Falsely Accused 'Killer' Writes a Wrong

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The handwritten letter, with the return address of an Upstate prison, ran four pages.

It arrived, unsolicited, on Jan. 22, 1999. "Dear Mr. Race," it began politely, before detailing the 1987 murder of a Brooklyn cabby. Two innocent men, it claimed, had spent the last dozen years in prison for the robbery and slaying.

One of those men was the writer, Anthony Faison. He had never met the letter's recipient, an ex-NYPD detective turned private eye named Michael Race.

The letter was one of 6,000 mailed that year by Faison, one of 62,000 letters he wrote over 13 years as an inmate and logged into 10 notebooks. Virtually all of the letters were postal "cold calls."

Faison wrote then-President Clinton and New York Gov. George Pataki. He wrote cops and congressmen, lawyers and legislators, senators and strangers--20 letters a day. Every day. Year after year.

Each letter was handwritten, the pen gripped tightly, as if Anthony Faison were squeezing every ounce of his hope into each sentence, each paragraph.

Like a jailhouse Johnny Appleseed, Faison scattered his words from coast to coast. Somewhere, he hoped, his tale of injustice would take root.

By the time Michael Race reached the last line in his letter--"Your assistance may save the rest of my life"--a seed of doubt about Faison's conviction had been planted.

It would take more than two years for that seed to grow into a truth so obvious that it could not be denied.

*

Growing up in Brooklyn, Anthony Faison was known as "Shan."

In 1987, the 21-year-old lived in a Crown Heights apartment, rearing his 2-year-old daughter and working a $700-a-week construction job with his closest friend, Charles Shepherd.

The pair took their work seriously. When a local druggie named Nicky Roper asked for a job recommendation, they turned him down cold.

At 5 a.m. on March 14, 1987, cabby Jean Ulysses arrived to answer a radio call on the street outside Faison's apartment. Minutes later, a passing police car found Ulysses, 46, dying with a single bullet hole through his right cheek.

The cab was locked, except for its rear passenger door.

Homicide detectives approached Nicky Roper, looking for the street buzz on the slaying. Roper steered them to Carolyn Van Buren, who said she watched from across the street as the cabby was killed during a holdup.

The shooter was Faison, she said. The lookout was his pal, Shepherd.

Their trial became what lawyers call a "one-witness case." The verdict would hinge on Van Buren's testimony, because there was no physical evidence against the defendants.

Despite a drug problem and an admission that she had consumed 10 beers on the night of the shooting, Van Buren proved convincing. On May 31, 1988, a Brooklyn jury convicted Faison and Shepherd, 25, of second-degree murder.

Their sentence: life.

Faison asked for a sentencing delay to marry his pregnant girlfriend. The request was rejected: "In the eyes of the law," ruled state Supreme Court Justice Robert Kreindler, "he is legally dead."

During his first year behind bars, Faison's frustration built. The new inmate studied his fellow prisoners to see how they handled the all-consuming emotion.

"Some people become bitter," Faison remembers. "Hate the world. Stab and kill and fight all day. Some people lose their minds. Some people commit suicide."

Faison picked up a pen.

The decision was intuitive; the high school dropout was hardly Hemingway. But the connection was instantaneous, and the letters began flowing.

Each one was tailored for its target. But there was one constant: Recipients universally ignored his claim of innocence. The rejections only strengthened Faison's resolve.

"There were weekends where I'd just stay in for 48 hours straight," he remembers. "Cook in the cage, eat in the cage. And when Monday morning rolls around, I may have 60 letters."

His prolific penmanship earned him a nickname among the inmates and officers at the Green Haven Correctional Facility: "The Writer." Money earned at his job in the prison library, along with donations from his family, kept him in stamps. Over 13 years it amounted to thousands of dollars.

Outside his cell, Faison discovered that writers commanded little respect among the killers and rapists. He was stabbed in the back with an ice pick. A forearm to his face left Faison with a broken nose.

He fended off sexual predators, and witnessed the slayings of four other inmates.

Five years passed. Ten years. His daughter, now 12, was living with foster parents. He also had a son, being reared by the girlfriend he had wanted to marry.

Faison kept picking up his pen.

*

In January 1999, Faison visited the prison law library, where a bulletin board routinely listed attorneys and other legal sources. A new name had appeared: Michael S. Race, a Long Island private investigator.

Faison immediately wrote a four-page letter.

He noted that he now faced an additional problem: The lone prosecution witness had AIDS. If she died without recanting, his longshot hopes for freedom might disappear entirely.

In an act now as rote as his daily wake-up and lockdown, Faison slipped the letter into the prison's outgoing mail. The response that arrived the next month left him stunned.

"I want you to read this letter while sitting down, and no screaming," Race's letter began. The private eye had already interviewed Carolyn Van Buren.

"She admits that the whole story is a lie!" Race's letter declared. Van Buren admitted wrongfully identifying the pair for a $1,000 police reward; she split the money with Nicky Roper.

Race, 50, was an unlikely ally for a convicted killer. In 23 years as a homicide detective, he handled 750 murder investigations. He was as hard-boiled as anything dreamed up by Mickey Spillane. He knew that the prisons were full of "innocent" people.

But Faison's letter struck a nerve. Race couldn't quite explain why, but the letter had a certain . . . something.

Van Buren's retraction was backed by the physical evidence, Race noted. The witness claimed Faison was standing on the driver's side of the cab when he fired the fatal shot.

But the driver was shot on the right side of his face--the passenger's side. And since only the cab's rear passenger door was unlocked, it seemed clear the shooter was inside the car and left that way.

The ex-detective continued his legwork. He tracked down Roper, who admitted coaching Van Buren when she identified the "suspects." His motive? Roper, in an April 2000 deposition, said he was bitter over the pair's construction job snub.

Word of another letter surfaced that month, this one from a Brooklyn man named Arlet Cheston to his girlfriend, Kimiyo Strawder. In August 1988, Strawder said, Cheston wrote her about "two guys from around the way that are doing time for a murder" that he committed.

Cheston said he was riding in a cab's back seat; when the driver refused to surrender his money, he did what he had to do, Strawder told Race.

This was still not enough to free Faison and Shepherd. Over time, between the pair, they had a dozen appeals rejected--including this one.

*

Radical lawyer Ron Kuby had received one of Faison's letters from prison--one of dozens of such pleas from prisoners that pour into his Manhattan office.

"I ignored his letter," Kuby confesses, "like everybody else did."

But once contacted by Race, Kuby quickly shared the investigator's belief in Faison's innocence.

Kuby focused on a piece of physical evidence long ignored--11 fingerprints recovered from the cab. On April 30 of this year, Kuby asked a judge to force a comparison of those 14-year-old prints to those of Arlet Cheston.

The judge agreed. Cheston's prints were on file from several previous arrests. There was a match with two fingerprints lifted from the cab's glass partition.

Cheston was arrested May 11. That night, in a videotaped confession to police, he cleared Faison and Shepherd.

"This kind of stuff only happens on television," Kuby says. "I was astounded."

Three days later, Kuby stood with Faison and Shepherd before Judge Kreindler. It was 17 days short of the 13th anniversary of their convictions before the same judge; they were in the very same courtroom.

Kreindler had no choice this time: He ordered their immediate release. "About time!" shouted friends and supporters as the two free men left the courtroom.

Since their release, the pair have focused on getting their lives back in order. They filed a $60-million wrongful conviction case against the state. Faison is trying to regain custody of his daughter. Shepherd, whose girlfriend also was pregnant when he was convicted, is spending time with a son who grew up without a father.

When he left prison for the last time, Faison carried 10 black notebooks. Inside, a record of Faison's mailings was carefully recorded. A red mark indicated those letters that were answered; one of those marks sits beside the name Michael S. Race.

The notebooks remain at Faison's home, a reminder of the persistence that ultimately led to exoneration.

"My philosophy was this: The only way that I will get out of prison is to write myself out," Faison says. "And I lived by that. And that's exactly what I did."

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