Fighting for Freedom, Finding Forgiveness

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

On April 15, 1991, driving home to New Haven from Milford, Scott Lewis made a left on red without signalling. Moments later, he was pulled over and charged with murder. At 29 years old, he was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit, and would spend the next 20 years desperately fighting to prove his innocence.

On September 8, 2018, Luce Hall is filled to capacity. Those lucky enough to get off the waitlist line the aisles. We’re here to watch 120 Years — the documentary that Matt Nadel, GH ’21, Keera Annamaneni, TD ’20, and Lukas Cox, BK ’19, have made to tell Lewis’s story.

30 years after his arrest, Lewis comes into focus on the screen in Luce Hall as a free man. He is no longer 29 — that much is clear. Crow’s feet and a salt-and-pepper beard betray the decades that have passed. Yet his eyes shine, and he is full of life. He laughs and waves his arms, giving us smile after smile, and begins to tell his story.

Lewis was framed by a dirty cop, and he knew it, too. Following his arrest, he stood, shell-shocked and handcuffed, in the elevator of the New Haven precinct. As he rode upwards, the man by his side turned to him and uttered a sentence that would both haunt and push Lewis forward for the next 20 years: “You should have never stopped selling drugs in Fairhaven.”

This man was Vincent Raucci, an infamously corrupt detective involved in New Haven’s drug trade as both user and seller. Lewis himself had recently decided to leave that very world — he stopped dealing drugs after watching his cousin get hooked. Raucci, working with Lewis’s infuriated superiors, framed him as a result.

A nightmarish trial quickly unfolded. Melanie Carr, a private investigator later hired to work on Lewis’s case, reports that she has seen many issues with police investigations throughout her career of working on death penalty and civil rights cases. But never, she says, had she “seen [a case] that was so clearly a frame-up job.” Raucci threatened potential witnesses and blackmailed others into giving false, incriminating testimonies. Despite such threats, Lewis’s boss testified that Lewis punched into work at the time of the crime; the court knew Lewis’s alibi was sound. Another man even confessed to committing the double homicide in question.

Yet a justice system designed to protect white police and and incriminate black youth prevailed. A corrupt cop walked free and a young black man went to jail, sentenced to 120 years.

“When I read about Scott,” says Nadel, “it was the first time I had ever felt a story was truly jumping out of the page at me — that this was a story that needed to be told. And when I got to hear his story in person, I knew that this story needed to be told on screen — that nobody would ever be able to tell it with the same emotion and candor as [Lewis and] the people who went through it [with him] for 20 years.”

As he talks to the camera, Lewis does not sound like a man who has spent 20 years in prison, found guilty of a double homicide he did not commit. He makes his experience seem brief; time, in his words, flows quickly. As he details his arrest and time in prison with strikingly good humor, I struggle to laugh when he does, asking myself how he isn’t angry or bitter.

Nadel, too, was amazed by Lewis’s lack of resentment. “Throughout the entire process of filming, I was most struck by Lewis’s forgiveness and empathy,” Nadel recalls, adding that one day Lewis even mentioned that he felt badly for Detective Raucci. Astounded, Nadel and Cox asked why. “I know what it feels like to do things you regret,” Lewis replied. “And that’s gotta suck.” Nadel explains how “Scott’s laser focus on winning his innocence and ensuring that truth prevailed led him to do what seems to me, at least, impossible: to intellectually filter out that anger as unconducive to his goal.”

In addition to choosing forgiveness, Lewis studied the law extensively as a means to pursue his own freedom, spending endless hours in the law library, accumulating reams of information relevant to his case, and even taking a paralegal course. “Never in my life,” says Darcy McGraw, director of the Connecticut Innocence Project (CIP), an organization that works to free those who have been wrongfully convicted, “have I met another individual who took it upon himself to learn the law to the extent that Scott did…He is the only convict I have ever met who did not rely on lawyers, and instead felt like he was his own best advocate [and] did a huge amount of the work.”

Lewis also took creative writing classes with Yale Professor Sarah Stillman, PC ’06, as a way to get in touch with his emotions and spend his time productively while behind bars. Stillman tells me that Lewis was the most tenacious and optimistic person she had ever met. For the four years he spent as her student, Lewis was “the single most bright spirited person in the class — a testament to what it looks like to be able to preserve your sense of spirit and sense of self while fighting against an injustice so enormous it is almost unfathomable.” While his classmates preferred to discuss mass incarceration and the criminal justice system, Lewis would come to class with love poems.

For 20 years Lewis appealed to attorney after attorney and even the FBI. All of his letters concluded with the same, short signature: “Scott Lewis, an Innocent Man.” Lewis, Stillman maintains, “refused to let bitterness corrode him… and all of the people who saw that devotion in him became equally devoted to fighting that fight side by side with him.” McGraw recalls how Lewis “was absolutely not going to take no for an answer.” Indeed, he eventually succeeded in catching the attention of the FBI and Brett Dignam, a powerhouse attorney and Yale Law Professor who agreed to take up his case.

Every professional who worked tirelessly to free Lewis speaks of him with awe. “The whole community of people around him,” Stillman reveals, “were there in part because they could see how much Scott had been wronged, but also because they could see what a unique person he was, fighting a battle completely uphill and single-handedly and refusing to get dejected.” “That someone who is in jail can get the attention of the FBI and have them do an investigation into their case is, in and of itself, remarkable,” explains Melanie Carr. “It is something I have never heard of before or since.” She stresses how for most innocent convicts, the fight to prove their case is fruitless — like “shooting blanks.”

In February of 2014, after a lengthy struggle, Lewis was released from prison. “If he hadn’t taken matters into his own hands, he wouldn’t be out today,” Carr says. “That much is totally clear.” On August 5, 2015, the court finally dismissed all charges against him. Lewis had won his freedom.

“We know that there are wrongfully convicted folks,” Nadel remarks, “but most people think that they are one in a million. In fact, some estimates put wrongful conviction rates as high as 12.6%, of which a disproportionate number are men of color.” Furthermore, all involved lawyers stress that Lewis’s victorious ending is the exception, not the rule. Of the estimated 250,000 wrongfully convicted prisoners in the United States, roughly 1% have been exonerated. Stefon Morant, another young black man framed by Raucci for the double-homicide, unfortunately does not belong to this group. While Morant was released alongside Lewis after serving 21 years of his 70 year sentence, he was not exonerated. As a felon, he remains barred from participating in many areas of society.

As Lewis’s face fades off the screen at Luce Hall and the lights flicker on, Annamaneni takes the stage. She asks all those who have been wrongfully convicted to stand. Roughly five men do, all but one black. One wonders what these men have lost and what they, too, will never get back.

As Lewis speaks of his exceptional path to freedom, he doesn’t allow the loss of 20 years to cloud his new life. Instead, he has desperately made up for lost time: falling in love, getting married, starting a business, having a child. He speaks graciously and eagerly about stepping into the roles so long denied to him. On screen, he relaxes in his home, kisses his wife, and makes sure to be the first person his daughter sees every morning.

As a free man, Lewis has chosen a career to help others like him. Today, he runs a real estate business devoted to clients who ordinarily would not have access to home ownership: ex-convicts, women of color with low levels of education, single mothers. Unlike most realtors, he walks clients through a two-year accreditation program that will rapidly decrease their interests rates, and throws in a portion of his own commission to make their housing prices more affordable. In 120 Years, Nadel takes care to highlight the story of Chris Butler, an ex-convict who, with Lewis’s help, secured ownership of a house that provides a stable place for his estranged son to visit him. “This isn’t just about house ownership,” explains Nadel. “This is about interrupting the cycles of family fragmentation that disproportionately plague communities of color.”

Nadel’s words become yet more powerful with the appearance of Scott Lewis Jr. on the screen. Only five years old when his father was sentenced to life in prison, Lewis Jr. speaks quietly and emotionally, lacking his father’s vivacity. He speaks first of his excitement at Lewis’s release, of a childhood spent missing his father. He reveals his struggle to connect with the man he never knew; of how difficult it was for him, now a father himself, to become a son. He laments Lewis’s fixation on his new life and job, accusing him of not checking in on his old family enough. Professional success, he says, cannot replace the father-son bond the two were denied.

Lewis’s unfaltering self-assurance, too, wavers at the mention of his son. The hardest part of adjusting to free life, he says, is being a father to a son whose childhood he missed entirely. The two remain, in many respects, strangers. Nadel remarks that Lewis Jr. is indeed “the living, breathing ramification of a dangerously flawed system.” 120 Years is a story of incredible resilience, but also one of loss.

After Nadel and I speak, I can’t help but return to one of his comments: “Lukas and I were angrier in our Yale dorm room than Scott ever was from his prison cell.” Aside from illustrating Lewis’s remarkable forgiveness, this remark raises a question for us: what does it mean for Yale students to be roused by Lewis’s story? From a distance it’s easy for students to immerse themselves in Lewis’s story and become enraged. But many members of our community do not have the privilege of distance. How do Yale students fit into this narrative, using and not abusing our status as privileged occupants of the City of New Haven?

“The documentary,” remarks Claire Elliman, DC’20, secretary for the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project, “definitely moves you. But on this campus, we are constantly stimulated and it is very easy for these feelings to just stay at anger.” When I ask Nadel what he hopes people will do after watching 120 Years, he has three answers. First, he hopes that everyone will cherish their time with their loved ones. Second, he would like everyone, especially white students like him, to hold authorities accountable so that they do their jobs truthfully and expeditiously. Lastly, Nadel hopes that all viewers of 120 Years spend just fifteen minutes reading the website for the Innocence Project. “99% of wrongfully convicted prisoners in the United States,” he adds, “have stories we’ll never hear, and innocence we will never know.” Nadel, together with Annamaneni, Cox, and Lewis himself, has told the story of one man. An estimated 249,999 stories remain.


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