By Andrew Schmertz
He comes across as reserved and as a reluctant spokesperson for a miscarriage of justice. But who can blame Dion Harrell, who just last week was formally cleared of a 1988 rape, even the prosecutor now admits, he did not commit.
Schmertz: Can you describe to me your feeling when at least at that point this chapter of your life was over?
Harrell: I felt good.
Harrell and his attorney, Vanessa Potkin from The Innocence Project, sat down with us to share Harrell’s story — a tortured journey through the justice system that began on the streets of Long Branch.
Going from accused, to convicted to eventually cleared. A woman had accused him of raping her, and it is largely on that testimony that he went to jail.
Harrell: It was crazy.
Harrell: It was like a shock, man. I was getting arrested for something. They took me downtown. They kept questioning me. I kept asking them what they were locking me up for. When they told me I just flipped out.
Schmertz: And that does happen. People think eyewitness testimony is so compelling, but the cases seem to suggest that without additional evidence it’s often wrong.
Potkin: That’s right. The mind is not like a tape recorder — people think you can go back and replay exactly what happened. In this case the victim was working at McDonalds and she was on her way home, she lived about a block and a half away, when she was attacked. Dion happened to live across the street from that McDonalds. He was 22 years old at the time. You know, he was just in the McDonalds parking lot when she saw him and thought he was her attacker.
So in 1988, Harrell was arrested and charged with rape. At just 22 years old, Harrell couldn’t afford an attorney, so he was represented by a public defender, who he says kept pushing for him to plead guilty.
Harrell: From the door, she tried to get me to cop out. I told her she was crazy. I’m not going to cop out to nothing.
But Harrell did go to trial, and was convicted in 1992 and spent four years in prison. In 1996, upon release, he had to register as a sex offender. Then in 2013, after receiving numerous letters from Harrell, The Innocence Project, a nonprofit co-founded by famed OJ Simpson attorney Barry Scheck, agreed to take the case.
But they faced an obstacle, New Jersey wouldn’t allow DNA testing for defendants if they weren’t currently in jail.
Schmertz: What was your reaction when you found out at first the state would not test the DNA because you were out of prison.
Harrell: I don’t quite understand that part.
Schmertz: You feel like they should have done that.
Harrell: They should have took the DNA before they put me in jail, or try to. You don’t put someone away because someone says you did something to them — that’s wrong.
It wasn’t until 2015 that the state changed the law. Harrell’s DNA was tested, it didn’t match the assailants and last week the conviction was tossed out.
But not before Harrell spent 20 years on the sex offender registry — a publicly accessible list created by Megan’s Law. Megan Kanka was a 7-year-old girl from Hamilton Township who was raped and murdered by a known-sex offender.
Schmertz: Then you got out, and the ordeal was not over. Because now you had to register as a sex offender. What was your reaction to being told you had to do that?
Schmertz: And you didn’t want to do it at first?
Schmertz: How did it impact your life?
Harrell: It destroyed my life. Tore my whole life up. Took me away from my family for years.
Schmertz: You couldn’t live, you were going to move in with a family member who had children?
Harrell: Couldn’t do it.
Schmertz: Couldn’t do it. What about employment?
Harrell: That was a struggle, too.
Schmertz: What do you say to people who say that this list is very important, that people should be aware of potential sex offenders, that despite the cases where there’s wrongful convictions, the good from it outweighs the bad?
Potkin: We really need to rethink what we’re doing with sex offender registries and really take a step back and look at all the collateral consequences of convictions. I think that what Dion’s case really exemplifies is that the sex offender registry is overly broad because there are people who are factually innocent. He’s not the only person. There are other people who are on parole before him around the county who are on parole and on sex offender registries in other states who later were proven innocent by DNA testing.
The Monmouth County prosecutor issued the following statement: “Our goal as prosecutors is to see that justice is done. Mr. Harrell’s 1992 conviction was based upon the best evidence available at that time. Advancements in science have now provided evidence of Mr. Harrell’s innocence, and our duty to act is clear.”
New Jersey does have a program to compensate those wrongly convicted of crimes, but The Innocence Project says it only covers the years spent in jail — not the years of stigma that follow.
Schmertz: What is your message for people in a similar situation that you went through?
Harrell: If you get arrested for something you didn’t do, don’t give up. Keep fighting. Eventually the doors will open for you.