On a summer night in 1987, a Denver woman was out drinking with three men, and after saying goodnight and returning home, was severely beaten and raped in her apartment. Her facial bones were broken and she lost sight in one eye.
The victim first told police it was too dark to identify her attacker, then said it was one of the three men. A day and a half later, she said it came to her in a dream that the assailant was her neighbor, Clarence Moses-El.
Based on that, Moses-El, who said he was innocent, was convicted of rape and assault. But last week, a Denver judge overturned the convictions and on Tuesday afternoon, after serving 28 years of his 48-year prison sentence, Moses-El was released on bond.
“This is the moment of my life, right here,” Moses-El, now 60, said outside a Denver jail, laughing and hugging his grandchildren for the first time. “I just want to get home to my family, my grandchildren. It’s wonderful, I waited a long time for this.”
The ruling on Monday by Denver district judge Kandace Gerdes unlocked a case that the Denver district attorney would rather have kept closed. Ever since the cuffs were slapped on Moses-El in 1987, an embittered campaign against the Denver police and later the district attorney’s office has been waged on his behalf, one that often accused the justice system of evidence tampering, media manipulation, and blatant ignorance of the facts.
A rape kit of DNA evidence was collected at the time, but never tested. A blood sample from the scene was, though, and it did not match Moses-El’s, according to his attorney.
“The victim came to court and identified him in court based on what had come to her in her dream,” Eric Klein, one of Moses-El’s attorneys, said on Tuesday. “There was no other evidence against him, no other witnessing.”
The district attorney’s office is standing by the case against Moses-El. “Those who now argue that he was convicted solely on a dream are either unaware of the complete facts or disregard them,” Mitch Morrissey, who has been district attorney since 2004, said in a statement last week. “She testified during the trial and was cross-examined at length. The jury believed her testimony that she was attacked and raped by Clarence Moses-El.”
Maintaining his innocence, Moses-El spent his time behind bars trying to clear his name. In the mid-90s, he began working with Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, a national organization that works to clear the falsely accused, and a court order was issued to test the rape kit.
After the order, the untested rape kit remained in a police storage locker for four more weeks. Then, despite being labeled “Do Not Destroy”, the evidence was thrown in the trash.
Later, an investigation cleared the Denver police department of any bad faith actions in the discarding of the evidence, and the department admitted to the Denver Post that “communications problems” led to its loss.
“After that, I kind of lost hope,” Moses-El recalled on Tuesday, adding: “something told me I had to keep going. My spirituality, that’s what really kept me going. And my innocence.”
‘What’s done in the dark’ comes to light.
A new glimmer of hope arrived in 2013 when Moses-El received a letter from LC Jackson, one of the three men who was drinking with the rape victim that night in 1987. “Let’s start by bringing what was done in the dark into the light,” the letter read. “I have a lot on my heart.”
Jackson, who was in prison for raping a mother and daughter in 1992 less than two miles from the 1987 crime, later confessed that he was the one who beat the victim, and that they had had sex that night, but claimed that it was consensual.
Despite the confession, the district attorney’s office declined to retry the case.
In his statement last week, Morrissey said that investigators for the DA had found Jackson’s confession “implausible”, and that he had recanted his confession in 2015, saying that he had made it up because he didn’t believe he could be charged and wanted to help Moses-El. Klein’s lawyer contested that the confession had been recanted.
Larry Hales, who has been working on the campaign to free Moses-El since 2013, said it’s been difficult gaining support in the media or from non-profits because of the nature of the crime. “People worry about others’ opinions about them supporting somebody who has been convicted of rape,” he says. “A few organizers even said to me, ‘We have funders, so we’ll help in any way but it can’t be public.’ And these are people who work on cases of wrongful imprisonment, mass incarceration and political prisoners.”
Susan Greene, editor of The Colorado Independent who has reported extensively on Moses-El, said recent police brutality cases in Denver and criticism of Morrissey over those cases has overshadowed Moses-El’s bids for a retrial in the press.
“Just trying to tell people the story, it requires so much time. Everything that could go wrong during every decade of it did go wrong,” she said. “Mitch Morrissey has done everything in his power to defend his office, and try to cover up the fact that they and the Denver Police made not just one egregious mistake, but about twenty.”
“She has an interesting way of reporting the facts,” said Lynn Kimbrough, communications director for the DA, declining to comment on Greene’s accusations.
The confession from Jackson spurred Moses-El’s supporters and his legal team to file a new motion for a retrial, eventually leading to Judge Gerdes’s ruling to vacate his convictions and grant him a new trial. Moses-El’s bond was set at $50,000, and he was able to return home to his family in time to celebrate the New Year.
At Tuesday’s bond hearing, the DA’s office set a date for a new trial for May 2016, but Kimbrough said “the decision hasn’t been made yet”, as to whether the DA would pursue a new trial and that the date was only set for logistical reasons.
When asked whether having this case opened up was harmful to the reputation of the DA’s office, Kimbrough said: “No, it’s a difference of legal opinion, which occur all the time.”
As to whether Moses-El plans to file a lawsuit, Klein said on Wednesday, “Right now, we are just focusing on the criminal case.”
Just after being released on Tuesday, Moses-El didn’t want to comment on any legal issues.
Huddled close with his family and his supporters, the man who had not known freedom since Michael Jackson’s Bad topped the charts, said: “I’m just looking forward to getting home and sitting in a real chair. Something that’s comfortable. That’s what I’m ready to do right now.”