This is the second in an occasional series of articles and video by former Observer Managing Editor Michael May investigating wrongful conviction claims. May is working with filmmaker Jamie Meltzer on a documentary, Freedom Fighters, about the efforts of a group of exonerees from Dallas who have launched their own detective agency to find and help innocent prisoners. Read the first story in the series here.
In this installment, exoneree Chris Scott tells the story of a key encounter in his struggle for closure.
In February 2014, I headed to the Eastham prison in East Texas to meet the man who turned my whole world upside down, Alonzo Hardy. He and another man robbed and murdered a crack dealer in Dallas in 1997, then skipped town while I was charged and then convicted for his crime. As I drove past the guard station and the men in white working the fields, I wondered what I could possibly say to the man who almost let me be executed for something he did. The anger, frustration and bitterness started to swell inside like a fever. To be honest, I felt like I might explode in violence when I saw him. But I knew I couldn’t do that. It would defeat the entire purpose of why I was there.
Ever since I was freed from prison in 2009, I’ve been struggling to understand what happened to me, and trying to find meaning in the years I’ve got left. It’s not like I could just pick up where I left off. I was 26 when I was sentenced and almost 40 when I got out. I was engaged to be married, now my fiancée is with another man. My sons are all grown up. There’s no point in pretending that everything’s fine, that I’m whole when I’m not. Sometimes I think, where would I be now if none of this had ever happened? They took 13 years of my life away. Those were the years when I was should have been raising my family and building a career. Instead, I was sitting in a prison cell trying hard just to stay sane.
So for the past five years, I’ve turned into my own brand of private investigator, asking tough questions even when the answers are elusive. I’m on a mission. Not just to make sense of what happened to me, but to use my knowledge and experience to free other innocent prisoners. I’ve formed a detective agency with some other Dallas exonerees; we call it the House of Renewed Hope. We get letters from inmates across the country looking for someone who will take the time to look at their case. I’ve been investigating their cases myself—walking the streets of Dallas, Austin and Brownwood, Texas, knocking on doors and interviewing witnesses, lawyers and former jury members. I know what it’s like to sit in prison and wait for someone to take my case. I’m there for the prisoners with no DNA evidence to test. I know from experience that many innocence projects won’t take on these cases. They’re often long shots, but I also know that one piece of evidence or a man’s confession can break a case wide open. A man’s freedom is worth the effort.
In the meantime, I’m tracing the story of my own case, which is what brought me to the Eastham prison to meet Alonzo Hardy.
Alonzo sat down across from me in the prison visitation room. I was wearing a sports coat and collared shirt. He was wearing prison white. That reminded me that only one of us is free, and helped dispel the violent rage I’d felt on the drive.
When Alonzo sat down, I looked him in the eye for the first time. He stared back, unblinking. Before he could say anything, I told him I wasn’t mad. I told him that I forgave him but I could never forget what he did. Then I asked Alonzo what really happened that night in 1997. I’d always wondered why they killed a man for $180, some crack and a beeper. Alonzo said he just wanted to buy some drugs from Aguilar, but his accomplice, Don Michael Anderson—aka D-mite—had in mind to rob him. During the robbery, Aguilar ran into the kitchen, pulled a gun and began shooting from the kitchen doorway. One of the bullets grazed Alonzo’s cheek as he cowered by the front door. Before he could look up, D-mite had shot Aguilar. They left him dead on the living room carpet. Within a few hours, just as I was getting handcuffed and arrested, Alonzo and D-mite were in Louisiana.
I realized Alonzo wouldn’t be able to explain why he let me take the fall for his crime. He tried though, giving me every excuse he could to make me think he wasn’t as bad as I thought he was. He told me he never believed they’d convict me without any evidence. He said he had wrestled with his conscience, but that D-mite had threatened to kill his mom if he said a word. He told me he would “be facing 99” if he turned himself in, as if I needed to be reminded of that fact. “You just put yourself in my shoes in a situation like that,” he told me. “I mean, I can understand how hurt you is, and I can understand the part of your life that you lost because I had went through the same thing.”
That was too much for me to take. “But you didn’t lay in a prison bed day in and day out being innocent for a crime you didn’t commit,” I told him. “No. You have not been in my position. Because all the positions you done been in, you brought that on yourself.”
See Chris Scott confront Alonzo Hardy in this scene from the documentary film “Freedom Fighters.”
It felt real good to tell him that. And I kept talking. I told him about the years I spent away from my kids. I cried at that point and was glad he got to see that. And I told him I would never recover from what he did to me. I told him that I wish he had been given life in prison for the crime, instead of getting a deal that only added five years to his sentence.
Alonzo just responded each time, “I understand.” He never apologized.
Alonzo has had great power over my life. His silence put me in prison and his confession a decade later set me free. But seeing him here, a passive man in a white jumpsuit, I realized that, as much as I paid for his weakness and cowardice, he didn’t do this to me. It was men much more powerful than Alonzo that put me behind bars—men with big titles like chief of police and district attorney.
When I left the prison that day, I felt a burden was lifted. But it didn’t wash away the pain and make everything better. It’s easy to separate the world into bad guys like Alonzo and good guys like the cops and prosecutors. But I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not that simple. I’ve seen up close how cops manipulate and confuse eyewitnesses, how prosecutors cherry-pick a jury to convict, how public defenders are overwhelmed, how hard it is to get someone to take another look at your case if you there’s no DNA evidence to test. Meeting Alonzo just made me more determined than ever to do what I can to seek justice.
As told to Michael May