“We had no way of knowing what ‘right back’ would really mean.”
The family of Clarence Moses-EL – whose wrongful conviction was lifted last week – talks about 28 years without him.
Anthony Burke was 3, riding on the handlebars of his dad’s bike. He remembers the wind and the speed, and the warmth of that August day. He also remembers the bike suddenly stopping and someone grabbing him and his dad yelling, “Wait, that’s my son” — and how he cried as he watched police taking his father away.
“My mom, she always kept it in my head that he’s innocent and would be right back,” Burke says.
Burke is now 32, with six kids of his own – three boys and three girls who’ve never met their grandfather, Clarence Moses-EL, because he hasn’t wanted them to see him behind bars. They, like their dad, have grown up fully expecting Moses-EL to some day come home.
Some day may be upon them now that a Denver district judge vacated his convictions last week and set a bond hearing for tomorrow morning. Having endured years of stops and starts in an innocence case impeded at every step by District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, his family is eager to welcome Moses-EL home after the terrible ride that has lasted 28 years, four months and counting.
“We’re ready — as ready as we ever were — to have him back,” says Stephanie Burke, Anthony’s mom and Moses-EL’s wife whose faith in her husband hasn’t wavered.
“I was young, and it was so long ago, and so much has happened,” adds Anthony Burke. “We had no way of knowing what right back would really mean.”
A jury convicted Moses-EL of the brutal 1987 rape and assault of his neighbor in their north Denver housing project based mainly on evidence that his identity as her attacker came to her in a dream. He was sentenced to 48 years.
For the first five years, Burke and his mom would visit Moses-EL in prison. Burke remembers the anxiety of the long drives to Cañon City and Limon, wondering if his father really wanted to see them. He remembers his dad putting him at ease by playing dominos, Uno or checkers.
“We’d play for five or six hours in the visiting room. It’s like we were having a party,” he says. “Then, everybody had to put the games away and it would sink in that we needed to say goodbye. I never wanted those visits to end.”
The visits and phone calls became less frequent as Burke grew older.
At age 7, he burned down a shed after playing with matches. At age 8, he started robbing people at gunpoint. At 10, he was dealing crack. And by 12, he was sent for the first time to a detention center.
“It wasn’t until then that it registered what it meant to be locked up against your will,” he says. “It wasn’t until then I realized he wanted to come back, but couldn’t.”
Burke cycled in and out of youth centers, jails and prisons for so long that, like his dad, he has spent nearly half his life behind bars. He would hear about his father from fellow inmates with whom Moses-EL had done time in other state prisons and had counseled to quit their gangs, sober up and fly right. Being Moses-EL’s son came with a certain cache – a status in prison he likens “to knowing Muhammad Ali.”
Though Burke took pride in how many young men’s lives his dad has changed, he also felt resentful.
“I always knew how strong he was and how different things would have been if he’d been there for me. I’d be, like, in a totally different arena. That hurt. It still does.”
For years, Burke tuned out what his father tried to tell him in phone calls and letters. He ignored his father’s advice to be a leader, not a follower, by joining the Crips in east Denver. He disregarded the list of books his dad urged him to read. And he paid no heed to his father’s grammatical advice and all he was trying to teach him about powers of language and learning and faith.
“I stopped listening. I felt like it was a lecture. I felt like it was too late for me to hear what he wanted me to know,” Burke told The Independent last December in what has been a nine-year series of interviews and conversations.
“My dad’s still in for something he didn’t do. If I could sit in there and take his place, I would. I’d take his place for him any time so he could have a taste of the freedom he deserves,” Burke added, teary.
A lot has changed for Burke over the past year. He has a steady job in a sugar factory and is doing his best to make up for lost time with his own kids — some of whom his mom is helping to raise despite her health problems. He also has sat in court watching another man, L.C. Jackson – the first man named in the victim’s outcry – confess to the attack for which Moses-EL has served nearly three decades of prison time.
Burke says he needs the man he calls “Pops” now more than ever.
“At this point, I’d give anything if I could get the recordings of our phone conversations or re-read all over again the letters he wrote me. I’d give anything to soak up everything he was trying to tell me. I love the way my dad thinks. He’s a smart man. And he’s a strong man, having gone through what he’s gone through without coming through it all angry and bitter.
“He’s as strong as you get, my dad. He’s unbreakable.”
Stephanie Burke tells The Independent that she had no choice but to keep hoping for Moses-EL’s freedom.
“All I could say all those years is ‘Don’t worry about it, baby. He ain’t done nothing wrong, so I know he’ll be back’,” she says. “That’s the one thing the system couldn’t break in our family – us knowing the truth that Clarence didn’t do nothing.
“They couldn’t break us of that truth.”
For years, one of Anthony Burke’s youngest kids, Autumn, now 7, has asked about her grandfather, wondering what they’d do if he goes free and what his house would be like.
“I’ve told her he’s gonna want to play all kinds of games and we’re gonna make him comfortable and take him wherever he wants to go and see as much beauty in Colorado as we can,” Anthony Burke says.
About the home his dad hopes for some day, Burke says it’s too early to know the location or size or start-date of his rental agreement, but that he’s certain of this:
“It’s gonna have kids and books all around. It’s gonna be warm and smell good and have that grandpa’s-home kind of feeling. And it’ll be a place – I’m sure of it – that we’re never gonna want to leave.”
Photo credit: Kyle Harris
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