Finally, Clarence Moses-EL gets some measure of closure.
Finally, Colorado’s justice system ends 32 years of elected officials seeing to it that whatever could go wrong with his attempts to prove his innocence in a 1987 rape case did go wrong — and then some.
And finally, someone in a position of power calls his wrongful conviction what it is: “A travesty of justice.”
As you may have read, Phil Weiser, Colorado’s new attorney general, has nixed an effort by his predecessor, Cynthia Coffman, to block Moses-EL from being compensated under a state law meant to provide some modicum of reparation for wrongful conviction victims (yes, victims). The state will pay the $1.9 million owed to Moses-EL – $70,000 for each of the 28 years it kept him needlessly behind bars.
Mo, as he likes to be called, is a proud man, too proud to admit that he has struggled to support himself since a judge vacated his rape conviction and freed him from prison in December 2015. His lawyers have advised him not to speak publicly about his case while his federal civil rights lawsuit against Denver and the state is pending.
So the 63-year-old exoneree I’ve come to know through the many years of this cynical ordeal texted me Thursday with a short note and flourish of upbeat emojis.
“ Let me say that when the dust clears I will chat with my friend and homie. ✌🏾💯😊😊😊😊😊😊✌🏾”
I met Mo at the Kit Carson Correctional Facility in 2006 when my colleague Miles Moffeit and I were investigating the loss and destruction of DNA evidence for The Denver Post. “Homie” is hardly how he received me.
That first interview was hands down my toughest in 30 years of reporting. Mo spoke of himself in the third person. He told his story with stiff legal language. And he wouldn’t hold my gaze for more than a few seconds. Understandably, the man who’d already served 18 years of a 48-year sentence for another man’s crime didn’t trust me or anyone else to tell his story.
After that first interview flailed for about two hours, I asked the photographer I was working with to turn on the video camera he’d brought so Mo could speak to Mitch Morrissey, then Denver’s district attorney, as if he were there right in front of him.
Mo looked as if I’d given him a gift, then faced the lens and spoke.
“I’m an innocent man,” he said. “I’m gonna be like a mosquito, a gnat. I’m gonna bug you. I’m gonna bug society. I’m going to bug the courts. I’m gonna bug the governor. I’m gonna bug the president if I have to.
“What does it take for an innocent man to get out?”
In August 1987, Mo was riding his bike in Denver’s High Points neighborhood with his 3-year-old, Anthony, on his handlebars. Police drove up and ordered him to stop. They handcuffed and arrested him for the rape and assault days earlier of a neighbor in his housing project, then hauled him away while Anthony stood there and watched.
The Baltimore native had a rap sheet for burglary and a chip on his shoulder from growing up poor and black and having to quit school early to support his mom and siblings. The Denver jury convicted him in 1988 solely on one piece of evidence: The victim’s claim a day and a half after her attack that his identity as her assailant had come to her in a dream.
Police and prosecutors under then-District Attorney Norm Early apparently found her dream credible enough that they didn’t bother questioning any of the three men – “LC, Earl or Darnell” – the victim had named to police immediately after her assault.
“A dream,” Mo told me in our second interview. “I’m in here because of a dream.”
Watching the OJ Simpson trial in prison in 1995, Mo was intrigued by defense attorney Barry Scheck’s use of then-groundbreaking technology that tested evidence for DNA fingerprints. He wrote Scheck asking him to help him persuade a judge to have the evidence from his case analyzed for genetic markers. DNA, Mo figured, was the only way to prove the innocence he had professed since the day of his arrest seven years earlier.
Scheck agreed to take Mo’s case pro bono provided that he raise $1,000 to analyze the evidence from his case for genetic coding. Mo scraped together the money, mostly from fellow prisoners, and then won two court orders to preserve the evidence for testing.
Denver Police packed the rape kit, two bed sheets and an outfit worn by the victim into a box, which they marked in capital letters “DO NOT DESTROY.” A few weeks later, before the box could be sent to the DNA lab in California, someone in the evidence room pulled it from a shelf and tossed it in a dumpster.
A city investigation found that a lack of communication within the police department and between police and the DA’s office caused the SNAFU. Nobody was reprimanded.
Mo remembers the moment he learned that the city thrown out the evidence. He recalls the realization that, without DNA samples to help prove his innocence, he was likely to spend decades more behind bars. It felt, he has told me, like having been “given cement shoes and thrown in the water just to sink.”
DNA evidence isn’t the only aspect of Mo’s case that Denver officials trashed.
After police destroyed the box of evidence, the DA’s office – then led by Bill Ritter – persuaded a judge to quash Mo’s efforts for a new trial.
Years later, Ritter’s successor Mitch Morrissey refused to investigate an alternate suspect named LC Jackson, the first man the victim identified as her assailant immediately after her attack. Morrissey knew full well that Jackson was a violent rapist because his office had used DNA evidence to nail him for the 1993 cold case rapes of a mother and her 9-year-old daughter in an attack that bore striking similarities to the one for which Mo was doing time. Insisting, erroneously, that the victim in Mo’s case hadn’t named Jackson in her outcry, Morrissey refused even to have him questioned.
I interviewed Morrissey at that time and was struck by the fact that the DA who was building a national reputation rallying for the preservation of DNA evidence to crack cold cases was downplaying with a “too bad, shit happens” indifference the destruction of DNA evidence. Even if the samples from Mo’s case had been preserved and tested, Morrissey told me in an interview, “they probably wouldn’t have proved anything one way or another.”
Morrissey responded to my coverage of Mo’s case by trying to discredit it. He dug in his heels even harder in 2013 after Jackson wrote a letter to Mo, saying “It’s time to bring to light what was done in the darkness” and confessing to being the assailant. Morrissey fought to keep Jackson from testifying in Mo’s appeal.
Despite those efforts, the judge heard Jackson’s confession and other new evidence, then vacated Mo’s conviction and set him free in 2015. Morrissey insisted on retrying him in 2016. The prosecution’s lineup of witnesses – including the victim – contradicted each other and even themselves on the witnesses stand. A jury found Mo not guilty.
Morrissey’s successor, Beth McCann, downplayed that verdict by refusing to sign off on Mo’s compensation petition. After having said on the campaign trail that she wouldn’t have put Mo through a new trial, McCann did an about-face once in office, arguing that a judge lifting his conviction and a jury acquitting him “don’t mean he’s actually innocent.” McCann sat by passively as former Attorney General Cynthia Coffman blocked Mo’s claim for state compensation.
Publicly, McCann, Coffman and Morrissey each have framed their doubts about Mo’s innocence around what they say was confidence in the credibility of the victim, who is now protesting Mo’s pending compensation. None bothered answering questions about the vast inconsistencies between what the victim told police after her 1987 assault and what she said when testifying at Mo’s appellate hearing.
I believe their doubts stems from something more cynical: An inclination to whitewash gross missteps by prosecutors and police, a systematic attempt to try to save face, and a more recent push to protect the city and state from Mo’s federal civil rights lawsuit.
Anyone who’s read the voluminous court file in this case, or sat through Mo’s appeals hearings and retrial could see there were plenty of points over three decades when someone should have stood up, broke the silence and called bull.
Weiser did the right thing in his announcement this week, and in some ways, has brought a happy ending to Mo’s uniquely unhappy story.
But I am crying as I write this because following The People v. Clarence Moses-EL for nearly 14 years has been the most disillusioning experience of my reporting career. Time and again, I have watched Denver prosecutors strain to justify the unjustifiable in our names, no matter what lines it crosses, which truths it trashes or whose life it may destroy in the process. I am constantly rattled by how long they got away with it, and unnerved by the question of what else they’ve gotten away with in cases against other people who aren’t nearly as unsinkable.