Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A decade lost and a decade gained

A St. Paul man was freed from a 20-year burglary sentence -- after serving nearly 10 years of it -- because another inmate confessed to the 1998 crime.

October 02, 2007

By Rochelle Olson, Star Tribune

A St. Paul man who once held a spot on the Minneapolis Police Department's "Top 40" list of repeat offenders walked out of the Hennepin County jail a free man Tuesday after being released from the last half of a 20-year burglary sentence.

Sherman Townsend's first-degree burglary conviction will stand, but he was released from his sentence after the testimony of a key witness in his trial was called into question. He will avoid serving at least another four years of the sentence and six years on parole.

He went free within an hour of Hennepin County District Judge Deborah Hedlund's ruling. "You are not a danger to the public. It is not incompatible with the welfare of society to have you out there. All right. Go," Hedlund told Townsend.

When he emerged from the jail with his Innocence Project lawyers into a rainy drizzle, Townsend was wiping away tears.

"I don't think they took my life away. I think I go from this day forward," he said.

He was convicted of first-degree burglary in 1998 based on the testimony of David Jones.

Jones told police that a heavyset black man the size of former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith had run into him near the burglary site at 2 a.m. In May of this year, Jones bumped into Townsend in the chow line at Moose Lake Correctional Facility and Jones confessed to the burglary.

Townsend notified the Innocence Project, a national legal clinic that attempts to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, setting in motion the events that led to his freedom Tuesday.

Convicted by a 'habitual liar'

Prosecutors agreed to the release in large part because of two problems with Jones. For one, he had changed his testimony. But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman also said that at the time of the trial, prosecutors didn't know about Jones' criminal convictions in Illinois. Those convictions would have been used by the defense lawyers at trial to impeach his testimony.

No one should be convicted on the testimony of a "habitual liar," Freeman said. "It's one of those interesting wrinkles. We're not dealing with a group of church choir members," Freeman said.

At the time of the trial, prosecutors offered Townsend a plea bargain of four years in prison -- so he has served more time than if he had taken the deal. But Townsend said he didn't regret it because he said he couldn't admit to a crime he didn't commit.

He said he wouldn't characterize his 10 years in prison as wasted time because he kept up his job skills and learned to play gospel on the piano.

Townsend, a printer by trade who will start looking for a job, had a criminal record dating to 1971, earning him the spot on the "Top 40" list, reserved for career criminals who specialized in property crimes and had at least three felony convictions.

Speaking to reporters after the release, Freeman held a map of Townsend's prior crimes and convictions in the years leading up to his sentence. He noted that the crimes all were in Dinkytown.

He was a model prisoner

Townsend's Innocence Project lawyers, Julie Jonas and Michael Davis, noted that Townsend was a model prisoner. Even though the court action didn't exonerate him, they insisted that he is innocent. "Our primary job was to show Sherman's innocence. Frankly, I think we have done that," Davis said.

With his sister Mary Collins by his side, Townsend said he wants to get to know his grandchildren and reconnect with his five children. Collins said Townsend can stay with her in St. Paul and the family is pulling together money to pay for her brother to take a trip to visit their mom in California.

The experience of being released from prison was overwhelming. Townsend said he barely knew how to spend the day, although he said he is eager for some extra crispy chicken from KFC. "I'm just going to walk for a bit, but get in before dark," Townsend said.

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