.
“I haven’t truly had an opportunity to enjoy myself just yet. But I will,” he said. “And I’m just really hoping that the State’s Attorney’s Office does what they say they’re going to do.”