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The Rayburn Building's Spirit of Justice statue, U.S. Capitol

On July 22, 2021, my childhood friend Grant Williams was exonerated from a murder conviction. The 1996 conviction haunted his life and stained his name. He served 23 years — and 18 months on parole — for a crime he did not commit.

As I look at the photos of his press conference, Grant looked good after doing all that time. But I know time stands still for no man and the time lost with his mother, children, family and friends who endured the agony of his unjust conviction were not captured in those photos. 

He spent 8,395 days in New York prisons. He spent untold hours in a cell dealing with loneliness, isolation, fear and pain in a brutal system of oppression. He fought familiar foes that Black men face for their freedom.

In 1997, while I was dealing with my life challenges, I heard Grant was locked up for a homicide, and I could not believe it. Grant, who we called “Un,” for “Understanding,” was many things, but he was not a murderer.

Un was a funny, energetic person, whose banter about the ladies he dated was humorous and engaging. Un had the Stapleton housing projects in Staten Island jumping on Saturday mornings as he played the latest tunes from his balcony. 

I had known Un for a long time and never once did I hear anyone say anything negative about him. When I got myself together, I inquired about what really happened — the streets told the truth. I knew then that he was wrongly convicted.

Un called me in 1998 while appealing his conviction. We spoke about many things, he mentioned he was innocent and would prove it one day. 

Once I was able to get some free time, I went to visit Un at the Green Haven Correctional Facility. On that visit he asked if I would help him prove his innocence. I said, “Hell, yeah.” 

One of the ironies of this story is that Green Haven Correctional Facility is where I now reside. In the months and years that followed before I was convicted of a crime I have denied, I honored my word to Un. 

I accompanied a private investigator in Stapleton where the crime took place to find witnesses and was amazed at how easily the truth came out. I helped the private investigator track down witnesses in prison and in the other four boroughs. I could not believe that the New York City police and the Staten Island district attorney did not do the same thing. 

As the truth was revealed, I have never heard Un say one bad thing about law enforcement. 

Un kept a smile and his words to himself. Eventually I, too, was convicted of a crime, and the reason I am able to fight so hard is because of my involvement in seeking the truth of Un’s situation. 

The hope I now have is because of Un. He is the first person exonerated by the new conviction integrity unit created by District Attorney Michael McMahon. 

As I sat in prison for years, waiting for Un to be exonerated, I thought about my ancestors’ road to freedom. I thought about all the setbacks, violence, promises and lies told, and lives lost fighting for freedom. 

Un fought for his freedom like our brothers in the Civil War, our sisters who walked in Selma and those who marched on Washington. I thought about how these ancestors kept their heads up, and many never said a vengeful word to the enemy while navigating the obstacles on freedom’s road. 

I watched Un proudly at the exoneration press conference, heard his words and admired his poise. He was an example for all human beings and a freedom fighter like those of past generations. 

Like them, he remained steadfast in fighting the injustice imposed upon him. He rectified the injustice with persistence, patience and forcing the system to honor the ideals the United States Constitution guarantees. Un will never say this, but the road to freedom is hard, painful and stressful. Freedoms are taken away from those unable to fight back. The criminal justice system is broken.

This system took 23 years from Un. The repercussions are devastating to his family. His children live with the stigma of their loved one being labeled a murderer.

Prison is a place many don’t survive, much less with their morals intact. Yet Un survived with strength, dignity and grace. So, congratulations are in order to my friend for winning his freedom and giving many others in the same situation hope on the road to freedom.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Paul Thompson is a writer incarcerated in New York.