VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
Dewey Bozella's life has only just begun. He has a 20-year plan. He wants to be an actor. And a director. Action films. Drama series. All of it. And he wants to open a boxing gym to help kids near the troubled cities where he lives, so that they might avoid wasting half their life in jail like he did. But plans are complicated. They don't always turn out the way they should. Things can go astray, like they did once for Dewey.
At 23, he went to prison and didn't re-emerge until he was 50, finally exonerated and vindicated. Twenty-six and a half years, gone — eight more than Rubin "Hurricane" Carter did, by the way. He walks with a limp but retains the vigor and energy of a young man.
Dewey is 57 now. His head is shaved, and his mouth is framed by a pencil mustache and a trimmed soul patch. His eyes are deep-sunken, but piercing. His voice is leaden, except for when he lets out the occasional squeaky giggle. His teeth are immaculate — maybe done. He's still built like a fighter. His t-shirt has an image of praying hands wrapped in a rosary.
It's been four years since Dewey was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs. Almost as long since he, at age 52 and a with bad hip and a bum shoulder, won a unanimous decision against 30-year-old Larry Hopkins in his only professional boxing bout, fulfilling a lifelong dream of proving he was more than just the light heavyweight prison champion at the infamous Sing Sing Correctional Facility. It's been three and a half years since ESPN aired a 30 for 30 film about him.
In a month, it'll be six years since he was finally set free, cleared of the murder he didn't commit. It's been six years of adjusting and reintegrating into society.
"I can't make it back up," he said. "It's lost. All I can try to do is be happy. And move forward. I want to do more. I want to be recognized as more than a guy who got up out of prison. There's more to Dewey than just that."
Dewey spent 26 and a half years at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Photo via WikiCommons
On June 14, 1977, 92-year-old Emma Crapser was attacked in her home in Poughkeepsie, New York. Five feet of cloth was stuffed down her throat and tied around her mouth until she suffocated and died. An 18-year-old Dewey, along with two others, were arrested and charged with murder.
Dewey was known as a troublemaker, but nobody could have imagined him capable of such a horrifying crime.
When he was nine, he had watched his father beat his pregnant mother to death and then run from their Brooklyn home, never to return, sending him and his nine siblings into the maw of foster care. He saw a brother stabbed to death in a fight; another shot through the head and killed. Dewey was no angel himself. He stole and robbed. He beat up people sometimes. But he wasn't a murderer.
Initially he was not indicted on the murder charges due to a lack of evidence. But six years later, in 1983, he was arrested for the same crime. Two convicted felons pinned the murder on him in exchange for their own early release. One of the inmates' brothers backed him up to help secure his deal. That was all the prosecution had, testimony given in exchange for freedom. Dewey had done two and a half years for attempted robbery by then, but that still didn't make him a murderer. A jury found him guilty anyway. Twenty to life.
Dewey had begun turning his life around after his initial stint in jail, giving up the petty crime. But back in prison, he was bitter and acted out. "I was walking around, everything that was negative I was involved in, and that's the truth," he says. "Life didn't mean shit to me. I didn't care if I lived or died. I didn't give a shit. I didn't exist. I was just a walking number: 84AO172."
But he soon decided to surround himself with better people and make the most of his lot. He got his GED. "I went and benefited from it. I bettered myself," Dewey says. "I said to myself, 'What are you going to offer society? Because society don't owe me shit. So what are you going to do about it? Get your shit together. You're walking around mad, angry and frustrated. That's not going to get you anywhere.'"
Dewey had gone to Floyd Patterson's boxing camp upstate in his early 20s. In prison, he began boxing again. He fought at Sing Sing's so-called Death House, where the ring stood in the same spot where an electric chair had once stood. While his case worked its way through the courts, he kept winning in the ring. His only loss came against New York City Golden Gloves champion Lou Del Valle, who was brought in for a special fight. Dewey lost after he got a cut on his face, but it was close. He'd held his own against the first man who would ever knock down Roy Jones Jr.
Dewey got a re-trial in 1990. His original conviction was overturned. The prosecution knew its case was weak. This time around, the jury was informed that the original witnesses had been offered a deal, and that the brother had since recanted. So Dewey was offered a deal: 7-14 years for manslaughter, rather than murder, with credit for the six and a half years he had already served. All he had to do was enter a guilty plea and he could go before the parole board in six short months.
Dewey said no.
He was offered another deal, which allowed him to go home on time served. All he had to do was enter a guilty plea.
Dewey said no.
He was 31 then and felt confident he'd be acquitted anyway. He wasn't going to admit to something he didn't do. But a jury inexplicably found him guilty again and his original 20-to-life sentence was reinstated.
In 2003, after his 20-year-term was up, Dewey went to the parole board. If only he'd repent for his crime, he could go home. He was married by then, having met his wife Trena, another inmate's sister, in the visitors' room. He'd earned a bachelor's in counseling and a master's in theology. He had earned all 52 certificates the prison system offered.
Dewey refused. And he did so again in 2005, 2007 and 2009, when given the same choice.
The Innocence Project had taken up his case after he'd written them every week for four years. But they found out evidence in the case had been thrown out in a routine cleanup, so there was no DNA to test. New York law firm WilmerHale took Dewey's fairly hopeless cause on pro bono. A pair of young, inexperienced lawyers tracked down the lead detective from the investigation, who was 18 years retired by then. He had kept just one file from his career: Dewey's. It had never sat well with him and he figured somebody would come knocking someday. The file contained evidence and interviews that contradicted the testimony given by the convicts. None of Dewey's lawyers had ever seen this stuff, nor, needless to say, had the jury. They even discovered that somebody else had confessed to the murder on tape.
Dewey went back to court. He heard that his conviction had been overturned a second time and that the prosecution wouldn't be pursuing charges for a third trial. He sat there, stunned, shedding a single tear before hugging his wife.
"That's what God wanted; it ain't what I wanted," Dewey says now of his time in jail. "That's what He wanted for me. I gotta look at it like that. It could have been another way. I could have been dead. Who knows."
"It took me six months to realize I was free," Dewey says.
Once out of jail, he'd often go to a mall and order Chinese food from the food court. And in those moments, he'd find himself a seat in the back, like he always did. A prison habit. Fewer angles to be attacked from. "And I realized, something just got over me, I said to myself, 'Yo, man. What are you doing? You're free. You're absolutely free. You don't gotta do this shit no more.' I stood up and went over to the middle of the room and sat down. And I bust out laughing. People must have thought I was crazy."
Imagine being buried in a time capsule and crawling back out 26 years later. That's the challenge Dewey faced. "The world was different," he says. "The people were different. I had to learn how to deal with society again, dealing with people, dealing with crowds, dealing with kids. I was computer illiterate. There were a lot of things I needed to learn. They no longer did interviews to get a job; you had to do it over a computer. I had to learn how to drive at the age of 50 years old. The buses were strange. I had to learn how to do everything all over again."
He volunteered at a boxing gym for a while, working with young kids from a bad area of Newburgh. Then he got a job helping ex-offenders get to their probation officers and find work. Talking to them was his therapy. And then, out of nowhere, he was nominated for the ESPY.
After winning the award, Golden Boy Promotions got him a fight on the undercard of a Bernard Hopkins bout. On the second attempt, Oscar de la Hoya's team got him in sufficient shape to pass the California licensing exam. He is believed to be the oldest boxer cleared for a pro fight in the state's history.
In the last few years, Dewey has been reading, and going to the mall and to the movies. He gets a little bored sometimes. He's finishing up his autobiography, Standing Tall, which should come out next year. There'll be a book tour. He still volunteers at a few gyms. Sometimes he trains young boxers. He put on a boxing program for kids in Newburgh last summer, to keep them busy and focused. Maybe it was more to keep himself busy and focused, perhaps.
In January, he settled with Dutchess County for $7.5 million. "It didn't change anything," he says. "I'm still Dewey. I'm good. I'm comfortable. I appreciate it – thank you, Lord. Now I'm thinking of who I'm giving my money to when I die."
He's got a new fight on his hands. Taxes. Perversely, the system that gave him $7.5 million for his wrongful conviction and incarceration now wants to take back half the money it gave him as compensation for its mistake.
We talk at a diner a few miles from Dewey's house. He dumps so much sugar into his coffee it almost turns to sludge — "That's what keeps me hyped." He takes occasional bites from a slice of cheesecake. He showed up in a Dodge Charger. But a $28,000 car is the only luxury he seems to have afforded himself, if you can even call it that.
He doesn't have to worry about money anymore. He's in the middle of his 20-year plan. The first five were for reintegrating; the next five to find meaningful work; five more to do that work; and then another five to prepare for retirement.
Somehow, Dewey isn't mad at the system. "Hell no. Nah. I'm over it. Walking around mad, that ain't gonna get me anywhere. Not gonna help one goddarned bit. I realized that the easier I let it go, the more easy it is for me to adjust my life and move on and be happy. The more I hold onto the bitterness, anger, hate and frustration, the worse I become. I've already been there. I've already done that. I did that at the beginning of my time. Why should I hold onto it? I'm not going to let you have the last part of me. You can't have that part. It belongs to me."
But are you happy, Dewey?
"Happy? No. I'm in between. I'm finding happiness. I've got my next 10 years of my plan, and once I get that straightened out, I can actually start finding that love, peace, happiness and joy in my life. I'm at the crossroads. When my turn is going to come, it's going to come. I'm ready."