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Dewey Bozella: Fighting For Truth
Integrity is defined as sticking to moral and ethical principles in spite of pressures or persuasions to do otherwise.
Integrity also means personal commitment to honesty, truthfulness, sincerity and frankness — and to stick to that truth no matter what arguments are made to invite a lie.
This all sounds fairly good, fairly simple. Integrity shouldn’t be too tough to maintain. Unless … unless one is presented with arguments and persuasions that seem impossible to refuse.
For example, what if you were locked up in Sing Sing federal prison for a crime you didn’t commit – say, the brutal murder of a 92-year-old woman? Everyone else says you’re guilty. But you have never admitted guilt. In fact, you always insisted on your innocence.
What if, after years of unjust confinement, you were offered freedom? You can walk out of prison, a totally free person. But one specific condition must be met: You have to admit you committed the crime. Otherwise, it’s back to your cell.
This was the decision faced by Dewey Bozella, who in 1983 was convicted of the murder of a 92-year-old woman, even though he maintained he had never met her and was nowhere near the location. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, but he was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years to life in Sing Sing penitentiary. And then, in 1990, prosecutors offered a plea bargain: admit your guilt, and you can go free.
Would you admit to it, and gain your freedom, even though it wasn’t true?
The details of Bozella’s case, his initial acquittal in 1977 and subsequent retrial and conviction 6 years later, and his activities during his prison term, are remarkable. They not only highlight the frailties that plague the justice system, but also reveal Bozella’s amazing strength of purpose and unflagging commitment to the truth — what’s called integrity.
The tale begins one evening in 1977, when 92-year-old Emma Crapser returns to her Poughkeepsie, NY, apartment after a bingo game. The police allege that she surprised a burglary in progress, and that the burglar was 18-year-old Dewey Bozella, a sometime petty thief who killed her and fled.
Bozella, who admits to living a life of petty crime at the time, was charged with the murder. But a grand jury refused to indict him. The evidence was just too flimsy. For Bozella, it was a wake-up call. He straightened up his life, walked away from crime, and moved upstate to Poughkeepsie, where he took up boxing, something he’d always been interested in pursuing. And he was pretty good at it.
But trouble came knocking again. Six years later, the police came looking for him with two ex-cons to testify that Bozella was indeed the murderer. In exchange for this damning testimony, the two crooks were given their freedom. And sure enough, a new trial found Dewey Bozella guilty of murder. In 1983 he was sent to Sing Sing for 20 to life.
Not one to take it lying down, Bozella fought for, and won, the chance for a second trial in 1990. The prosecutor even offered him a plea bargain – just say you did it, and you can go free!
Bozella’s personal integrity wouldn’t allow him to tell that lie. He refused to admit to a crime he didn’t commit. It cost him his freedom. He was convicted again, and sent back to prison.
“I’d die before I would tell you I did it. I can’t, I can’t. You are not going to make me say something I didn’t do,” Bozella told ESPN this year.
As the years rolled by, and although he was a model prisoner, he was denied parole on four occasions. But never gave up. That wasn’t Bozella’s style.
For years Bozella sent letters to the Innocence Project (IP) asking for help. IP is one of several non-profit legal organizations in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand, dedicated to proving the innocence of wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing. IP finally agreed to examine Bozella’s case, but hit a serious roadblock: there was no DNA evidence to test – the police had destroyed the evidence in the case.
IP referred Bozella’s case to a law firm, WilmerHale, who agreed to look into it. The law firm’s investigations turned up the senior lead detective in the investigation, and this led to an astounding revelation. The detective had a copy of the Bozella case files — the only files he had taken home when he retired – and he handed them over the WilmerHale. In that box of files was a bombshell – new evidence not only proving Bozella was innocent, but also that the prosecution had knowingly suppressed it.
“I had figured someday someone would come knocking on my door,” the retired cop said later. “There were certain things in the case that made me have doubts whether Dewey Bozella was actually involved. I just could never throw it away.”
The files uncovered prosecution witnesses who had lied, and a suspect who had confessed to the crime — all of this withheld from Bozella’s lawyers at trial, and throughout all those years in prison.
A state supreme court justice ruled that the district attorney on Bozella’s case failed to disclose crucial evidence that would have proved Bozella’s innocence at trial.
At last, Dewey Bozella was proved innocent. He was released in October, 2009 after being imprisoned unjustly, some might reasonably say criminally, for 26 years.
Bozella says he knew he’d get out, one way or another. “I knew I was getting out of prison. Either I was going to die in there and go out in a box, or I was going to walk out of there a free man,” Bozella said. Fortunately, he walked out through those gates a free man.
But there is another aspect to this whole story, one which speaks to all of us about our hopes and dreams, and making them come true.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Dewey Bozella was only 9 years old when he watched his father beat his pregnant mother to death. Another brother was stabbed and killed. And another was shot in the head. It was a common enough scenario in hardscrabble Brooklyn in the 1960s. And little Dewey fell easily into a life of petty crime.
But as he grew up, Dewey also grew big, and strong. He was attracted to the fight game, to boxing, to the heroes of those times who rose from lowly beginnings to fame and fortune – Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Roberto Duran, Larry Holmes – not to mention Willie Benitez, who at 17 became the youngest world champion in boxing history. There’s a lot of glitter and glitz in the fight game, and no shortage of heroes and villains.
But before he could get his first pro fight, Dewey found himself in prison. And there’s no chance for a million-dollar boxing career in Sing Sing. But Dewey discovered that there is lots of boxing at Sing Sing. And through boxing, Bozella found salvation. During the days, he worked out tirelessly in Sing Sing’s gym. It was an incredibly freeing and empowering activity. He said the boxing and studying helped him channel his anger into positive results.
“I learned to take myself from the bad position and make it a better position, because if I hold onto it I’m just going to burn with hatred,” he explained.
He was good enough in the ring to win the prison’s light-heavyweight title, and even got the opportunity to fight Golden Gloves champ Lou Del Valle. And he held tight to his dream of getting out of prison in time to fight as a professional — at least one fight — before he was too old.
At night, he worked hard earning his GED and 52 other certificates, including some trades. Then he earned a bachelor’s degree, and finally a masters degree from New York Theological Seminary.
Then one day he met a woman who was visiting another inmate, and they began a correspondence. They fell in love, and eventually married. But when Dewey Bozella was finally released, he was 50 years old. There was no chance at a boxing career now. Would it be the end of his dream to fight just one professional fight as a free man?
Enter famed champion boxer Bernard Hopkins, himself an ex-con. Hopkins heard about Bozella’s story, and offered him a chance to fight on the undercard of his championship bout against Chad Dawson at Los Angeles’ Staples Center in July, 2011.
Bozella jumped at the chance, and was scheduled for a real pro fight, a four-rounder against Larry Hopkins, 30, of Houston, who was 0-3 as a professional (and not related to Bernard Hopkins) and 22 years younger than Bozella.
“This is not a charity case,” Bernard Hopkins told the Los Angeles Times. “This man is fulfilling his dream.”
But when he took the rigorous California State Athletic Commission test on Aug. 24 to get licensed to box in the state, Bozella failed. After Labor Day, he began working out in Philadelphia with Bernard Hopkins’ trainers. They remained skeptical.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to kill this old guy,’ ” said Danny Davis, one of the trainers. “There’s no way this guy can make it through my training.”
But according to a piece about Bozella in the New York Times, Dewey just worked harder, got tougher, leaner and more nimble, dropped 10 pounds in a week, and passed his second qualification attempt. The Staples Center fight was on.
It gets even better. Before the fight, Bozella was honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2011 ESPYs – the ESPN sports network awards that celebrate courage and conviction – the kind of courage that carried Bozella to freedom after 26 years of imprisonment, and then to the undercard at the Staples Center, at age 52 – possibly the oldest fighter ever to take a pro match.
As if that wasn’t enough, President Obama called Dewey to wish him luck. “I heard about your story,” Obama told him. “Everything you have accomplished while you were in prison and everything you have been doing since you got out is something that I think all of us are very impressed with.”
And finally, the day arrived, Saturday, July 13, at the Staples Center. Dewey Bozella took that long walk from the dressing room to the ring. It was still early in the evening, hours before the main event, but his story had been published widely. Several thousand fight fans were already there to see Dewey Bozella’s first pro fight.
And what a fight. For the first two rounds, Dewey was a little at sea, a little unfocused, but he acquitted himself well enough. Then in the final two rounds, he really arrived, and hunted his opponent down all over the ring. Dewey Bozella was finally achieving his dream – at least one pro bout before he was too old. And he won the fight by a unanimous decision of all three judges.
“This was my first and last fight,” Bozella said after the fight. “This is a young man’s game. I did what I came to do. I appreciate what everyone did for me. This was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Dewey would like to open his own gym, to continue his work helping underprivileged teenagers learn boxing skills and the dangers of gangs and leading lives of crime. He also appears as a motivational speaker for various occasions. And he is enjoying his marriage, and his hard-won freedom.
Dewey Bozella’s integrity and dedication to his goals are a lesson for all of us. Our past mistakes and misdeeds can be overcome. And what others think of us is no excuse to get down on ourselves or to give up. At Novus, we help our clients reclaim lives which have gone off the rails because of substance abuse and addiction.
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