Innocent Man Writes His Way Out of Prison After 62,000 Letters


By Hans Sherrer

Justice:Denied, Vol. 2, Issue 9, pg 17-18

Wrongfully convicted of a cab driver's 1987 murder, Anthony Faison wrote 62,000 letters over 12 years in an effort to find someone who could find the truth that would set him and his friend, Charles Shepard, free.


After responding to a pickup call in Brooklyn at 5 a.m. on March 14, 1987, Jean Ulysses was found by a passing police car in his cab dying from a single bullet fired through his right cheek.

Contacted by detectives looking for leads, police informant Nicky Roper suggested they talk to Carolyn Van Buren. She told the detectives that she saw Anthony Faison, who lived on the street where the murder took place, shoot the cab driver during a holdup while his best friend, Charles Shepard, acted as a lookout.

Professing their innocence, the two men were arrested and tried. There was no physical evidence that linked them to the murder, and Ms. Van Buren's testimony was the sole "evidence" of any kind against the men. Although she admitted she was a drug user and that she drank 10 beers on the night of the shooting, the jury believed her story. On May 31, 1988 the jury convicted Mr. Faison and Mr. Shepard of second degree murder.

The two men were sentenced to life imprisonment. When Anthony asked for a sentencing delay to marry his pregnant girlfriend, his request was denied by New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert Kreindler. He said: "In the eyes of the law he is legally dead." Another disappointment was that Anthony's two-year-old daughter was sent to live with foster parents.

After being imprisoned for a year, Anthony began to write letters to anyone and everyone who he thought might be able to help exonerate Charles and him. Over the next 12 years Anthony doggedly hand wrote an average of 14 letters a day, 7 days a week. He wrote to members of Congress, senators, lawyers, law enforcement officials, state legislators and strangers. His nickname among inmates and staff alike was "The Writer."

In describing his letter writing, Anthony said: "There were weekends where I'd just stay in for 48 hours straight. Cook in the cage, eat in the cage. And when Monday morning rolls around, I may have 60 letters." Carefully logging each letter in a notebook, Anthony placed a red check next to each letter that was answered.

In January 1999, Anthony noticed a new name posted on the prison's law library bulletin board: Michael S. Race, a Long Island private investigator with 23 years experience as a homicide detective. Anthony wrote Mr. Race a four-page letter, mentioning that Ms. Van Buren had AIDS and if she died without recanting her testimony he might lose his only chance to be exonerated. In February he received a response. Michael Race had taken Anthony's letter seriously, and it inspired him to search for, locate, and interview Carolyn Van Buren. In his letter Michael Race wrote: "She admits that the whole story is a lie!" Ms. Van Buren admitted that Nicky Roper had cooked up the scheme for her to testify against Anthony and Charles, and they split the $1,000 police reward.

Her retraction was backed by physical evidence. Ms. Van Buren testified that she saw Anthony shoot the cab driver while standing on the driver's side of the cab. That couldn't be true, however, because the driver's door was locked and the window was up and unbroken when the police arrived. So the shooter must have been in the back seat and used the unlocked rear door to leave the cab.

Continuing on his one-man instigation, Mr. Race found Nicky Roper. He admitted coaching Carolyn Van Buren about identifying the two men. In an April 2000 deposition Mr. Roper said he wanted to get even with Anthony Faison who was a construction worker, for refusing to recommend him for a job where he worked.

In April 2000 Michael Race also learned about a letter received in August 1988 by Kimiyo Strawder from her then boyfriend, Arlet Cheston. Ms. Strawder told Michael that Mr. Cheston had written to her about "two guys from around the way that are doing time for a murder he committed." Riding in the cab's back seat, he said he "did what he had to do" after the driver refused to give him his money.

Although Ms. Van Buren's retraction, Mr. Roper's deposition and Ms. Strawder's information seemed to be compelling new evidence exonerating Anthony and Charles, a Court refused to vacate their conviction. The denial of that appeal was one of a dozen rejected by various Courts during the course of the men's case.

Lawyer Ron Kuby had also received one of Anthony's letters, but he didn't take an interest in his case until Michael Race contacted him. Focusing on 11 fingerprints recovered from the cab that didn't match those of either Anthony or Charles, Mr. Kuby petitioned a judge on April 20, 2001 to order that they be compared with Arlet Cheston's. The order was granted, and the tests revealed that two prints from the cab's glass partition were similar to those of Mr. Cheston. He was arrested on May 11, and his confession that night to Mr. Ulysses' murder was videotaped.

His confession accomplished what a dozen appeals over 13 years had failed to do. On May 14, 2001, Justice Kreindler, who 13 years before had said that Anthony was "legally dead," ordered the immediate release of Anthony Faison and Charles Shepard.

After their release the two men filed a $60 million wrongful conviction suit against the state. Anthony is trying to regain custody of his daughter, who is now 15, and his son by his ex-girlfriend who is now 13. Charles can now be more than the absentee father to his son that he was for 13 years.

Considering their life sentences, Anthony Faison and Charles Shepard had a fairy tale ending to the tragic injustice inflicted upon them. Yet the two men would have had no chance to rebuild their lives if Anthony had let tens of thousands of unanswered letters stop him from continuing to try to find the one person on the outside who could, and would be willing to assist Charles and him to find the evidence that would prove their innocence. If Anthony had quit after 5,000, or 25,000, or even 60,000 letters, he wouldn't have provided Michael Race with the chance to give the crucial helping hand that led to them walking out of prison as free men.

Anthony explained his persistence by saying: "My philosophy was this: The only way I will get out of prison is to write myself out. And I lived by that. And that's exactly what I did." The 62,000 letters that Anthony wrote are carefully logged in 10 notebooks, and the entry to his fateful letter to Michael Race has a red check next to it.

Source: "Among inmate's 62,000 letters, one leads to freedom," Larry McShane (AP), Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, SC, August 26, 2001, A1 and A8.

Comment on Anthony Faison by Hans Sherrer

I think Time Magazine made a serious mistake. My nominee for 2001's Man of the Year is Anthony Faison. Mr. Faison's never say die attitude and dogged determination to clear his friend and himself under the most trying of circumstances and in the face of unrelenting disappointment for 12 years, exemplifies the spirit of America at its most magnificent.