On Friday April 15th, 2016, Everton Wagstaffe, who spent 23 years in prison due to wrongful conviction and a Schechter Westchester parent Ian Dumain, a lawyer for the Innocence Project, came to speak to the high school students about wrongful convictions’ effects and the ability to prevail through impossible situations.
Wagstaffe was twenty three years old in 1993 when he was sentenced, along with another man named Reginald Connor, to prison for the kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl, Jennifer Negron, who was found dead on January 1st, 1992. The grounds on which he was convicted were later found to be unreliable. Capella, the source of information, claimed to have witnessed the crime, but it was later discovered that she was a prostitute who was addicted to drugs and often testified for the police in return for privileges.
According to Wagstaffe, the police department in Brooklyn first identified Wagstaffe as a possible suspect because of a recent charge for carrying marijuana. As a result of Capella’s claim as a witness and other “evidence” such as finding a headband in Wagstaffe’s car which resembled the girl’s headband, Wagstaffe was found guilty and sentenced to prison at the age of 23.
After twenty three years, hundreds of letters, and studying of his own case, Wagstaffe was exonerated this past summer. Five years earlier, he was offered a chance at parole but refused to sign the papers, unwilling to concede any of his innocence or admit to any wrongdoing. Instead, he chose to stay in jail and fight for his freedom as an innocent man. “I realized that I have one true thing on my side: the truth. That’s the one thing I had,” Wagstaffe said.
Wagstaffe also said that during his prison sentence, he was able to educate himself and that he spent the majority of his time focusing on getting himself exonerated.With the truth as his guiding force, Wagstaffe found ways to fight his conviction with information he had taught himself from the prison library. The first obstacle in his fight for exoneration was getting the DNA tested to show that he was, in fact, not the kidnapper or murderer. However, he was only acquitted when it was discovered that the prosecution withheld evidence which proved his innocence.
When asked about his time in prison, Wagstaffe said, “Imagine being deprived of everything you take advantage of, imagine if you were treated like you committed a crime.” The Innocence Project works to eradicate this injustice from the wrongly-convicted, many of whom have been sentenced to a lifelong term.
As a co-cousel and lawyer, Dumain volunteers his time for the Innocence Project, and works to build cases in defense of the wrongfully convicted and attain their freedom for them.
Wagstaffe said that nobody has ever apologized to him for his wrongful conviction. Still, after almost a year with a clean record, Wagstaffe volunteers in the community. He speaks with troubled teens and builds houses with Habitat for Humanity.
In a final message to the crowd, Wagstaffe discussed the importance of perseverance, even in difficult situations. This advice came from personal success. As he said, “I prevailed.”
At the end of the program, students and teachers in the audience were left with much to think about over the weekend.
“It was great that a school which usually focuses on religious topics brings in speakers on more secular topics,” said junior Maddie Burton.
Freshman Ethan Friedman also reacted positively to the program by saying, “It was one of the most interesting and impactful special program speakers because false guilty verdicts are a pretty big taboo in our society and hearing the story of one really shined a light on it.”