The day before the two-year anniversary of his release from a New York prison, Dewey Bozella spoke to a crowd of USF students in hopes that none would ever have to live the life he was forced to.
Bozella, who spent 26 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, told his story Thursday evening as part of the University Lecture Series. Bozella said his life, as with anyone’s, has been full of struggles. Some of those struggles took him 32 years to conquer.
“I had persistence,” he said. “I was determined. I made a commitment and I didn’t let fear get in the way. Never let fear determine who you are, and never let where you come from determine where you are going.”
Bozella grew up in New York with his nine brothers and sisters, and said he had a happy childhood. However, one day his father came home angry and changed everything.
He said a fight between his father and mother grew violent. He did what he could as a 9-year-old to protect his mother from his father’s beatings. He wrapped his arms around his father’s legs, but he threw the young Bozella across the room “like a rag doll.”
“Because of his activity, my mother went to the hospital and from what I heard from social services was that she passed away,” he said.
After his mother died, changing foster homes became a staple in Bozella’s life. Even so, he made it through elementary school with good grades and no problems.
Then he reached high school.
“I was doing everything necessary to get my life together,” he said. “But, because I wanted to be accepted, I made a bad choice.”
Bozella said he started skipping class, drinking, smoking and disobeying his foster parents.
In 1977, Bozella got into a fight with a man who took out his revenge by murdering Bozella’s brother, Earnest, at a party. Earnest was stabbed in the heart through his back.
It was then that Bozella realized the Bronx would only cause him more problems. If he stayed, he knew he would want to reap his revenge on the man who killed his brother.
He moved upstate to Poughkeepsie with his older brother, Tony, and his life took another drastic turn.
“Because of what I was doing – gambling, smoking and hanging out – four months later, I’m involved in a murder of a 92-year-old woman who was gagged, tied and robbed on June 14, 1977,” he said.
The angsty teen was spotted bicycling near the home of the victim, and Bozella said his behavior up to that point made him seem to be a likely perpetrator.
After Bozella was arrested, however, he said he felt the need to prove his innocence.
“(The police) put a tape recorder in front of me (and said), ‘You are going to tell us you did it,'” he said. “I picked the tape recorder up and (said) through it across the room, ‘I’m from Brooklyn, man. You don’t scare me. You can’t make me do nothing … you got the wrong man.'”
After 28 days in the Dutchess County Jail, the case was dismissed because there was no evidence to prove Bozella committed the crime.
“I’m glad I got this over with. I don’t have to worry about this no more,” he said he remembered thinking. “Oh, how wrong I was.”
Bozella was arrested again in connection with the murder and convicted in 1983 after two men were released from jail by testifying against him, saying they were at the scene of the crime.
Bozella’s sentence was dire – 20 years to life.
When Bozella first got to his cell, he said he looked up and spoke to God.
“What did I do so bad that I deserve 20 years to life?” he said he remembered yelling. “If anybody needs to be taken out, it’s the guy who murdered my brother.”
He said he remembered a guard offering him a cigarette, and realized how off track his life had spun. From that point forward, his bad decisions were “done,” he said.
He spent his days in Sing Sing Correctional Facility working out, gaining 52 certificates in subjects such as HIV/AIDS awareness and violence prevention, earning his GED, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and boxing.
“I became Sing Sing’s heavyweight champion,” he said. “But it didn’t matter. I still needed to get out of prison.”
Bozella denied four different plea deals while in jail, refusing to admit to a murder he did not commit. Even though there was never any evidence to prove he committed the murder, he was still sentenced.
“Seven women and five men broke down on the jury crying,” he said. “And I wondered, ‘Why did they do that if I was guilty?'”
In 2005, Bozella contacted The Innocence Project, an organization that helps convicts prove their innocence through DNA testing. Two years later, the organization turned his case over to the major law firm WilmerHale, which had to research and find anyone involved in the case because all physical evidence was destroyed over the years.
They located the sheriff who first arrested Bozella. He had kept a file for 18 years on Bozella with four pieces of newly discovered evidence that could prove his innocence. When the judge viewed the “overwhelming evidence,” Bozella said he was proven innocent, being released the same day, October 28, 2009.
“What I believed in was that I’d rather die in prison than (admit to something I didn’t do). That was my stand,” he said. “When you find something of a worthy cause in your life worth dying for, stand up for it.”
Since then, Bozella has been able to pursue his boxing dreams that began at the Sing Sing gym. Last week, he fought in his first professional boxing match at the age of 52.
Bozella won the fight.