— -- Two men wrongfully convicted for murder have transitioned from serving time to serving others.
Shabaka Shakur and Derek Hamilton’s relationship began behind bars after the two men were convicted of crimes neither had committed.
“He was the first person who told me, 'You have to learn the law yourself, you can’t really trust lawyers to get you out. If you’re innocent, you learn the law and start working on the cases yourself.' And I never forgot that,” Shakur said, looking back on his first time meeting Hamilton.
They began teaching themselves law in prison, aligning with other self-taught lawyers at Auburn Correctional Facility in New York, who, like them, were advocating to get their sentences overturned. They formed a group called the Actual Innocence Team, handwriting all of their motions, and aggressively building out their cases and getting feedback from one another.
Each spent several years in solitary confinement while in prison but never lost sight of their pursuit for justice. “The solitude can be a place where you have no interference. For me, I was obsessed with proving my innocence so while it was a terrible and degrading experience, it also gave me moments where it was absolute quiet where I could just get into this cases and really just stay focused on what I had to do,” Hamilton said.
“It motivated me to dig deeper, to write clearer, to explain the law better, to make it clear that we were right,” Shakur added.
After years of trying to prove their innocence and multiple denied motions, Shakur and Hamilton finally succeeded in their fight for freedom.
Hamilton, who was convicted of a 1991 murder in Brooklyn, spent 21 years in prison. He was released in 2011 and eventually exonerated in 2015. Shakur spent 27 years in prison after being convicted on two counts of second-degree murder for a 1988 homicide. He was released in 2015 after a district attorney dismissed his indictment.
After being arrested, both men were questioned by former NYPD detective Louis Scarcella. Though he has denied any wrongdoing, Scarcella’s practices have been under immense scrutiny leading to the review of multiple cases and release of several defendants. The release of Hamilton and Shakur can be credited to their search for justice and the efforts of former Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, who created a team to look into wrongful conviction claims.
Now as free men, the two have teamed up as business partners opening up a restaurant in the same borough they were arrested in. Brownstone Bar and Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, has given the two men a chance to reunite with their neighborhood after two decades. It also provides an opportunity for former felons and prisoners to get back on their feet.
“We hire people that come from prison, some of the hardest workers we know. ... These are guys we can trust. Society doesn’t trust him, we do. For us, we just want to get out here and give people opportunities we didn’t have,” Hamilton said.
For Hamilton and Shakur, time is essential -- dealing with how much of it they’ve lost and how much is still left. They have chosen to focus their energy on the Innocence Project to help others who may be wrongfully convicted. The pair is also pushing for national and local policy change on how criminal cases are handled.
“For me, you could never get time back,” Hamilton said. “We want to make sure that every day we spend on this earth henceforward, we want to do something positive, giving people opportunities.”
They both agree that two decades is a lot to make up for but they are hoping their legacy can stand the width of time they’ve lost.