No place for the truth
He migrated to the United States of America as a happy, athletic child, who enjoyed running, climbing fruit trees, playing games with his friends outside, and having great fun as a growing boy in Guyana. In his new borough community, he would learn how to box, skate and play hockey.
But instead of the immigrant’s dream of steady success, Mark Denny ended locked up in a dystopian nightmare of adult prisons just before his 17th birthday, for serious crimes including rape, he did not commit. Stubbornly insisting that he was innocent and therefore refusing to admit guilt or express remorse, Mr Denny stayed behind bars - condemned by an impossible system for repeating the truth - for the next 30 numbing years.
Stigmatised and targeted as a convicted Black sex offender by hostile inmates and left literally fighting for his life, he was forced to move from one hardened jail to the next, even as the real perpetrators, ironically, gained parole in plea deals or escaped justice when the traumatised victim refused to again testify.
“In prison, sex offence is one of the worst positions you can be in. The only way to stay afloat of that was fighting,” he recalled in an interview with New York’s Pix II. “I would get moved to facility to facility: Attica, Clinton, Comstock, Shawunga, Greenhaven, Downstate, Upstate…”
It was only on December 20, 2017, exactly three decades after the crimes were carried out, that the
Innocence Project finally won his release as its 199th wrongfully convicted prisoner. A non-profit legal organisation that works to clear such individuals mainly through DNA testing and criminal justice reform, the Project, founded in 1992 is run by the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, in New York City (NYC).
Studies estimate that 1-5 percent of all prisoners in the USA are innocent, but with nearly 2.3 million (M) people incarcerated, this means a conservative number of 20 000-100 000 convicts. The National Registry of Exonerations launched by the Universities of California Irvine and Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University, has documented 2,900 exonerations since 1989, with years in prison lost totalling well over 25 000. The Innocence Project, alone, has secured some 230 victories, including for at least 192 persons freed on the basis of DNA.
The Innocence Project’s clients have collectively spent 3,555 years wrongfully incarcerated. Among them was the Guyanese-born teenager, who “at 16 going on 17” received 19-57 years for a brutal gang rape-robbery committed early on the morning of December 20, 1987. Two men stormed into a Burger King at Fort Hamilton Parkway, as the last pair of employees was closing, and stole US$3,000 before repeatedly raping the 18-year-old blind-folded young woman at gunpoint. Another suspect joined them.
Three weeks later, Mr Denny, with no prior convictions was arrested taking a ride in a car with the three suspects, his cousin Raphael James, and James’ friends Eddie Viera and Mark Smith. A gun was found in the vehicle and they were all pulled in.
“The whole thing was scary” and “mind-blowing.” In
an interview with Brooklyn’s BRIC TV (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCqzlesgRYs) he admitted it was such a shock to be “snatched out of one world” and thrown into a totally different place as prison. His teenaged mind behaved “like it was on fire” because no one in authority believed him, not “the cops, the judge, the DA (the District Attorney).” Mr Denny noted, “I don’t even think my lawyer believed (me).” He remembered the sign, “In God We Trust,” while incredulous that “I am going through all of this…”
“I was helpless because I was placed in a predicament and I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know where to go” and “how to begin to get up out of it other than to keep protesting my innocence but for whatever reason there was no place for the truth at that…moment and for the whole 30 years…”
With the support of his mother, his grandmother and extended family, he clung to the belief his name would be cleared but as “a child the reality of the situation didn’t hit me,” until a long time later, as years stretched into decades. At the trial, the female victim pointed him out. “I felt so bad at that moment,” and “I felt so hurt because of what happened to her, but to hear her actually say that…I felt so completely alone.”
Despite a solid alibi and trial testimony from his grandmother that he was with her at his mother’s house in Queens on the entire night of the rapes and robbery, Mr Denny was convicted and sentenced in 1989. A year earlier, detectives showed the young woman a photo array and she did not select Mr Denny’s image, but they placed him in a live line-up the next day and he was picked out by the female victim, but not by the male victim. He was the only person to appear in both.
As his appeals repeatedly failed, Mr Denny started to lose hope. “My condition was so bad it actually forced me into being religious,” and “actually believing in God.” He explained, “I kind of lost faith along the way, because it was so long and I was praying and nothing (was) happening.” Although, “in the beginning I was very optimistic but that light just kept being put out, and put out, and put out and put out - and it came to a point where I started contemplating suicide.”
To cope with the constant stress and anxiety of prison, he resumed running. “When I was convicted, it was very traumatic, and like a whirlwind that sucked me down,” he told Runner’s World. “I never thought I’d be able to come back up. But running helped, because it lifted me above my imprisonment.”
He ran alone, almost daily, the equivalent of many miles, loving the breeze and his breath. Running brought mental clarity that led him to contact the Innocence Project, in the hope that science, through DNA analysis would categorically prove his innocence. Mr Denny was stunned to learn that the forensic evidence in his case was missing. Still, Mark refused to give up and kept reading and writing extensively. In 2009, a senior attorney from the Innocence Project, Nina Morrison accepted his case and “everything took off.” The Innocence Project presented proof of mistaken witness identification, plus a confession from one of the perpetrators, Mr James. There was no physical evidence connecting Mr Denny to the crime scene. In its examination of the case, the Kings County District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Review Unit also obtained statements from Mr Smith and Mr Viera, confirming that only the three men committed the crimes, and that Mr Denny was not involved or present. The Cardozo Center helped Mr Denny from being deported to Guyana, on the basis of his vacated conviction and dismissal of charges on the ground of actual innocence.
Securing his freedom was “the happiest moment ever.” Mark acknowledged in the BRIC TV interview in 2019 that while adjusting to independent life has not been easy, he was doing well. “But I am still damaged though, because the more I adjust and the more I move forward in life and the more I see things, the more I realise how much I don’t know and how far back I am and…how dysfunctional I am in certain areas. It just makes me mindful exactly of what was done to me psychologically – I haven’t gotten the full impression of what I suffered yet, I am still waking up to that reality day by day.”
In between tears, his voice choking up, Mr Denny remembered the pain of losing his grieving grandmother while imprisoned, admitting “she suffered I think, more than I did.” He termed his experiences “a wake up call” for everyone from parents to the justice system, to be impartial and open-minded. “The truth is gonna always remain the truth and if you have honest people that are really searching, they will find that truth.”
Mr Denny filed a notice of claim against the City of New York, in 2019 seeking as much as US$50M for wrongful conviction. In 2020, he agreed to US$9.75M, pre-litigation. This year, he settled his claim for compensation in the New York Court of Claims, receiving an award of US$4.75M, the National Registry of Exonerations reported in June.
ID cheers the courage of Mark Denny. When one of his lawyers from the Innocence Project, Sara Doody asked if he would join her in running the NYC Half Marathon, in March, 2019, he started training. He finished in about 2 hours 43 minutes. “Running is like having a relationship with the wind. When I run, I get to see and feel that life is not just in my body. It’s in the wind,” he marvelled to the Innocence Project.