James Pagan speaks into a microphone.
James Pagan, also known as Epic the Poet, performs at Wednesday's protest. Laura Glesby/New Haven Independent

During Darcus Henry​’s 13 and a half years in prison, he would spend every possible minute at the law library with a group of nearly 15 other men who all maintained their innocence. Together, they’d meet for the permitted hour every Tuesday and Thursday to read about court precedents, research their own cases, and exchange stories of pressured witnesses and suppressed evidence.

Six of those law library regulars — including Henry himself — have since won exonerations and left prison with cleared records.

On Wednesday, nearly a decade after he walked free, Henry stood in the wind outside the state courthouse at 235 Church St. to help lead a protest against wrongful convictions like his.

All the while, he thought of Maurice Blackwell, Cory Turner, and the others still researching in the prison library, hoping to prove their innocence.

Henry joined a group of other Black men in New Haven who have asserted and in many cases proven that their convictions were unjust outside the downtown courthouse on Wednesday. 

“I’m here to lend my voice,” he said. He also lent his story — of being one of four suspects charged in a December 1996 murder at the Farnam Courts housing complex, of being sentenced to 100 years in prison, and of being freed alongside his three friends in 2013.

Together with family members of people still incarcerated for crimes they say they never committed, Henry and other attendees on Wednesday amassed a group of 20 people. 

The group gathered to call for accountability for the cops and prosecutors who falsified or suppressed evidence, and for state prosecutors to reexamine cases that have not yet been overturned. 

A spokesperson for the state judicial branch declined to comment for this article. A representative from the state’s attorney’s office did not return a request for comment by the publication time of this article.

Darcus Henry holds a sign that reads "Prosecutors from this office purposely set me up! I was sentenced to 100 years."
Darcus Henry, who was sentenced, then exonerated.

The protest was organized by Gaylord Salters, who spent 20 years in prison for a shooting he maintains he never committed. Salters got out of prison this summer due to a shortened sentence after the sole witness against him recanted. 

Local civil rights attorney Alex Taubes, who has represented many clients with similar stories, also organized the rally. 

Several protestors on Wednesday called on the state to investigate James Clark, the former prosecutor who tried Salters, Henry, Salters’ since-exonerated brother, and several others who have alleged corruption on the part of cops and prosecutors.

“We are desperately hoping that the Conviction Integrity Unit will hold up to its promise,” Salters told reporters, referring to a unit within the state’s Division of Criminal Justice tasked with reviewing claims of wrongful convictions. Salters’ own case is currently under review by the unit, following an affidavit from the state’s only witness in Salters’ case that police and prosecutors coerced his testimony.

“You have a duty to do the right thing,” said Henry. ​“I believe [that prosecutors] know who’s innocent and who’s not.”

After an hour of informal interactions with one another and reporters, the group gathered for a collective chant.

“No justice?” Salters called out.

“No peace!” the others replied.

“No consequences?”

“No sleep!”

Many of the protestors knew each other not only as fellow New Haveners impacted by an era of corrupt policing that led to wrongful convictions, but as close childhood friends and family who all happened to be targeted together. Henry and Salters, for instance, have been best friends since they were 9 years old. Salters’ brother, Johnny Johnson, was convicted and later exonerated of colluding with Henry. 

“A lot of us grew up together,” said Heshema Taylor, one of Henry’s closest friends who served as his alibi witness during the original trial. After testifying to his friend’s innocence in court, Taylor was convicted of perjury and served three years in prison. 

Now, even though Henry has been exonerated, the perjury conviction remains on Taylor’s record. Taylor wants a cleared slate. He said that when supervisors and colleagues have found out about the conviction, he senses that they started treating him differently. 

As Salters and Taylor advocate for their records to be cleared, another of Taylor’s friends — J’Veil Outing — is waiting for freedom behind bars. His family is calling for his conviction of a 2005 murder to be overturned, partly since the two witnesses whose testimony led to his conviction have recanted. Every day, J’Veil — who’s now 37 years old, having spent nearly two decades in jail — receives a call from his mother, Angelina Outing. 

“Free my son,” Angelina said on Wednesday. ​“He is innocent.”

J’Veil’s sister, Lyntina Cook, was a preteen when her brother was convicted. She’s maintained a strong connection with her ​“goofy” older brother, she said: ​“I tell him about all of my problems.” 

Ernest Pagan, the president of the local carpenters union and a member of the City Plan Commission, spoke of his experience spending 13 months in jail in 2007 and facing trial for a murder he didn’t commit. A jury ultimately acquitted Pagan.

During that time, Pagan’s brother James — A.K.A. Epic the Poet — said he feared for his own life, worrying that the murder victim’s family would seek revenge.

“There’s not too many young Black men that hasn’t had an experience” like that, James said. ​“A lot of us are dealing with so much trauma that the trauma feels normal.”

“I still get letters every day from people” asserting their innocence, Ernest said — which is part of why he showed up on Wednesday to advocate for permanent change.

He argued that while there are policies in place across the state to prevent wrongful convictions, there’s still a culture among cops and prosecutors of protecting their own. ​“I want to see the culture change,” he said.

Over the course of an hour on Wednesday, protestors told and retold their own stories — without forgetting the people who couldn’t be there to do the same.

They uttered the names of men who lost years of their lives to unjust prison time alongside men who are still insisting on their innocence to judges and prosecutors: Scott LewisMaleek JonesBobby JohnsonStefan MorantDaryl ValentineMarquis Jackson, and on and on.

This story was originally published Nov. 16, 2022 by the New Haven Independent.