By Jillian Kramer
At this very moment, the National Registry of Exonerations—a database of wrongful conviction cases from the last 26 years—lists 1,679 innocent men and women who went to prison. In his new book, Stolen Years, reporter Reuven Fenton profiles 10 of them, telling their harrowing stories of imprisonment and how they were set free. “As you’re reading this, an impossible-to-document number of wrongly convicted people are sitting in prison, and only a small fraction will ever get out,” Fenton writes. “If this book helps fuel a burgeoning conversation about lives destroyed by our win-at-all-costs criminal justice system, I’ve done my job.”
We sat down with Fenton to find out what inspired him to write this book, and how women are really treated when they enter the system.
Glamour: Your book, Stolen Years, tells the stories of 10 men and women who served prison sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. How did you choose this subject matter for a book? What about it intrigues you?
Fenton: I cover all sorts of breaking news for the New York Post, and one type of story that I’ve covered more and more frequently in recent years is the exoneration story—when a man or woman who served decades in prison is found by a judge to have been wrongfully convicted and is freed. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to witness this in a courtroom, it’s something you never forget.
A few years ago, I covered the exoneration of a man named David Ranta, who served two decades for killing a rabbi in Brooklyn. And let me tell you, the sight of Ranta being able to walk over to his daughter in that courtroom and hug her for the first time as a free man was easily one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.
Then, after the hearing, there was this big, chaotic press conference and reporters were asking Ranta questions like, “How does it feel to be out of prison?” and, “What’s the first thing you plan on doing as a free man?”
And these are all perfectly good questions to ask, because this was a breaking news story and the press needed the relevant soundbites. But I remember thinking, man, this guy’s got a whole story to tell and we’re not even scraping the surface.
That’s where the idea for this book stemmed. Anyone who’s ever been wrongfully imprisoned is in a unique position to tell one of the most incredible stories one can tell—if he or she is up to it. I decided I’d profile 10 exonerees and give each of them a magazine story-length amount of space to tell their tale. I could easily have written an entire book about a single case, but if I’d done that I wouldn’t have accomplished my second objective: showing how wrongful convictions can happen to people of all walks of life, for so many different reasons.
Glamour: How did you choose which cases to highlight?
Fenton: One of the saddest things about wrongful convictions is how frequently they occur. Some studies say the number of innocent men and women currently doing time at U.S. prisons at as high as five percent. That’s potentially 100,000 innocent inmates—a staggering number.
I had certain criteria in mind for this book. I wanted to profile people who’d been locked up for at least 10 years and who’d been exonerated within the past few years. I also wanted each of my subjects to be from a different state.
And it was important for me to include women, because women aren’t typically thought about when it comes to wrongful conviction. I think this is largely because far more men than women go to prison, and therefore more men than women get exonerated. But this doesn’t make women’s stories of wrongful imprisonment any less compelling. In the end I ended up profiling two women and found their stories to be among the most riveting.
Glamour: What made these women’s stories so riveting?
Fenton: More than anything, what struck a chord for me was the way they spoke about their estrangement from their children. It’s extremely difficult to maintain relationships with family, especially when you’re handed a life sentence as these women were. So one can only imagine what it’s like being a mother, watching your kids visit you less and less frequently until they stop visiting altogether.
Glamour: Are there any common themes—beyond wrongful conviction, of course—between each of these cases?
Fenton: I was expecting at least some of the people I profiled to be broken versions of their past selves. After all, they’d been through the worst kind of hell.
What I wasn’t expecting, and was delighted to find out, was that all 10 of my subjects showed an incredible triumph of the human spirit. They all had a positive outlook on life, both in and out of prison. Each believed in their heart that they’d be free one day. Despite seeing the justice system fail them so horrifically, they still believed that their freedom was a fundamental right, almost in a cosmic sense.
And each of them, once they got exonerated, refused to brood over the years they had lost. They just wanted to hit the road running, catching up on all they missed and rebuilding their lives. Since getting out, some have started families, others have built successful businesses. Even the ones that haven’t been as successful still keep pushing, because they’re determined to make the most of the time they have left.
Glamour: What did you learn about how women, specifically, are sometimes treated in the legal system?
Fenton: Women suffer all sorts of horror in prison that men are spared from. And this is becoming an increasingly relevant issue as the number of women inmates in jails and prisons continues to grow.
Let’s start with the scariest issue: sexual assault in prison. At the worst prisons, one in four women gets sexually assaulted while serving out her sentence. A considerably higher percentage of women have experienced incidents when male corrections officers solicited them for sex in exchange for special treatment, or with threats of discipline if they refused.
Neither of the women I profiled had this happen to them, at least not that I know of. But Debra Brown of Utah did speak about the time she opened a pantry door in the prison kitchen where she worked and caught a female inmate performing a sexual act on a male officer. Later, the officer warned Debra to keep her mouth shut.
An issue related to sexual assault is that of unreasonable searches. Many female inmates suffered sexual abuse before they went to prison, and become retraumatized when they have to strip down and get full-body searches. Although the Fourth Amendment is supposed to guarantee them the right to refuse these searches, they often don’t know their rights.
Glamour: How is women’s health affected in prison?
Fenton: Women’s health is another major issue. All kinds of research has found that women inmates often have more severe health problems than men, often due to issues tied to poverty, drug use and sexual assault. Women inmates also suffer higher rates of mental illness than men. Yet prisons don’t always take this into account. They don’t necessarily provide the needed hygiene products for women who are menstruating. They often fail to give pregnant women proper care.
Women who want abortions run into all sorts of barriers. I read about one case in a New York facility in which the prison waited so long to schedule an inmate’s abortion that the legal 24-week limit passed, and then it was too late.
The exoneree Debra Brown, who I mentioned earlier, got breast cancer and cervical cancer while locked up. Her experiences were horrifying in a number ways, and it’s an absolute miracle she survived. In one instance, she went to see her doctor about the cervical cancer and he asked her how she was doing on her meds to keep the breast cancer from returning. She was like, “What meds?” The pharmacy had lost the paperwork or something.
Glamour: In chapter nine, we read about Ginny LeFever, a woman who went to prison for more than two decades for killing her soon-to-be-ex husband based on—quiet honestly—laughable evidence. Her story begs the question: Is there a bias against women?
Fenton: Whether this particular case suggests a bias against women is up for debate. But I would like to point out something:
The weird thing about Ginny LeFever’s case is that the toxicologist—who turned out to be a total fraud—claimed she had killed her husband in this really elaborate way. He said she inserted arsenic pellets into his rectum, then locked him in a room bombed with fumigant and finally just beat the living daylights out of him.
Her alleged bungled attempts at murder remind me of a cartoon, like Wile E. Coyote always devising these crazy ways to capture the Road Runner and always messing it up.
LeFever has always maintained that her husband ingested a bottle of antidepressants in an apparent attempt to kill himself, and that’s how he died. And you have to wonder why her explanation was so much less believable than the toxicologist’s.
Well, we know that in the weeks and months leading to her husband’s death, Ginny had been having a very tough time dealing with the guy. He’d been showing up to her house at odd hours and sending her stalky messages. She was in a very vulnerable place.
Unfortunately, that sort of vulnerability can be interpreted as a motive to murder somebody. And that’s where the prosecutor had a leg up against the defense. So despite all sorts of evidence to the contrary, and despite the couple being days away from finalizing their divorce, the prosecutor was able to convince a jury that this woman hated her husband so much that she killed him.
And you have to ask yourself whether it was ethical for the prosecutor to use a woman’s vulnerability as a weapon against her, just to win a case.
Glamour: When telling each story, what was your goal? What do you want readers to take away from the book?
Fenton: I just think there’s no better way to change something that needs fixing than through stories. That’s what journalism is all about. The public responds to drama.
Let’s say the big story of the week is about war in the Middle East. You can cite statistics and draw up charts until you’ve made your point ad nauseam, but nothing is going to stir people to bring change if they aren’t moved on a gut level. That’s where stories come in—real, in-depth stories about people who have been treated unjustly.
I spend the bulk of Stolen Years telling these stories, trying to give readers—and myself—a sense of what if feels like to go to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. I wanted people to know how itchy the prison scrubs are, how bad the food is—and what it’s like to be stabbed 73 times by Aryan Nation thugs, as Drayton Witt was in chapter five.
Then the final chapter, the backbone of the book, is the call to action. That chapter analyzes the top causes of wrongful convictions and suggests ways to help—for instance, volunteering with innocence organizations that are often two-man teams desperately in need of help. Or reaching out to elected officials. Stuff that really does make a difference if enough people get involved.
My hope is that by saving my call to action for the end of the book, readers will be so moved by the stories that they’ll actually be motivated to help.
Nearby New York City? You can attend a special reading and snag a signed copy of Fenton’s book, Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned, at 7 P.M. on Nov. 12 at the Mysterious Bookshop, 58 Warren St. Otherwise, follow Fenton on Twitter at @reuvenfen for future events and more information on his book. The book is available beginning Nov. 10.