A Spirit of Thanksgiving Despite Wrongful Conviction and 18 Years in Jail

Photo: Wrongfully Convicted Man Still Thankful a Year After ReleaseCourtesy Fernando Bermudez
Fernando Bermudez, pictured at a fundraising event for the Innocence Project in May 2010, was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1991 and spent 18 years in prison.

Fernando Bermudez's life story is a tale of injustice and inspiration. He was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 18 years in prison, sustained by his belief that the truth would prevail.

A year after his exoneration, Bermudez, 41, marks his freedom this Thanksgiving by sharing his story and celebrating with his family.

"I am so happy, happy, happy," his mother, Danela Bermudez, said. "Every day feels like a holiday now that my son is free."

A 22-year-old Fernando Bermudez was convicted in 1991 of murdering a teen outside of nightclub in New York City. The most damning evidence against him: His photo was misidentified by five teenage witnesses.

The youngsters who put him behind bars later recanted their testimonies, however, saying that prosecutors and police had pressured them into pinning Bermudez as the killer.

There was no evidence to prove such allegations.

But at the very least, his pro-bono attorney, Mary Ann Di Bari, said, "The trial was so lopsided. The stories the witnesses gave did not make sense, they were inconsistent with one another."

With no DNA evidence to prove his innocence, Bermudez's fate was left in the hands of the eyewitnesses. His legitimate alibi was too little to spare him a sentence of 23 years to life, the bulk of which he served in upstate New York at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill.

Eyewitness testimonies are the primary source of evidence in cases such as his that lack forensic evidence. The odds were against Bermudez from the start, given that eyewitness misidentifications are the No. 1 cause of wrongful convictions in the United States, according to the New York City-based Innocence Project.

Eyewitness mistakes are also the leading factor in 75 percent of post-conviction exonerations in the United States, according to the public policy organization.

Bermudez's case is an example of how difficult it is to overturn convictions without forensic evidence. But after 11 attempts to overturn his conviction for murder, Bermudez's supporters finally succeeded on Nov. 9, 2009, when New York State Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo threw out the 1991 conviction.

Bermudez Suffers From PTSD

After the ruling, Cataldo said, "I hope for you a much better future."

His family couldn't agree more.

"I love having my daddy home," daughter Carissa, 9, said. "I like when he picks me up at school and I get to show him off. I like that everybody knows I have a daddy now."

She is one of three children born to Bermudez and his wife, Crystal, 36. They met after she saw him on a news program and began writing him in prison. The couple married in 1998.

As a mental health worker, she is the primary breadwinner because Bermudez is under a doctor's care for prison-related post-traumatic stress disorder, earning whatever he can from speaking engagements.

More than his own situation, Bermudez said, he's still concerned about the path that lies ahead for those who remain incarcerated.

Throughout his two decades in prison, Bermudez said, he maintained an unwavering belief that he would someday be exonerated. So he hit the books for the sole purpose of proving his innocence.

Bermudez wanted to understand every aspect of the judicial system that had wronged him. He became deeply invested in reading and writing about other cases of wrongful conviction.

He earned a college degree behind bars. He listened to books on tape in hopes of learning how to pronounce words and hone his storytelling ability. He became an advocate for social justice.

A self-proclaimed history buff, Bermudez began educating fellow inmates about historical events. He quickly became known as the "Professor" as he taught a Latin American history course to other inmates and gave various lectures about the power of education.

Bermudez also found solace in reading classical literature and writing about the incompetence that contaminated each attempt to overturn his conviction.

He spent the time in his jail cell preparing to share his story of wrongful conviction. He remained confident that one day the truth would set him free.

He also became an active public speaker for the Latino organization within the prison system.

"Initially, I was shy and scared to speak in front of large groups of people, but I knew I had to be bold," he said. "Becoming educated and developing public speaking skills was all I focused on while I was in jail.

"I knew that if I always told the truth that one day I would get to share my story as a free man."

Now a free man, Bermudez finally has the floor to share his story. Since his release Nov. 20, 2009, he has spent his days educating people about the injustice that wrongfully kept him behind bars for 18 years. He has spoken at schools and hearings to address the issue of wrongful conviction.

Given $40 Upon His Release

He remains deeply committed to helping legislate laws that can help protect the innocent from being incarcerated. "Getting the word out in terms of social awareness has become an important part of my life. I want to prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone else," he said prior to addressing Columbia Law School students earlier this month.

His case has not only highlighted the issue of wrongful convictions but raised broader issues along the way.

Bermudez was given $40 upon his release, for instance. The money was taken from the earnings he made while in jail.

Also, there is no law mandating social service agency help for the wrongly convicted upon their release.

Ironically, though, if Bermudez had accepted a plea deal to lesser charges, he would have been entitled to social services after leaving prison.

"I couldn't drive myself crazy wondering 'what if' I had read enough about the law and knew enough about the details of my case to know I was innocent," he said.

"I was honest from day one until the end of my trial. I couldn't stomach lying after 18 years. I wouldn't lie the first time they gave me an out and I wouldn't do it 18 years later."