This is a reflection of my very first meeting with Shane in May of 2004.
TWO GATHERED IN HIS NAME
Green Haven Correctional Facility
May 21, 2004
The first letter I received from Shane Watson came to me about a week before Christmas in 2003. Shane responded to a letter I wrote to him a couple of weeks earlier. I came to get Shane’s contact information from a radio program on WBAI-FM. The program is called “Al Lewis Live”, featuring Al Lewis himself, who most people know as “Grandpa” from the 1960’s TV sitcom “The Munsters”. Now in his 90’s, Al Lewis continues to be an advocate for progressive causes. The program features Al and his wife Karen, generally speaking out against injustices of all kinds, but focused on political activity in the New York City region. A favorite target of Al’s was former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who since 9/11 has been canonized by the mainstream media as an “outstanding leader”, etc. Before his ascension to sainthood, Giuliani generally encouraged thug-like police tactics, racial profiling and other similar mobster-like activities as Mayor. “Grandpa” Al would lash out at “that piece of crap Giuliani” in those days, along with his secondary favorite target, “Governor George Potatohead Pataki.” Grandpa also continues to advocate for those oppressed by the racist criminal justice system, and as part of this genre offered listeners the opportunity to become penpals of sorts for inmates wishing to correspond to people on the outside. So I sent in a letter offering to correspond with someone in prison, and received a postcard with Shane Watson’s name and address.
Shane’s first letter to me was dated December 17, 2003. “It was a surprise and a blessing to hear from someone taking out of their time to write to someone in my predicament. T is always encouraging as well.” He wrote that he was the father of three boys and a girl. One of his sons, Jason was in a juvenile detention center in the Bronx, because “he is taking my situation the hardest.” Then Shane hinted at his circumstances briefly: “I have been incarcerated for 10 long years now for a crime I didn’t commit, so it’s extra harder to deal with especially during these times (holidays) but to me all time is depressing.”
As months passed Shane and I continued our correspondence. I finally asked about his case, and as usual, received a reply fairly promptly. Shane outlined the basics of the case to me clearly and without a sense of anger or malice. I think it was this particular letter, dated January 28, 2004, which had the strongest impact on me. Even within a four-page letter I understood the basic details of Shane’s case enough to clearly sense that something was wrong. I had some reservations, naturally. Was this the entire story? What details had he omitted? I needed more substantial information. Intuitively I felt that Shane was telling the truth, but I needed to determine this for myself. I wrote and asked for any documentation he had.
Within a week I received a medium-sized package at my home, which contained practically the entire transcript of Shane’s 1993 trial in the Bronx. There were roughly 1,000 pages of transcripts. Many of the pages were wrinkled, and felt as if they had been left out in the rain. The text was very legible, however. Reading through the transcripts took several attempts on my part. I wanted to be clear about the significance of every statement, every ruling by the judge (the husband of “Judge Judy”, Gerald Sheindlin). I highlighted key responses, mostly those offered through cross-examination by Shane’s defense lawyer Paul Markstein. Combined with what Shane had told me about the case, the picture began to become clearer for me. I needed more, though, and decided to contact Paul Markstein.
Markstein has an office in Blauvelt, NY. I still am not sure where that is, but managed to locate his telephone number and address. I decided to first send a letter to him, and looking back now this was probably the first practical step I have taken towards trying to find a way to have Shane’s case re-examined. After a week or two, I called Mr. Markstein, as I had not received any response from my letter.
Our conversation began on a strained note. Mr. Markstein seemed terse, and confused as to my intentions. I did not relay to him that I was also confused, not really sure why I had written, except to initiate some kind of action on Shane’s behalf. After a few moments, however, Markstein was on a roll. He passionately described his frustration at the time of the trial. He felt that the judge precluded him from asking some very pertinent questions, mainly having to do with the key witness for the prosecution, Christine Holloway. “What can be done now?” I asked. “I am sure that by now Shane has exhausted all of his state appeals. At this point I imagine that his only chance would be in a Federal Appeals court. However, a Federal Appeals court is very reluctant to overturn a jury verdict.” Markstein also thought that what was necessary, in spite of the long odds against any hope of an appeal, was for an investigator to question the main witness (Holloway). “I am certain that if this trial had been managed differently Shane would have been acquitted”, he said. Before ending our conversation, Mr. Markstein asked me to “wish him well” and offered to speak with any attorney who might become involved in future appeal hearings. Although there was little to become hopeful about, I felt strangely encouraged by having spoken with Paul Markstein. After ten years, his recollection of the case was razor sharp, and it was obvious to me that he felt passionately that Shane had been wrongfully convicted.
I continued to write to Shane, as well as other people and organizations that might take interest in his case. My girlfriend Lori and I went to see a play in New Haven, which opened a new path. The play, “The Exonerated” is a dramatic reading of actual trial testimony and personal letters from people on Death Row, who eventually were cleared and released from prison. In some cases, these people had spent decades in state prison. I sent an e-mail to the producer of the play, explaining Shane’s situation, and asking for some guidance. He replied that I should look into “Centurion Ministries”, an organization that actively works on cases of people wrongfully convicted. I wrote to Shane about this. “I have been writing to Centurion Ministries for years” he replied. I inferred that nothing had been accomplished, although I did not know any more than that.
In May, I felt it was time to visit Shane in person, and I wrote to him asking about the visiting schedule. I decided to make the drive on May 21, a Friday.
Green Haven Correctional Facility is located in Duchess County, New York, in a town called Stormville. It is roughly 60 miles north of New York City, set in a very rural area marked by sprawling farms. Driving from Milford, CT I took Route 84 to the Taconic Parkway. From the Taconic I got onto Route 216, a two-lane road that winds through a very rural area. After passing several farms and small houses set back from the road, I suddenly saw the wooden sign at the entrance to the prison. I turned into the driveway, and immediately saw the immense prison complex. It is simply a rectangular gray wall, probably two stories high, stretching out for 400 yards or so. At either end of the wall stand guard towers, jutting up from the ground, the top of which being glass enclosed. I could see the silhouettes of the guards inside the tower closest to where I parked. My first mistake was parking in a restricted area. The parking spaces were numbered, which would indicate that they were assigned spaces, however there were no signs anywhere. The other cars parked there were of varied styles; I did not see any official looking vehicles, so I pulled into space number 68. It was about 10 AM on Friday morning, and as I understood it, visiting hours lasted until 2:00. I had brought a notebook and a pen in order to take some notes of my meeting with Shane. I also brought a camera, although my gut feeling was that I would not be allowed to bring it inside. This instinct was confirmed rather quickly. After exiting my car, I walked to an area in front of the main entrance. There, on a grassy area beneath a flagpole was a memorial headstone and flowers. In 1981, a corrections officer who worked at Green Haven was murdered while on duty. Her name was Donna Payant. I remember watching a Court TV program about her murder, and the implication that she was killed by another CO rather than by an inmate. I took out my digital camera and started to take a photograph, when a guard from the tower behind me yelled down to me.
“Excuse me, sir! What are you doing?”
I turned around and looked up.
“Taking a picture” I answered.
“First of all”, the guard yelled, “no pictures are allowed. Second of all you can’t park your car over there. What are you here for?”
I closed the lens of the camera.
“I’m here to visit.”
“You have to move your car. And no pictures”.
I walked back to my car, got in and put the camera down in my brief case. As I pulled the car out of the parking spot, a station wagon with flashing lights approached my car, stopping directly in front of me. I rolled the window down. There were two guards in the car. The driver got out, and approached me.
“What are you doing here?”
“Visiting” I answered.
The guard looked at me suspiciously.
“Did you take any photos?”
“Where are you from?”
He paused, then told me to park in the visitor’s lot. I drove about 100 yards away and found a space in front of the right hand side of the huge prison wall.
I walked into the entrance area. It looked somewhat like an airport terminal. I had brought some clothes for Shane; he asked for sweatpants with pockets, T-shirts with pockets, and cookies. I handed the bag to the officer behind the receiving desk. He asked for my name and a picture ID. He then looked through the bag.
“These colors are not permitted”, he said.
I had brought Shane a pair of black, navy and gray sweatpants. These same colors were not permitted to be given to the prisoners. I also had brought a red T-shirt, as well as a black, gray, and navy T-shirt. So the only item Shane would be allowed to receive was the one red T-shirt. He also was able to receive the cookies.
From the receiving desk I then approached a check-in point. The female guard at this checkpoint was on the telephone. I was the only person waiting, and she was talking to someone, obviously a friend, about how she did not feel well. I waited, and began to get annoyed with her. I gazed to the left, and through a large window saw a church steeple in the distance. The woman finally acknowledged me, but did not hang up the phone.
“Who are you here to see?”, she asked. I told her.
Here I again needed to show ID, and walk through a metal detector. The woman at this checkpoint told me that I could not bring in my notebook. Also, the pen I had brought was a solid blue ballpoint pen. Only clear pens were permitted.
“Can I just bring in a few sheets of paper?” asked.
“No. The only item you are allowed to bring is a Bible”.
I asked whether someone in the visiting area might have some paper. She called inside, and spoke to someone who said that they had some paper that I could use.
“And a pen?” I asked.
“They have pens and pencils; no problem.”
I walked through the metal detector after taking off my shoes. From here I gathered my wallet and keys, and proceeded to a metal door. There another guard stamped my left hand with an invisible infrared stamp of some kind. The door opened, and another set of doors appeared behind the solid metal door. This door looked like the door of a prison cell, as it was a barred door. I approached this door, and another guard behind a glass window motioned to me to hold my left hand underneath a purple-glowing light, which I did. The stamp was illuminated, and the barred door opened.
I walked straight ahead into an open courtyard. Directly in front of me was a building, which I entered. There were two guards seated behind an old wooden desk. I showed them the visitor’s pass given to me by the woman at the checkpoint. They motioned to another door to the right, through which I walked down a long corridor. At the end there was another door, with a large red buzzer on the left-hand side near the handle. A sign instructed me to press the button, and wait to be buzzed in. I pressed the button, and in a few seconds a buzzing sound emanated from the large door. I turned the handle and walked into another corridor, with a glass wall. Here was the “New” visiting room. I immediately felt the cold air from the air-conditioner. Inside this room were probably 15-20 cafeteria-like tables, and lots of plastic chairs scattered about. I walked down the corridor, to another checkpoint with a tall metal desk. A male guard, probably in his mid-thirties took my pass, and motioned me into the visiting area. It was a large room, and again I thought of a college cafeteria. There were several soda machines against either wall. At the back of the room, a large window looked out into an enclosed courtyard, which contained six or seven large picnic tables. There were inmates and visitors sitting outside, some walking around in the courtyard. I found a small table with two chairs in the middle of the visiting room, and sat down. I thought about going outside, because it was cold inside. I was very nervous.
As I sat at the table I looked around, wondering if Shane Watson was already here looking for me. The inmates all wore both light green shirts and khaki green pants, or a prison jumpsuit, also green, with their names and ID numbers on the shirts. I had a vague idea of what Shane looked like. Among the police reports and trial transcripts he had sent to me were copies of the photo arrays shown to three witnesses. Shane’s photo was in the array. The copies were of poor quality, and it was difficult to make out any distinctive facial features. Also, the photo had been taken ten years ago.
I waited at the table and took in the atmosphere. There were many young children in the room, along with women, and some older family members and relatives. Every person was either black, or Hispanic, with the exception of an Italian family at the next table. For the most part, conversations seemed to be fairly relaxed. At a table to my left, roughly 20 feet away, an older man sat with a young man, who looked like he was in his twenties. I sensed that their conversation was forced, and uncomfortable. The younger man glanced away often, and his right foot shook nervously. The older man seemed to be searching for something to talk about. The concept of “visitation” seemed to create discomfort for these two people. The stress of the controlled environment was intensified by this regulated forced intimacy. The older man started to laugh and pointed to a tear in his jacket sleeve. The younger man smiled politely and glanced around again.
I waited longer, convinced that Shane was not here yet. I noticed a doorway near the guard’s table, which would open periodically. An inmate emerged, and seemed to recognize someone at the table behind me. He walked by me, glancing at me quickly and then embraced a young woman. I felt a sudden impulse to flee, to get out of here. I started to feel inadequate and angry that I had come here at all. What’s the point of this? I thought.
About ten minutes later, Shane walked in. He smiled shyly as he approached the table.
“Shane?” I asked, standing up.
“Yeah”, he answered.
“It’s good to see you,” I said.
Shane shook my hand and patted me on the shoulder. We sat down. Shane was about my height, maybe a little taller. He had a trimmed beard and moustache. He wore a green jumpsuit. I told him about the problem with the camera.
“No, no”, he said. "You can’t bring a camera in here”.
While we talked, he often would look around the room. I felt that he listened intently to me regardless.
“I have a lot of questions for you. I want to know more about you and the case so that I can speak intelligently about everything”, I said.
Over the next two and half-hours, I asked Shane about his family, especially his children. We talked about the case, and he filled in some blanks for me regarding the sequence of events. I asked about his routine in prison. Shane answered my questions very deliberately and carefully. At times he seemed to have trouble expressing himself; he seemed to want very much to be understood. Some aspects of the trial involved subtleties, which were difficult to describe to someone who was not there. Several times he would have trouble finishing an explanation, and if I threw out a word or phrase to try and help, he would respond excitedly, saying “Yeah, yeah yeah!” glad that the idea got through to me.
Shane told me he grew up in the Bronx with his parents and six siblings. He has three brothers: Scott, Floyd, and Clayton. He also has three sisters: Antoinette, Yvonne, and Patricia. I asked him about his relationship with his father.
“We never did much together, like going to ball games or things like that. Sometimes we would all go to the movies, but my father and me….”
He stopped and seemed to be thinking, or remembering.
“Were you and your father close?” I asked
Shane drew in a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.
“No, not too close. But I don’t hold it against him. He did the best he could. He got to drinking too much, and that caused a lot of problems.”
“Do you hear from your parents now?”
“They moved south in 1998, to Virginia. My mother calls sometimes, and she came to visit about a month ago. She brought my oldest son, Shane Jr., Jason, and Shana. Shane Jr. is bigger than I am now.”
He showed me a photo taken just a few weeks earlier. In the photo, Shane stood alongside a tall, slender boy. It was his oldest son. In another picture taken in 1998, the same boy stood beside his father, but was probably a foot shorter.
“All this time in here, I worry about my children. My son Jason especially. He is in a detention center now, because he got messed up with some people doing drugs and stuff in the Bronx. But Shane seems to be doing OK now. He lives with his grandmother on 125th Street, and as far as I know he’s doing pretty good. I just want him to know that I love him, and that I am sorry that I’m not around for him right now.”
“Did you tell him that?” I asked.
“Yeah, I told him, and I write to him, but I don’t know if I should. I wonder if he wants to hear from me, so I think I should wait and let him reach out to me.”
“Tell him anyway” I said. “I feel the same way with my son.”
Shane smiled a little. “Big Matt” he said.
“Yeah, big Matt. Sometimes I don’t know if he wants to hear from me either.”
We talked a lot about the case. Shane had a clear folder with him containing a few letters and some police reports from his case. One letter was from a private investigator in the Bronx, whom Shane’s family wanted to hire to contact the prosecution witnesses regarding their testimony. Shane’s mother had already taken out a $30,000 homeowner’s loan in order to post bail after Shane’s arrest. There was not enough money to hire the investigator. The letter was written in May 2001. Like all of the other documents, Shane carefully preserved it. He told me about an online magazine, Justice Denied, and how a reporter from the magazine had received his letters proclaiming his innocence. I took the name of the reporter, as well as the private investigator.
I asked Shane if he knew Mark Johnson, the man shot to death on October 9, 1991.
“I knew him from around the neighborhood, but that’s about it.” he said
I asked Shane about Christine Holloway, and the James’ sisters. These were the three witnesses that the prosecution relied on the most for a conviction.
What struck me about his responses was the absence of any anger or resentment. Shane was frustrated and sad, for the most part. I asked if he would seek any punishment for these witnesses, should there ever be a successful appeal.
“No, no, no…people make mistakes. I made mistakes, but we all have to go on and live our lives. I just want to get on with my life. I have been here almost eleven years now. I don’t hold nothing against them, but they should just step up and do what’s right.”
He looked off into the distance.
I asked Shane about his routine. He told me that he woke up at 4:30 each morning. He would do some exercises, and then say some prayers, or read the Bible. He listened to a radio program called “Morning Glory” on KISS-FM. It was a gospel music program. At 6:30 he would eat, and at 7:20 he would go to his job. Shane called his job “industry”. He worked as a furniture assembler, for a company called Corcraft. Shane would attach the upholstery to chairs, as well as assemble furniture.
“How much do you get paid?” I asked.
“45 cents an hour. But to start I got 16 cents an hour.”
Shane resides in D Block. He told me that it was an “honor block”. The inmates in D Block had some extra privileges, due to good behavior. He could stay up a little later, for one. He also was allowed a shower daily, whereas most inmates only were allowed to shower every other day.
It was around 1:00 when I told Shane that I had to start heading back. He stood up quickly, abruptly. We walked to the guard’s desk area. Shane stopped, and asked me about the sweatpants and T-shirts. I told him about my bringing the wrong colors. He laughed. He had written to me to bring Green, Burgundy or Brown. I misinterpreted this as just a suggestion.
“How do you want to handle that?” he asked. I thought this was a funny question.
I told him I would exchange the sweats for the right colors.
“Well, God willing, if you can come back sometime, maybe you can bring them.”
“I’ll send them to you. And I’ll come back too.”
Shane turned and headed toward the door behind the guard’s desk. I had to show the guard my pass, and then Shane was allowed to proceed back to his cell.
“Thank you. God bless you,” he said. And he walked away.
I headed down the corridor back towards the main building. I had to wait at a locked door until the guard there received a call that Shane was back in his cellblock. After about ten minutes the call came. The door was opened and I walked out of the visiting area, into the main building, and out the door. The wall loomed large as I made my way back to my car.
Passing through Stormville on the way back to the highway I thought back on the past few hours. I regretted not offering to say a prayer with Shane before leaving.
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