Mar. 14, 2011
Use education to fight injustice, exonerated former prisoner tells law students
When Fernando Bermudez was charged with the shooting death of 16-year-old Raymond Blount in 1991, he knew the truth was on his side. Evidence against him was clearly tainted. He had an alibi. And the real shooter had been identified.
"I went to trial believing it would be simple arithmetic. Patience plus truth would equal freedom," Bermudez said.
But it didn't. And the result was devastating: 18 years in prison -- nearly half his life -- for a crime he did not commit.
Bermudez told his story March 8 in Myron Taylor Hall, in a talk sponsored by the Cornell Law School Innocence Clinic and the Prison Seminar Series.
The story begins when Blount was shot following an altercation outside a Manhattan nightclub. Police acted illegally by allowing the teenage witnesses to confer over a photo lineup. Meanwhile, the witnesses were "simply mistaken, confused, threatened, pressured or coerced," Bermudez said. Once they picked Bermudez as the shooter, police disregarded other evidence to the contrary.
Bermudez was convicted -- and sentenced to 23 years to life.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I was having an out of body experience as the verdict was read."
From Rikers Island, he was sent to the Elmira Correctional Facility. "I would from then on be told where to go, who to see, what to eat and what prison I would be transferred to next," he said.
The prison, six hours away from his family, was loud, violent, dehumanizing. "I started thinking, I can't do this time. I can't do it," he said. For the first time in his life, he considered suicide.
He survived by turning his energy toward the long series of appeals over 18 years that would eventually lead to his exoneration and release.
A series of lawyers took his case pro bono, arguing before the State Supreme Court, the State Appellate Court, U.S. Federal Court and back to the State Supreme Court. The witnesses who had identified him as the shooter recanted and apologized. "Unfortunately, that was not enough," he said.
In prison, meanwhile, Bermudez focused on work and education, earning an associate's degree, reading every book he could find, and making a little extra money for his family by selling his paintings and working in the prison kitchen.
In 2007 a series of news stories aired about his case, and he was offered a plea bargain: freedom, if he pled guilty to manslaughter. He turned it down, knowing he was risking many more years in prison.
Two years after he filed his 11th appeal, N.Y. State Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo dismissed the charges against him.
"I find no credible evidence connects Fernando Bermudez to the homicide of Mr. Blount," Cataldo wrote. "All of the people's trial evidence has been discredited ... Fernando Bermudez has demonstrated he is innocent of this crime."
It was one of the first cases in which a prisoner was declared innocent without exonerating DNA evidence. And the victory was a testament to the persistence and dedication of his legal team, Bermudez said.
He called on current law students to follow that example.
"The dedication that my lawyers undertook in making the difference in my life, in the lives of my family and children, can be transferred to you," he said. "This is the best of it all, when you choose to sacrifice yourself as human beings and transform the life of another. My best to you all."