Fernando Bermudez, served over 18 years in New York State maximum security prisons following his wrongful conviction of murder in the shooting death of Raymond Blount in 1991 until proven innocent in late 2009 with assistance from pro bono attorneys from Washington, D.C., New Jersey and New York. Mr. Bermudez’s case presents a rare instance of New York case law in which a judge has overturned a conviction on “actual innocence grounds”. The sole evidence against him involved mistaken and coerced eyewitness identification by five teenagers, who later recanted their testimony. In an exclusive interview with Preshti, Fernando Bermudez talks about his journey to justice.
P: Hello Mr Bermudez. Tell us something about yourself ?
FB: Hello and greetings from America to the Alexis Society, which I interpret from Greek as a community of defenders and helpers for justice, peace and human rights. These concepts became dear to me during and after my over 18 years of struggling against a life sentence in prison as an innocent man. Had love, hope, faith, education, sacrifice and patience not prevailed in my ordeal I would still be in prison today, incapable of how I advance my story today to inspire and help others achieve greater justice throughout the world.
P : How did your journey in prison begin?
FB: As the oldest sibling in a close knit New York City family of seven, my prison journey began in the summer of 1991 when I was arrested and charged with murder. At 22 years of age, my hopes and dreams to start college that fall were dashed, replaced with my need to survive horrible prison conditions and mental anguish for nearly two decades until I proved my complete innocence in 2009.
P: What were the problems you faced as a prisoner? Any major hardships that you would like to emphasise on?
FB: Some of many hardships I faced was frustration and anxiety akin to available evidence of my innocence early into my incarceration that the same judge who presided over my trial refused to consider. This pain worsened as I my parents and siblings suffered, including my wife and children who needed my financial and emotional support, who also struggled without me. Throughout the years, avoiding trouble in prison was another major challenge amid indignities like lack of daily showers, mandatory naked strip searches after prison visits, lack of privacy and the uncertainty of dying in prison while proclaiming my innocence before a parole board.
P: Please describe your journey towards justice. What were the hardships you faced while securing acquittal
FB: My journey toward justice urged efforts to educate myself and earn college degrees in prison to get outside legal help and help with my case. But my family and I had no money so I had to write hundreds of letters until I inspired lawyers to work for free and help me throughout the years. During this time, I also challenged myself earn money in prison to help my wife and children, so I retailed clothing to prisoners that I purchased wholesale while also working in the prison kitchen for extra food at 38 cents an hour! Also, fighting against deep depression challenged me daily. I fought it through prayer, exercise and constructive distractions like voracious reading and writing to also counter anxiety, heart palpitations and anger that plagued my ordeal while jailed in a 6×9 ft prison cell with vermin.
P: Kindly ennumerate on the difficulties that you had to go through after serving your prison sentence.
FB: After prison, I thought my problems ended — WRONG! In four years of being free, I still fight against symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, nightmares and distrust related to horrible things I saw in prison and now my efforts to adjust to a changed society. Moreover, I am still fighting to get compensated by New York, which takes time and much frustration, as I continue financially supporting my wife and children by lecturing amid student loans that I must repay for earning my bachelor’s degree in 2012. Here, I also have to promote my professional speaking career with help from my wife, but that’s my only help as I learn social media to help and cold call and email potential venues to expand my career.
P: What is the current position of prisoners in your country? In your opinion, what are the changes required
FB: Mass incarceration is a big American problem with currently 2.3 million people currently incarcerated. Worse still, legal experts estimate that 5% of this incarcerated population is actually innocent amid the sad fact that over 1,300 people have been proven innocent and freed from American prisons and death row since 1989. Holding corrupt prosecutors accountable, who mostly enjoy immunity for sending the innocent to prison, would reduce the wrongful conviction problem America still has. I would curb the current state of prisoners being exploited for cheap labor and private prisons that have prisons on the stock exchange as profit for stakeholders, which I describe in greater detail in my recently published Columbia University Law school essay.
P. You have been doing a lot lately for the prison community. Could you through some light on your current social projects? How is it benefiting the prisoners and the prison administration at large?
FB: This is why I write to help expose problems in criminal justice systems worldwide. I also work with politicians to improve and change laws, such as reforming the problem of mistaken eyewitness identification caused by faulty procedures, in addition to helping to end the American state of Connecticut’s death penalty. This is why I have guest spoken at over 200 notable places in America, including throughout countries like Germany, Italy and Japan with set lectures in France this February and hopefully England if sponsorship materializes. My lectures benefit many communities, including the incarcerated, because I tailor my talks to address specific problems and concerns for places that invite me to speak based on my research and hard-won insight from my ordeal.
P. What are your future plans?
FB: My future plans are social projects that involve publishing a book about my wrongful incarceration and post-incarceration work along with a play and movie being planned about my ordeal. Of course, I look forward to lecturing at many more places to continue helping people learn about the wrongful conviction problem, at risk youth, and generally motivational speaking to encourage people to overcome adversity.
P. Anything you would like to share with us before signing off?
FB: I am grateful for this opportunity to connect with the Alexis Society and Preshti. Your society’s work inspires me. Also, I would like share my story in India. My very best to everyone and please keep being rays of light as Preshti suggests until and after our paths cross to help humanity.
Fernando Bermudez is married with three children and lives with his family in Connecticut. He holds a bachelor’s degree in behavioural sciences (Summa cum laude) and is currently considering law school. Mr Bermudez engages in public speaking , having spoken at over 200 universities, including Cornell and Yale universities. He can be contacted here.
– As told to Nitika Nagar
(Nitika is the Project Director of Preshti, an initiative by the Alexis Society which aims at restoring Prison Rights and Reforming Prison Administration in India. She can be contacted at email@example.com)