Kevin Smith sat in the corner of a church in Bushwick on Saturday, tears running down his face.
Smith, 54, a deacon at Reaching Across the World Ministries, was recounting his appeal to a parole board three years ago. Back then, he was fighting to get out of prison while his mother, who suffered from a heart condition, was still alive. He’d been convicted on a murder charge in 1987, but had always asserted his innocence.
Still, on the advice of a friend, Smith felt compelled to change his strategy. He accepted responsibility for the crime in an effort to sway the parole board.
It worked. Smith was released in December 2012 and was finally able to spend time with his mother, who lived for another six months.
“In prison, your voice is so low,” Smith said at a potluck dinner held at the church. “Nobody wants to reach out to you and try to assist you.”
Absolutely Innocent, the newly-formed nonprofit that hosted the dinner, is attempting to alter that dynamic. Shabaka Shakur, who co-founded the group two months ago, said the organization will be more oriented toward community and family than the larger, better-established wrongful conviction groups such as the Innocence Project.
“We want to empower the families to do the work for the wrongfully convicted,” Shakur, 50, said. “If they knew what to do, they’d be able to help themselves.”
Thursday will be Shakur’s first Thanksgiving out of prison in nearly three decades. At the potluck, he spoke about his experience with the criminal justice system and Absolutely Innocent’s mission to connect families. About 20 people came to show support for freeing the wrongfully convicted.
The event was held just 10 blocks away from the scene of the double homicide that prosecutors pinned on Shakur in 1988. Retired detective Louis Scarcella, whose corrupt conviction practices were exposed by The New York Times, said that Shakur confessed to the crime, though no evidence supports that claim and Shakur has always denied it.
Shakur was convicted largely based on the eyewitness testimony of one of the victim’s brothers. He was released in June, two years after a judge ordered a new trial in his case. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office declined to retry him.
Shakur spent years in the Auburn Correctional Facility near the Finger Lakes in upstate New York working on his defense. He attended classes taught by Cornell University law students and worked in the library in order to have access to legal books.
By the time Shakur lobbied the well-known defense attorney Ron Kuby to take his case, he had already written his own motion for a new trial and had hired a private investigator to track down a witness who could support his alibi.
The legwork proved key to convincing Kuby of his innocence, but Shakur said several innocent men in prison don’t have the resources to compile a convincing plea for help.
He wants to change that. Absolutely Innocent is working to set up a “peer-to-peer” support network to educate families of the wrongfully convicted on the appeal process. The group will also take on some of the case preparation work needed to match cases with prospective lawyers for a modest $50 membership fee.
Zulay Velazquez, whose husband is appealing his conviction for the murder of an ex-New York Police Department officer in 1998, co-founded the organization with Shakur after meeting him at a hearing for Johnny Hincapie, another man who is fighting to overturn what he says was a wrongful conviction.
Hincapie, who was convicted in 1990 of murdering Utah tourist Brian Watkins on a subway platform, was released from prison on bail last month after a judge ordered a new trial in his case.
Aside from the legal work, Absolutely Innocent aims to gather families together so they can “feel the unity” of their situation, Velazquez said. That was something she felt she needed after attending rallies to raise awareness about the wrongfully convicted left her still feeling depressed.
“After the marches, there’s nothing else,” Velazquez said.
By Thanksgiving next year, Shakur said he hopes that the group will have a permanent space where families can gather for social and educational events.
For now, the group usually meets at Kuby’s law office, where Shakur works as a paralegal. Shakur said he would prefer a space in a neighborhood like Bushwick, where Saturday’s event was held, as opposed to lower Manhattan, where he works.
“We want something closer to the ground,” Shakur said, “where people can come right off the streets and feel comfortable, not intimidated.”