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Coming Home Convicted

Stefon Morant served 21 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Now he’s home—but still fighting to clear his name.

Stefon Morant wears his heart on his sleeve. When I ask him to tell me about the people that matter most to him, he points at the tattoos covering his arms. “They’re here.”

His left bicep loudly announces “Kimberly Forever,” after his wife, Kimberly Morant. Her name is enveloped by a fallen cross and a bed of red roses, a nod to their Christian faith. Stefon’s right bicep bares his oldest tattoo: “MOM,” it declares in faded cursive. The design, a black heart, surrounded by a wreath of leaves, is simple and reminds him of a simpler time. “I don’t know where I would be without my mom,” he tells me. His children’s names are tattooed on his chest. He has seven—Twyla, Stefon, Julien, Christian, Mia, Jaala, and Prince.

His brothers Frank and Lee are his best friends, and his right forearm is covered by a portrait of Julian Morant, his youngest brother. In the tattoo, Julian wears a bow tie and tuxedo, and Stefon points at his arm, beaming. The tattoo is fading— Stefon has had it for one year now—but I can make out a subtle facial rash on Julian’s tattooed portrait and drooping eyes, signs of Lupus. Julian died from Lupus in 2014, just months before Stefon was released from prison after serving twenty-one years for a crime he did not commit.

On June 17, 2015, Stefon Morant returned home from prison after accepting a deal from prosecutors which slashed his seventy-year sentence to twenty- five years. While the deal allowed him to come home immediately, it also failed to exonerate him of his charges and limited his avenues for redress. An FBI investigation revealed that Morant and his co-defendant were wrongfully convicted, and the New Haven State’s Attorney acknowledged in court that Morant’s conviction rested on false testimony from the State’s key witness. Yet Morant is still a registered felon.

Morant is far from alone. High-profile wrongful conviction cases across the United States have involved deals enabling wrongfully convicted individuals to return home without being exonerated. Although no studies have tracked the prevalence of such deals, in September of 2017, ProPublica investigated ten cases in the last nineteen years in which defendants across the country who had significant evidence pointing to their innocence chose to plead guilty in order to reduce their sentences. For these individuals, re-entering society with a criminal record comes with financial, social, and emotional barriers.

Four years after his homecoming, Morant continues to face challenges related to his felony conviction. Still, he stands by his choice to accept the deal.

“I missed my family. I needed to come home,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in a cage.”

*

In 1994, Detective Vincent Raucci Jr., a corrupt detective on the payroll of a New Haven drug kingpin, was investigating the 1990 murder of former New Haven alderman Ricardo Turner and his partner. Morant’s good friend, Scott Lewis, owed Raucci $10,000 in a cocaine-related debt, and when Lewis could not pay, Raucci began collecting evidence to frame Lewis for the murder. According to a 1997 FBI investigation of Lewis and Morant’s convictions, Raucci coerced vulnerable witnesses to make his case. His star witness was Ovil Ruiz, a teenager with a history of schizophrenia and a criminal record.

When Raucci attempted to pressure Morant into testifying against Lewis, he refused. In return, the detective sought revenge: he framed Morant for driving Lewis to the murder scene, a felony under Connecticut law. After a three-month trial, the jury found Morant and Lewis guilty of two counts of felony murder and two counts of murder, respectively.

A few days later, Morant returned to court to receive his sentence.
“Mr. Morant, what do you have to say?” asked the presiding judge, according to court transcripts. “I don’t understand why am I being convicted of a crime I didn’t commit…I didn’t commit a crime. I never committed a crime. I never hurt nobody in my life. I’m innocent your Honor. I leave it with that.”

To the judge, Morant’s words rang hollow.

“If you sat on this jury and you listened to this case,” the judge stated to Morant’s family and a packed courtroom, “you would have found that man guilty of these crimes. He was convicted because he is guilty. He committed these crimes.” With that, Morant was sentenced to seventy years in prison.

For the next twenty-one years, Stefon Morant maintained his innocence from behind bars. He remained hopeful: in 2014, Lewis won his freedom after a Connecticut state judge agreed that he had been unconstitutionally incarcerated. Led by Yale Law School professor Brett Dignam, Lewis’ legal team of nearly fifty Yale and Columbia law students had presented new evidence, including an FBI investigation that showed Detective Raucci’s involvement with the drug trade and his willingness to threaten key witnesses. Over the course of six years, the law students threw themselves into Lewis’ case, driving all across the tristate area to assemble Lewis’ record and, ultimately, win his freedom.

But Morant didn’t have fifty law students backing him. While Lewis’s team spent years assembling records, working with private investigators, and conducting interviews with people who had known Detective Raucci, Morant was represented by one solo practitioner who barely communicated with him, filed no pleadings, and devoted fewer than twenty hours to working with Morant over the course of two years.

On June 9, 2015, a corrections officer walked by and slipped Morant a pass for the visitation room. He stepped out of the cell doors and walked through two sets of metal detectors into the large visitation room. Morant’s attorney was waiting to speak with him.

“The state has a deal for you,” he remembers his attorney saying. “You could be out next week, if you want.” As a result of Lewis’s victory, state prosecutors had approached Morant’s attorney with a rare deal. They were willing to reduce Morant’s seventy-year sentence to the lowest possible sentence allowed in Connecticut for a felony: twenty-five years, minus four years because of Morant’s good behavior. And he had already served twenty-one years.

If Morant took the deal, he could be home immediately. But there was a catch. If he took this deal and returned home, which attorneys call a “time served” deal, Morant would not be exonerated. He would not receive compensation from the state of Connecticut, be issued an apology from his city, or have a clean record. The world could still view him as a felon.

If Morant refused the deal, he would have to argue his case in court, just as Lewis had. But the odds weren’t in his favor. Although Lewis had won his case, Morant was not guaranteed the same verdict. Morant’s attorney advised him not to risk court proceedings, citing the years of litigation ahead. He told Morant that all of that legal work could take him a year or more. Coupled with the justice system’s slow-moving bureaucracy, even if Morant were to win his case on appeal, he would risk being incarcerated for two or more additional years.

Morant, who had missed watching his children grow up and had learned that his little brother and his father had passed away by word of mouth, wanted to go home. He wanted to hold Kim, his childhood sweetheart who visited him every week, and his sons in his arms without being scolded by corrections officers. He wanted to do mundane things, like go fishing on the weekend, cook steaks in his backyard, or wear a belt. In twenty-one years of incarceration, Stefon was never once allowed to wear a belt. “I didn’t feel like a man, without a belt,” he later told me. “Imagine what that’s like.” On June 17, 2015, Stefon Morant took the deal. He would no longer be able to file a civil suit for compensation or clear his name.

But he was ready to come home.

“I had no understanding” of the legal consequences, he said. “I just wanted out of that cage.”

The very same day, Kim rushed from New Haven to Cheshire, Connecticut, to pick him up. Just as she arrived, Morant realized he had no clothes other than his orange jumpsuit, so he asked a few corrections officers to let him borrow some jeans and a t-shirt. The borrowed clothes were too big for Morant. Without a belt, he pulled up his pants as best he could, ran out the doors of Cheshire, and jumped into Kim’s Jeep wrangler.

“Start driving!” he remembers yelling, and Kim hit the gas.

“You didn’t even hug me,” he remembers Kim saying.

“I’ll hug you when we get the hell out of here. It’s not real until then.”

“So, did you end up hugging her?” I ask, four years later, in a café in downtown New Haven. Morant chuckles, and takes a bite of his salmon sandwich.

“I hugged her after she bought me that belt,” he said. “That’s when it felt real.”

*

“I see these cases all the time,” Darcy McGraw, the director of the Connecticut Innocence Project, told me. “People want to go home, and the justice system hasn’t been fair to them in the past. Why would they want to take the risk?”

Some wrongfully convicted people, like Morant, accept a “time served” deal. Others choose to accept an Alford plea, a loophole that allows defendants to insist that they are innocent in court records, while still legally pleading guilty to receive shorter sentences. Both legal mechanisms operate similarly. Want to go home? Take the deal.

Some like to imagine that “time served” deals and Alford pleas are a win-win. Prosecutors maintain a successful record, while innocent people are guaranteed shorter sentences rather than rolling the dice with a criminal justice system that has already failed them. And because these individuals cannot sue the state in civil court for wrongful incarceration, the state can avoid expensive lawsuits, some of which end in million- dollar settlements.

But these deals can have serious consequences. They leave wrongfully convicted people with criminal records, which can limit people’s access to public assistance: three states still ban felons from accessing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. In thirteen states, having a record can strip a person of their voting rights. But McGraw told me that the most serious burden involves employment. “In every one of these cases that I’ve seen, people just want to find a job,” she said, “and it’s harder to get hired when you have that record.”

When Morant got home, he spent two days with his family before feeling restless. He had gotten used to his regimented day at Cheshire: his days used to begin at 7 a.m. with breakfast. He would then go to work (he made license plates from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.), the gym, dinner, his Bible study courses, and finally, bed. Now that he was home, he needed something to do.

If Morant took the deal, he could be home immediately. But there was a catch.

He paid a visit to New Haven Works, a nonprofit downtown that helped him assemble a resume. Over the next two months, Morant applied to over fifty jobs. After weeks, the letters started coming in. The supervisor at Amazon’s Connecticut manufacturing plant wanted to know why Morant had not disclosed his felony on the application.

“But the question on the application asked, ‘Have you ever been incarcerated for a crime you committed?’” he explains to me. “I didn’t lie. I wasn’t [in prison] because I committed a crime. I was there because they were holding me captive. I was in a cage.” Morant didn’t get the job at the manufacturing plant. And by the end of the year, he had been denied trucking, sweeping, landscaping, and construction jobs.

Finally—in early 2016—Morant got an offer for a refuse collector position, a stable job working for the City of New Haven. For three weeks, he showed up on time to every shift, was polite, and collected trash as efficiently as he could. “I actually started to enjoy it,” he said. “It paid really well.”

But by the end of the month, his supervisor told him he was letting him go. “The job was just a temporary position,” Morant remembers the supervisor explaining. But Morant thinks that his background check had raised a red flag.

The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is five times higher than the general rate, according to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative study. Ninety percent of United States employers use online criminal record reports before hiring for some, if not all, positions. Studies show that employers who do learn of applicants’ criminal histories tend to discriminate against them.

“When an employer finds out you have a criminal record, he’s likely going to hire someone else if he can,” McGraw told me. Morant had first written to McGraw ten years ago, and they’ve been in touch ever since. Once he got out and struggled to find employment, she wrote a letter for future employers, explaining his unique circumstances. It didn’t always work.

In a job interview at the Children’s Center in Hamden, Morant supplied the letter and began explaining his story. After skimming the letter for a few seconds, the center’s director cut him off and apologized.

“There’s got to be more to your story. You got convicted,” Morant remembers the director saying.

He didn’t get the job.

*

The classic mechanism for overturning unlawful imprisonment is filing a petition for the writ of habeas corpus, claiming the state is unlawfully holding, imprisoning, or detaining someone. When these petitions are effective, incarcerated individuals are brought to trial to determine if the court made a legal or factual error in ordering an individual’s detention.

In rare cases, these petitions succeed. Scott Lewis won his exoneration through habeas corpus litigation. But a habeas corpus action isn’t possible for Morant anymore, since he is no longer incarcerated. “In order to file habeas corpus petitions, the state must have your body,”

Ken Rosenthal, Morant’s current attorney, told me, referring to the phrase’s Latin roots.

McGraw and Rosenthal both say that Morant has just one avenue left: a pardon. Typically, political executives—presidents, governors, or pardon boards—can issue pardons to convicted criminals. For people who have shown remorse for their actions, who face lengthy time in jail for a low-level crime or who were wrongfully convicted, pardons can be a powerful last resort. In Connecticut, pardons erase convictions from criminal records, giving back crucial civil rights to those convicted, wrongfully or not.

Rosenthal, Morant’s seasoned New Haven criminal defense attorney (“Ken’s my angel,” Morant tells me), tries to remain optimistic, but recognizes that a pardon based on claims of innocence will be difficult to achieve. “It’s simply never been done before in Connecticut,” Rosenthal tells me from his ground-floor office in New Haven. “I’m not saying we can’t do it; we can. If anyone can, Stef can.”

Morant and Rosenthal meet once a week to work on the pardon petition, which will be submitted soon. The average turn around rate for pardon petitions is one year, so Morant believes that by this time next year, he’ll have an answer.

Morant and Rosenthal hope the pardon process will work out. But for the people whom the pardon process has failed, the consequences can be devastating.

In 1985, Chris Conover, a Maryland native, had been wrongfully convicted of two murders. But DNA evidence acquired by the Innocence Project in 2001 pointed to different suspects, casting a shadow on Conover’s conviction. In late June 2003, the state prosecutors agreed to vacate the conviction, based on the DNA evidence, but they also maintained that Conover was guilty and vowed to retry him.

However, leading up to the retrial, prosecutors offered Conover an Alford plea deal, allowing him to maintain his innocence on record while acknowledging that a jury could convict him in a retrial. The Alford plea would enable Conover to go home immediately. If he refused, he would have to take his chances with trial.

Although the Alford plea deal would not exonerate Conover, he took the deal. Conover’s mother was ill, and he wanted to be home with her as soon as he could. “It would not have been worth it to put my mother and my loved ones through another trial,” he told a Baltimore Sun reporter.

And he worried that he might lose in a retrial and be sent back to prison. “I know that I’ve already walked into one courtroom and been wrongfully convicted,” he told Prison Legal News. He knew it could happen again.

In 2009, his defense team worked to petition then-Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, for a pardon, which would entitle Conover to state compensation and would push the world to recognize that he was, in fact, innocent. Three years later, O’Malley rejected the petition. Online, the pardon commission advises petitioners: “Avoid trying to make excessive excuses for your crime and arguing away your guilt. Whatever you feel about the crime, you have already been found guilty.”

According to Conover’s wife, Conover struggled with panic attacks, depression and anxiety, knowing that people around him still believed he was guilty.

Darcy McGraw told me that innocent people who take time served and Alford plea deals face additional layers of trauma that exonerated people do not: those who haven’t been exonerated “have to cope with all the challenges of reentering society and know that the world will never recognize their innocence. It’s a double bind.”

In 2015, three years after O’Malley’s decision, Conover took his own life. His seventy-word obituary online mentions his wife, his family, his small hometown—Towson, Maryland—and directions to his funeral. It never proclaims that Conover was wrongfully convicted. It does not mention his crime. Rather, the last line reads:

“In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Christopher’s name to The Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org”

*

I visited Linda Morant, Stefon’s mother, at her home in New Haven. It’s a cozy white two-story house, with careful pruning and all the marks of a home that has been lived in by generations of family members. The walls are decked with portraits of parents, grandparents, kids, and grandkids, and photos from church, graduations, and vacations; milestones that have come and gone.

When I asked her how she passed twenty-one years without Morant, she pulled out a carefully saved letter from a dusty Bible, in which she had tucked away dozens of family photos, diplomas, and postcards among her most cherished psalms.

“It’s simply never been done before in Connecticut,” Rosenthal tells me from his ground-floor office in New Haven.

She showed me a letter she had drafted to Judge Hadden, the judge who handed Morant his life sentence. “I am asking you your honor to please grant my son a new trial,” she read from a letter she had never sent, her voice full of the despair that only a mother could conjure, twenty-five years after the fact. Growing desperate, Linda had also written to someone else: God.

Dear God please release my son Morant from prison I thank you God and for all of my family and the world to be bless. Amen. 12/6/06

Now that Morant is home, she finds herself praying for something new: his exoneration. “He’s free now, and I thank the Lord for that, but there’s more to be done,” she tells me.

She pulled out every school portrait of Morant and every family photo she could find. Sitting next to each other on her blue couch, we flipped through photos and watched Morant grow up. Photos of him with missing teeth and ears too big for his face were replaced by junior high school photos of a boy with a small moustache and frayed blue jeans. I saw him graduate night school, diploma in hand, beaming as he hugged his mom in his blue cap and gown. I saw him carry his twins as infants in a hotel room, buy them a stuffed animal that was even taller than they were for their second birthday, and drive them around in his blue Nissan.

She also showed me pictures of memories that Stefon had missed: his daughter at her middle school graduation, a family vacation down to South Carolina, a family cook-out for the fourth of July.

The next week, I met up with Morant and his attorney, Ken Rosenthal, in New Haven. At the end of the meeting, when I began to pack up my stuff, Morant cut me off.

“What do you see when you look at that painting?”

He was staring at an abstract piece of art on Rosenthal’s wall, a work with earthy blues, greens, and browns. I saw splattered paints that seemed to be dripping towards a foggy lake. When I told him that I frankly didn’t really understand it, he threw his head back and laughed, beaming with a smile that covered his whole face.

“Keep looking at it. Look, it’s crying right now. Or maybe it’s raining. I don’t know yet. But I’ll figure it out.”

*

When I first called Morant to request an interview, he told me that he was glad I’d be writing about him, but that he was busy— “there’s a lot I have to catch upon,” he said. He had to visit his family members, walk his mom’s dog, go to work, apply for new jobs, and meet with his attorneys. He would only be able to meet with me at 9 a.m. at Payne Whitney gym. “I work out every day because that’s my daily therapy. You can walk on the treadmill next to me, and we can talk,” he said.

It turned out that the gym was closed, so Morant met me instead at Patricia’s, a diner on Whalley Avenue. In between bites of potatoes and a runny omelette, he walked me through his story, beginning with the day Raucci, the detective, first called him and asked to meet him at a local gas station. “I still wish I hadn’t called him back,” he said. “I didn’t know better.”

Twenty-eight years after that initial phone call, after struggling to find well-paying, consistent employment, Morant has found work he loves at the Connecticut Renaissance, a halfway house for formerly incarcerated men who are reintegrating into society. He said he tries to work as many hours a week as possible to save up money. “It’s been tight for me,” he says. “I can’t buy the things I need to buy, and I have kids.” One day, Morant hopes to chip away at the school-to-prison pipeline by opening up a mentoring program for at-risk young men in New Haven.

But for now, he reminds himself that he is doing meaningful work. “It doesn’t pay much, but I think I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. It’s God’s work,” he tells me.

Although Morant is now stably employed, he knows that many employers still cannot look past his criminal record. As his pardon petition process moves forward, he longs to have his conviction erased from his record, closure after his twenty-one years in prison, and some semblance of justice.

– Keerthana Annamaneni is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.

Design by Chase Westover.

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