Saturday, April 27, 2013

Shane and Me

I was born in White Plains, NY in 1960. My mother and father divorced when I was four years old, and until my mother remarried in 1969 our household consisted of my mother, my younger brother Marc and me. “Religious” exposure came to me in the form of the Unitarian Church of White Plains, where I attended Sunday school. Some years later I developed a spiritual curiosity which eventually led to my working as a church musician, and even attending an interfaith seminary program in NYC.  Having studied music since age 7, this spiritual curiosity seemed always to include an appreciation for the mysterious connection between music and spirit. Add to this being raised by a very independent-minded and politically “liberal” mother, it should not seem surprising to me that I would become involved in a case of criminal injustice, but it is surprising, considering how unexpectedly this all came about, and how disparate my world was compared to Shane Watson’s.   

I came into contact with Shane in 2003 through a radio program on WBAI-FM in NYC. The show was hosted by the late Al Lewis (“Grandpa” from the ‘60’s sitcom “The Munsters”) who was an outspoken advocate of many issues, most notably prison reform. After sending in a postcard with my name and address to the program, it was just a couple of months later when I received the very first letter from Shane. At that time, Shane had been incarcerated for eleven years. His writing was respectful and clear, and he expressed gratitude for my taking the time to contact him. Our first exchanges covered most of the essentials: our backgrounds, family members, interests, etc. Before long I felt the need to dig deeper and find out why Shane was in prison. I felt uncomfortable asking this question, but, after all, it was an obvious next step. The response I received was a four-page letter outlining his case, trial and conviction.
At first the facts seemed ordinary to me: Shane had been convicted of second-degree murder. In 1991, an individual named Mark Johnson was shot to death on a late October evening on a street in the Bronx. Mr. Johnson had been convicted of murder in 1983 and was on parole at the time of his shooting. Apparently, someone had provided Shane’s name to the police as being the shooter, by means of an anonymous hotline set up by the Bronx police department. Shane was tried and convicted in 1993, and sentenced to 25 years to life. To me, this saga sounded like something from a TV show or a movie. Things like this did not happen often in White Plains.

In the letter Shane wrote to me describing the case, he went on to declare his innocence, describing in detail the flaws in the case, the contradictions made by so-called “eyewitnesses”, and also disclosing his whereabouts at the time of the shooting. Initially I read through all of this with a sense of detachment. It all seemed too much for me to take in, and besides, what did it matter? Shane had been convicted and sentenced, after all. I let it go and decided to simply continue our correspondence, since Shane claimed that hearing from people on the outside lifted his spirits.

During the days that followed my reading Shane’s letter, I found myself to be distracted. At the time (2004) I was working as an organist/pianist for the Presbyterian Church of Pleasantville, NY, teaching piano, and also performing as a classical pianist occasionally. Something about Shane’s letter seemed to be calling to me. I re-read the letter carefully, this time trying to involve myself in the facts Shane outlined about his case, trying to make sense of it. After reading the letter again and again, I realized that it just did not sit right. I picked up a pen and paper and wrote to Shane, asking of he could possibly send me copies of the trial transcripts.
One week later a box arrived on my doorstep at my rented house in Milford, CT. Inside I found photocopies of the trial transcripts, pre-trial hearings, police reports, lineup photos, police notes, arrest reports, and other information. There were probably five hundred pages or more. I started reading. The more I read, the clearer it became to me that in fact Shane’s case should have never even gone to trial. This was obvious to me, even given my complete lack of any legal knowledge or training. I decided to share the information with experts. To make a long story short, the results of my sharing this information led to my creating The Opus 30 Mission. The “mission” was simply to get Shane out of prison. The original “members’ of what Shane now refers to as “the team” is a handful of supporters from the Presbyterian Church in Pleasantville. Through sharing the story about Shane, the “team” now includes many people from all over the country, as well as from my present church, Monroe Congregational (UCC) in Monroe, CT.
After nine years of hundreds of letters, many visits to Green Haven Correctional Facility, and contact with Shane’s wife Paula and Shane’s mother Joan, I now consider Shane Watson to be a brother. I never intended or could have predicted my being so involved in the troubling dilemma of a “stranger” from the Bronx who has spent the better part of his life (Shane is 47) behind prison bars. I do not feel that I am “fighting for social justice”. Lofty phrases like that make me cringe. Shane is not a cause, or a human representation of some kind of “statement”. He is just a person. Shane’s case will never become a sensational “high-profile” feature on TV, because it is absent of celebrity, sex and money, and not “compelling” according to entertainment standards. I disagree. The sad fact that Shane’s case is so “ordinary” makes it….riveting. In God’s eyes we are all miracles and unique vessels of spirit. Like our investigator Doug Walters, our attorney Robert Boyle, and all the members of The Opus 30 Mission, I am just a part of Shane’s story, which hopefully, will conclude with his walking out of Green Haven into a long-overdue next chapter.

Will Duchon

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