Freedom in the Final Round
Trymaine Lee: What was goin' through your mind when you were in that courtroom?
Dewey Bozella: I didn't do it. That I didn't do it. That's how I felt about that.
Lee: What would you do if your life and freedom were hanging in the balance? Would you tell the authorities what they wanted to hear? Would you say you did it, whatever it is, for a shot at getting out? Or would you buckle down, stick to your story, no matter what the cost?
They call it the innocent prisoner's dilemma. And it plays out somewhere in America every single day. These are people who have been falsely convicted whose truths are suffocated by a system built for caging, not freedom. And all some of them have to do to maybe see the light of the free world is confess.
Between 2% and 6% of incarcerated people could be innocent, according to various sources. That could be up to 75,000 Americans locked up for something they didn't do. And it's not equal. A University of Michigan study from 2017 found that Black people were seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than whites. For years, Dewey Bozella insisted that he was one of the unlucky ones.
Bozella: And after they found me guilty, I fell on the floor and started cryin', "I didn't do it. You got the wrong man. I didn't do it." And they all cried. And I said, "It's too late. Y'all done took away my life."
Lee: Even before prison, Dewey led a troubled life. There was violence and trauma and pain so deep that no matter how hard he fought, the aching never stopped. But fight, he did, literally.
Bozella: I was fightin' for my freedom. So the more recognition I had, the better it is. I was tryin' to be the first one in Sing Sing Penitentiary to turn pro, put my name out there. And that's what I was fightin' for.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. This week MSNBC is focusing on the wrongfully convicted. So today we bring you the story of Dewey Bozella whose dreams of becoming a professional boxer were derailed by a grizzly murder. Dewey Bozella was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1959.
Bozella: From the beginning, you know, it was pretty good until something happened in my life that took a tragic turn. And one day I heard a lot of hollerin' and screamin' inside my house. And this was out in Brooklyn. And I'm on the side of the house. And there is my father beatin' up on my mother. So--
Bozella: --when I seen my father doin' what he was doin' with my mother, I ran over, did the best that I could do. And he took me, threw me across the room like I was a piece of trash, like I didn't mean anything to him, and continued to do what he was doin'. And so from that day forward, my life just went in a whole 'nother direction.
Lee: Tragically, that beating left Dewey's mother dead. From there, Dewey bounced around the foster care system. Some homes were good; others not so much. And Dewey, he started gettin' into trouble.
Bozella: When I got in high school, I did everything wrong, everything. The first thing I did wrong is I started hanging out with the wrong people. Second thing I did wrong is I started gettin' high. The third thing I did wrong, I just started cuttin' classes.
And the fourth thing I did wrong, I got into a fight with guy, and I got the best of him. He didn't like me gettin' the best of him. And because of that, he went and he stabbed my brother to death. And he murdered my brother. And then life took another turn.
Lee: After his brother was killed, another brother convinced Dewey to move up to Poughkeepsie with him, to get out trouble in New York City. But Dewey says he still got into fights. And he was in and out of jail for petty theft.
Bozella: Bad attitude. You know, like, I would go play basketball, do, say somethin', whatever, man. Wherever you want to go with it, that's on you, man. It was that type of thing. I did my little things on the side, you know, to try to hustle and stuff like that. But it wasn't nothin' where I'm gonna hurt somebody, nothin' like that.
Lee: Still, there was one Poughkeepsie police officer who would always give Dewey a hard time. He didn't think much of it until one day in 1977, he was 18 years old.
Bozella: Yeah, I was walkin' down Main Street. Car pulls up next to me. And the officer jump out, told me to get up against the wall. I said, "For what? I didn't do nothin'." "Get up against the wall." So I got up against the wall. When I got up against the wall, he said, "You're arrested for murder."
"Murder?" I looked at him like they lost their damn mind. "Man, you got the wrong man. Go ahead." They ain't tryin' to hear that. So I took it as a joke. But I said, "I'll be out in a couple of hours." I ain't even worried about it. They got the wrong man, period. So I get down to the precinct. They were dead serious.
Lee: Someone had indeed been murdered. And it was a terrible crime. On June 14th, 1977, 92-year-old Emma Crapser was beaten, bound with an electrical cord, and suffocated in her Poughkeepsie home. But Dewey told the cops over and over he had nothing to do with it.
Bozella: When I finally went to court, the judge said, "Listen, man, you cannot keep holdin' this man in jail. Do y'all have any evidence? If you have no evidence, I gotta let him go." They were tryin' to make me say that I did something. I'm not telling them I did anything. I didn't do it, period.
Lee: Dewey refused to admit to a crime he didn't commit. Eventually after 28 days in jail, they let him go.
Bozella: I got out. And I got out like a roarin' lion. "Oh, yeah, man. Won't worry about this no more. I got this off my chest." How wrong I was. 'Cause the arrestin' police officer told me inside the police station, he said, "I'm gonna get you." And I'm cursin' and hollerin' and screamin'. And he just walked away.
Lee: After that, Dewey said he turned his life around. He took classes at a local community college, played baseball, and started boxing. He even got the chance to train at the camp of the legendary boxer, Floyd Patterson, a real honor and opportunity to prove himself.
Bozella: I stopped smokin'. You know, I'd do 5,000 calisthenics and 250 jumpin' Jacks, 250 push-ups, 250 dips. I mean, you name it, I did it.
Lee: But five and a half years later, that life he was building came crashing down with the cops at his door again. In 1993, Dewey was arrested for Emma Crapser's murder.
Bozella: When they arrested me this time, I already knew that he was dead serious.
Lee: When Dewey was first arrested in 1977, the police had testimony from two brothers that put Dewey at the scene of the crime. And now in 1983, a third man who was in prison cut a deal with prosecutors and said that he and Dewey committed the murder together. In exchange for testifying against Dewey, he got early release and immunity from prosecution for murder.
Bozella: I said, "I'm goin' to trial. I didn't do it. If you're waitin' for me to tell you I did it, then you're gonna be in one hell of a wait. 'Cause it's not gonna happen."
Lee: With three witnesses saying Dewey committed the murder, he needed an alibi. The problem was, Dewey's story of where he was and what he was doing didn't paint the prettiest picture.
Bozella: This is the catch. This is how they were able to make it look like, you know, I was, you know, in the wrong. I was in the park gamblin'. And this is the first time I ever missed a bus. I never missed a bus. And it happened to be that day. So I told Champ. I said, "Yo, Champ, you know that guy over there?"
He said, "Yeah." I go, "Yo, man, tell him I need to, you know, get his bike." You know, and I wanted to go to the store and get some beer, right? He said, "All right." So I got on the bike. He let me ride the bike. And I rode it home. God honest truth: I rode it home.
So that was my only alibi. That was it. And that's how they were able to make it look like, "Well, what happened. Where was you? What was you doing? How did you do this now?" "I mean, this is what I was doin'. I was ridin' the damn stolen bike home. What do you want me to tell you?"
Lee: And that sounds wild. To them, they're like, "You mean to tell me your alibi is that you were ridin' a stolen bike?"
Lee: To them that sounded crazy.
Bozella: But it's the truth. I'm telling you what happened. Telling you what happened.
Lee: You're standing there with your life on the line for a crime that you didn't commit. What was goin' through your mind when you were in that courtroom?
Bozella: I didn't do it. That I didn't do it. That's how I felt about that. Two weeks later, I got found guilty. Seven men and five women, all of 'em broke down cryin' after they found me guilty. I fell on the floor and started cryin', "I didn't do it. You got the wrong man. I didn't do it." And they're all cryin'. And I said, "It's too late. Y'all done took away my life." And I walked out the courtroom.
Lee: Is that the first time the reality really hit you? Like, I mean, 'cause before that, you thought you were gonna get out 'cause you didn't do it.
Lee: But at that moment, when they say, "guilty," is that when everything just really crashed down?
Bozella: Of course. I was talkin' to God. I said, "God, man what did I do so bad that I deserve 20 years to life, man? I started turnin' my life around. I got away from the streets. I'm gettin' back into sports. I'm doin' everything right my life. Why? Why? What have I done so bad?" I didn't hear no answer. In fact, my lawyer's in there. I broke down so bad. And my lawyer and them came to the county jail to make sure I was all right.
Lee: Dewey was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison in December of 1983. On top of the shock and the anger, when Dewey got to Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York, he was immediately singled out by a guard.
Bozella: I mean, there's this one old correctional officer who made my life totally miserable. "Oh, you, you're the guy that murdered that old woman. Get over here. Stand up against the wall. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Take off your clothes. Do this. Do that." He made me shave my mustache, made me shave my head, bald me down, take of my clothes, pushed me in the corner, sprayed pesticide me down.
Then they made me stand there, man, for a while, man, before you let me go in the shower. It was just totally humiliating. Think about this for a second. From 9:00 that morning to close to 5:00 that night, I'm with this cat. When I finally get my cell, can you imagine bein' happy to get back to your cell? That's how I felt.
And when I got in there, then I changed my whole attitude. I said, "Man, I don't care who you are. I don't care how big you are. I don't care what color you are. Don't put your hands on me, man. I'm ready to die, man. Life don't mean nothin' to me."
Lee: Soon Dewey ended up in Sing Sing prison. The year before, inmates started an uprising at the prison and took more than a dozen guards hostage for hours. Dewey says that tensions were still high when he got there.
Bozella: I walked in right after a riot. And that (BLEEP), it was a madhouse. And I said, "Man, how in the hell am I going to deal with this?"
Lee: Wow. How did you deal with it?
Bozella: I had to kill everything inside me. I didn't listen to music. I didn't watch TV. I didn't give a (BLEEP). And I said to myself, "My name is 84-80172, man. Ain't no point to it. Ain't no endin'. That's means life. I'm a walkin' zombie, man. I don't even exist. I don't even have no rights. I don't have nothing."
Lee: Did you have to fight to survive?
Bozella: Of course. For the first year and a half, while I was in Sing Sing, let me explain somethin' to you, let you understand what I had to deal with. I wasn't even there a week. Guy who I knew, man, he got stabbed to death. He got murdered. Then right behind that, I'm walkin' down J Gallery, a guy reaches over me, and stab a guy in the eye.
When you stab an eye, watch his eyeball come out right in front of our face. And when they came right up in my face, that's when I made up my mind. I said, "From this day forward, I will never ever allow anybody to reach over me or come close to me, ever."
Lee: But then Dewey found out that a correctional officer named Bob Jackson wanted to start a boxing team at Sing Sing. Jackson was a fixture on the New York City boxing scene. And he had plans to train a group in the prison and organize fights with men who'd come in from outside. Dewey wanted to join. But Jackson told him there would be some conditions, that he had to change his attitude.
Bozella: "I want a fightin' man that would use discipline and want to stay out of trouble. They can stay out of trouble, they can be on the boxin' team." I said, "Okay, shoot. (LAUGH) I'm willin' to learn. I'm there." So I said, "Listen. If you put me on a boxin' team, man, I promise you I can stay out of trouble." I came down hard on myself. I didn't give myself no slack, sir, no slack.
Lee: Dewey had turned his life around with the help of boxing before. So he knew he could do it again.
Bozella: First thing that I went and I did was, I mean, I accomplished my GED. Then right up after that, I went and I got involved in every different class you could think about: human development, substance abuse, or victim offenders. You name it, I was involved in it.
I just kept doin' it. Decided to actually give my all dealin' with boxin'. And then when I finally gave my all to boxin', Bob Jackson accepted me. And I got in. And I never looked back. I became a role model citizen inside the prison system. That became my moral obligation, responsibility, and discipline.
Lee: What was your record inside prison?
Bozella: Ten and one. Ten and one.
Lee: Ten and one. So you're rackin' up that's impressive record. Your skills are being shown and highlighted. But all this part of the journey, you know, you shouldn't have been there in the first place. How was, you know, your fighting inside the ring paralleling your fight to get outside of prison, your fight for freedom?
Bozella: I was fightin' a different fight. That's what I was fightin' for, to get attention. You know, if anybody asked me about my case, I'd tell 'em, "I didn't do it." But I was fightin' for my freedom. So the more recognition I had, the better it is. I was tryin' to be the first one in Sing Sing Penitentiary to turn pro, put my name out there. That's what I was fightin' for.
Lee: You had to know the goal.
Lee: You wanted to go pro. Be free and go pro.
Bozella: Yeah. That's what I was fightin' for.
Lee: In 1990, Dewey got a shot at freedom, a second trial. His first conviction had been overturned because a judge said the prosecutors had illegally excluded Black people from the jury. And this time around, one of the key witnesses from his first trial had changed their story.
Bozella: The guy who testified against me the first time, he went against his brother and testified on my behalf and said, "Listen, man, the only reason why I testified against Mr. Bozella was because I wanted to get my brother out of jail. And now that I got my brother out of jail, I want y'all to know that I committed perjury."
Lee: But it wasn't enough. Dewey was convicted again, sentenced to 20 years to life, again.
Bozella: This time when I got found guilty, I didn't cry. I didn't break down. I didn't do nothin'. I just looked at the jury and said, "Y'all are convicting an innocent man," and walked out the courtroom. Judge said, "Where you goin'?" I said, "What do you mean, where am I goin'? I got life. (LAUGH) You can't do nothin' to me," and walked out.
Lee: And when Dewey got back to Sing Sing, he had another shock, one he says felt like a test from God.
Bozella: The followin' day, I go down to the chapel area. And when I get down to the chapel area, to try to find some peace, guess who I see? I see the guy who murdered my brother.
Bozella: Throughout them years that I was locked up, I changed. I'm not the same person. I was being tested. God was sayin' to me, "Okay, let me see how much you changed." I look at him. I walk over. I said, "Can I talk to you for a minute, man?" He said, "Yeah."
We went around the corner. I said, "Yo, man. Why you murdered my brother?" He said, "I was young. It was just somethin' that just happened." I looked at him. And I reached my hand out and I said, "I forgive you, man." How I'm gonna ask anybody to give me chance if I can't give him a chance? How I'm gonna move on with my life, man, if I don't know how to do this right now at this particular moment?
If I don't let this go, man, the only one I'm gonna hurt is me, man. I'm tired of hurtin' me, man. I'm tired. Enough is enough, man. That's where that boxin' and everything came in at, the moral obligation, responsibility, and discipline. And then forgiveness.
Lee: Forgiving the man who killed his brother allowed Dewey to be at peace with himself. But being at peace didn't mean giving up on his fight for freedom. That's comin' up after the break.
Lee: We're back. Dewey Bozella had been in prison for nearly 20 years when he started writing letters to the Innocence Project, a legal organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA evidence. After five years, the Innocence Project wrote back. They believed him. But there was no DNA for them to work with. So in 2007, they got WilmerHale, a high-powered New York City law firm, to take on his case pro bono.
Bozella: They spent over $1 million just to help get me free. I went to the parole board in 2007. They had a 65-page document. And in that 65 pages, they were explainin' to the parole board why they should let me go home.
Lee: But Dewey said the parole board didn't want to hear the evidence his lawyers had put together. The only wanted to talk about the crime and hear him admit guilt. Admitting guilt and showing remorse is often the first step to parole.
Bozella: I said, "Ma'am, sir," to each member on the parole board. I said, "I might as well get this off my chest. Because they're not listenin'." I said, "I'm telling you I didn't do this. I did not commit no murder. And if you're waitin' for me to tell you I committed this murder, I'm gonna tell you right now. I'm gonna die in prison." And I got up and I left. They gave me two more years. They gave me two more years. I didn't even care no more. I said, "I got this up off my chest. Whatever they're gonna do, they're gonna do anyway." And they gave me two more years.
Lee: Did you give up at that point? Or did you still have hope?
Bozella: No, I didn't give up. What happened was I went to a special parole board in 2008. And then when this time I went to the parole board, my lawyers came up to me. And they said, "Mr. Bozella, we don't know what to do. Everything in your case is either destroyed, or we can't find the witnesses."
And then something inside me, I don't know what it was, something inside me just told me to tell 'em. I said, "I want you to understand somethin'. The officer who arrested me when I was a kid told me when I was a kid he was going to get me. No one wants to believe me." I said, "I just got a gut feeling he might have a change of heart now. Just do me a favor and just go by and see him, man." So eight months later, they finally go by and see him. He let him in, Ross asked him a question.
Lee: Dewey's talkin' about Ross Firsenbaum, one of his lawyers from WilmerHale.
Bozella: "Do you have a recollection about Mr. Dewey Bozella case?" "Yes, I do. I want you to know that I kept his personal files at my house for the last 19 years."
Bozella: "Are you supposed to keep Mr. Bozella's files at your house?" He said, "No, I'm not." "Have you kept anybody else's file at your house?" He said, "No, I haven't." He said, "When I retired from the police force, I took Mr. Bozella's files with me and kept 'em here for the last 19 years. Because I always knew that one day someone will come talk about his case. Here are his files."
Lee: The same officer who told Dewey he'd get him all those years ago had held onto evidence that prosecutors illegally withheld from Dewey's defense, evidence that pointed to a different killer. It was the break Dewey and his lawyers needed.
Bozella: Well, they're right behind that. They got paperwork from the judge to be allowed to go into the prosecutin' district attorney's office and go through his files dealing with my case. When the judge finally allowed them to go inside their files to go into my case, there was one specific box that was missin'.
But the other three boxes were there. And inside one of them boxes was a taped statement recording that I did not commit the murder. It was someone else. They brought it before the judge. And when the judge heard it, he said, "This is overwhelming evidence. If he'd had this in any of the two trials, I believe it would have been a different verdict." "What you gonna do, Mr. Prosecutin' District Attorney?" "We can't do nothin', sir." And the judge dismissed it. And I was gone.
Lee: On October 14th, 2009, a New York State Supreme Court judge overturned Dewey's conviction. The prosecutors declined to try him again. And two weeks later, he walked out of prison for the very last time. That made him one of just 2,810 people who have been exonerated in the past 32 years. When Dewey got out, he was 50. Twenty-six years of his life had been stolen. But he kept boxing, always dreaming of turning pro.
Bozella: I came out and I was goin' to Ray Rivera's gym in Newburgh, New York, where I was volunteer work with the kids. And as I was doin' volunteer work with the kids, the Innocence Project told ESPN about what I was doin' and whatever my activities were since I've been home. And then they came by, did an interview on me and everything to see my activities.
Lee: In 2011, ESPN started following Dewey for a documentary. He also made the short list for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, one of the most prestigious awards at the ESPYs.
Bozella: Oh, really? Oh, okay. Next thing I know they told me I won an award. I said, "Oh, wow." So I'm speakin' in front of 7 million people on TV. (AIRPLANE)
Archival Recording: Thank you.
Bozella: Good evening. Every day I had to ask myself, "How do I survive this nightmare in Sing Sing?" I didn't really want to survive. I wanted to thrive. Boxin' awakened me. I felt free doin' my workout for the first time. I was no longer a prisoner. My vision became clear. I vow to save children. And teachin' boxin', and sharin' my story hopefully I can save others.
And I said something. I said, "If I ever had the chance, one thing that I would want in life, I would love to turn pro to find out, to see what I had inside of me." And so Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins heard about it and spread the word. "Yo, there's this one guy." (LAUGH) Let's make this happen.
Lee: At 52 years old, it finally happened. The boxin' community pulled together and organized a fight between Dewey and Larry Hopkins on October 10th, 2011. It was an undercard, a fight before the main event at Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was broadcast on HBO pay-per-view. This was the real deal.
Bozella: So the night before the fight, something happened. I'm inside the room. A phone call came in. And when the phone call came in, they said, "Here." They hand the phone to me. You know, "Who the hell is this?" And when I answered, I said, "Hello." "I think it's Barack Obama." I said, "Oh." (LAUGHTER)
Lee: Oh, man. The moment was captured by ESPN and later aired on their 30 for 30 documentary about Dewey.
Bozella: "Yes, is this Mr. President?"
Obama: "Yes, sir. How are you?"
Bozella: "Oh, my God. (LAUGH) I'm good, man. I'm good." I said, "Oh, for real?" I mean, I was just as shocked--
Lee: Did you recognize his voice--
Bozella: Yeah, immediately.
Bozella: Immediately. Immediately. (LAUGH) Immediately.
Obama: I'd heard about your about your story. And I wanted to call and say, "Good luck in your first professional fight."
Bozella: Oh, man. That's a honor. Thank you very much.
Obama: Everything you accomplished while you were in prison and what you've been doing since you got out is somethin' that I think all of us are very impressed with.
Bozella: He said, "Congratulations. I'm very proud of you. And, you know, keep up the good work."
Obama: You're certain there's only gonna be one fight you're gonna fight, huh?
Bozella: Yes, absolutely. Yeah.
Obama: All right, man. Well, I wish you all the best. Take care.
Bozella: Okay, Mr. President. Take care.
Bozella: Bye-bye. And I was like, "I'm really talkin' to the president." And then when we hung up, I got emotional. But the emotional wasn't the same emotional. It was like an emotional like, "Yo, this fight is no longer about you. This fight is about everybody who gave up, everybody who said that you can't do it."
The people who just want to just get high and get away from everything, or the people that just want to go out here and commit crimes because, you know, they don't believe in the system no more." You know, the people who just feel like, you know, "Man everybody turned their back on me. I ain't got nothin' to live for." I said, "Yo, this is no longer about you, Dewey." And that's what made say, "I can't lose."
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICES) So there's a look before the fight at Bozella. And that's the opponent, Hopkins, across the ring. He's 52 years old. He boxed in prison. But this is first ever profession fight. And--
Lee: This is from HBO's broadcast.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICE) Bozella's defenses really got good. Instead of stayin' straight up now, he goes underneath the right hand.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICE) There go the hands. There go the hands.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICE) Bozella's footwork so much better as the fight went on.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICE) Yeah, he's goin' forward now. He's puttin' a lotta pressure on him.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICE) It's tied.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICE) And that's the end of round three.
Lee: He didn't lose.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICE) Ladies and gentlemen, after four rounds of boxing action, we go to the judges' score cards. For your winner by unanimous decision, Dewey Bozella. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: And true to his word, he ended his career right then and there with a record of 1-0.
Bozella: My main thing is to everybody that's here that watched this fight or people around the world, you know, don't let nobody tell you what you can't do. Nobody. Don't ever let nobody tell you what you can't do. Because when you allow someone to take away your dreams, the only one you hurt is yourself.
Lee: In 2015, Dewey got a $7.5 million settlement from the county for his ordeal. Today he lives in Atlanta. He likes the pace of life there, less hustle and bustle than the city he grew up in. He wrote a memoir. He does speaking gigs. And he still mentors kids in boxing, helping instill the same lessons that saved his life.
Bozella: Boxin' has a way of making you have discipline, period. Discipline in everything that you want to deal with in life. And outside of boxin' what I try to do is I try to teach a kid, you know, how to move forward with his life, him or her. But what are you doin' with your life? How are you preparing yourself with your life? How do you see yourself in life? As time goes along, you'll get to be a better person.
Lee: But there's something else in his life now that takes precedence over everything.
Bozella: (BABY CRYING) Come on, come on, come on, come on.
Lee: His three-year-old son.
Bozella: Calm down. (BABY CRYING)
Child's Voice: I cold. (CRYING)
Bozella: You're cold? Okay.
Child's Voice: Yeah.
Bozella: I got you. I got you. I got you. I got you. Calm down. I'd rather hear this all day than be locked up behind them damn prison walls. (BABY CRYING) Oh, do you think that's a blanket? Your blanket? Go get it.
Lee: That was Dewey Bozella, author, retired pro boxer, free man and father. You can learn more about Dewey's story in his memoir, Stand Tall: Fighting for My Life, or the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about him. This story was part of a week of coverage here at NBC News and MSNBC called Justice for All.
Be sure to check out all of our reporting from across the country on wrongful convictions. You can tweet me @trymainelee. That's @trymainelee, my full name. Or write to us at email@example.com. That was intoamerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I.com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Shaka Tafari, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.