'I'm Doing Dirt, but I Ain't Doing Murders'

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Politicians and the public praised New York City police when Devon Ayers was arrested for two murders in the Bronx. After 17 years in prison, new evidence suggests he was innocent. shotstock/Alamy

Excerpted from Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned.

Devon Ayers has a lot of sad stories from all those years he sat behind bars. He was stabbed, humiliated and thrown into solitary confinement for months at a time. And each morning he woke to the horrific reminder that he was serving 50 years for a murder he didn't commit. But his worst moment in prison? None of the above. "It would have to be the day my grandma died," the Bronx native says.

Ayers can laugh about all that other stuff now because of the joy of knowing it's all in the past. But he can't laugh about his grandma. When he talks about her, his eyes go dark and he's back in Shawangunk Correctional Facility, upstate New York, the day his counselor gave him the bad news and everything felt like it was falling apart.

The thing was, when Mattie Ayers died on June 4, 2012, life was starting to look very sunny for her grandson. The double homicide case against him was unraveling quickly. He was about to become a star client of the Manhattan-based Exoneration Initiative, which would spring him from prison in less than a year.

No matter. "The day they sentenced me, that was like a celebration in comparison to me losing my grandma," he says. "I couldn't imagine life living without her, especially in prison. She used to come see me in the rain, sleet, snow. I said, 'Grandma, you don't need to worry about it.' She said, 'I'm coming.'"

Bred to Commit Murder

When Devon "Skloop" Ayers was 17, he was living in a Bronx neighborhood called Soundview, best known for its large population of gangbangers and drug dealers. He fell easily into an occupation common among high school dropouts in that part of New York City: selling crack on street corners.

But something changed in Ayers when he became a teenage father of a beautiful girl. He quit the crack business and lived off his earnings while searching for legit work. He says that all he wanted at that time was to be a good parent. He's confident now that, prison or no prison, he'd have stayed on the straight path for the rest of his life. But just as Ayers was turning his life around, two people were murdered in his neighborhood, and that changed everything.

On January 18, 1995, police went to the apartment of a Federal Express recruiter named Denise Raymond after her family called, concerned that she hadn't shown up to work. They came upon a gruesome sight: Raymond, lying on the floor, her wrists handcuffed, her mouth stuffed with a sock and taped over, two bullet holes in her head.

Two days later, a livery car driver named Baithe Diop picked up a fare at West 141st Street in Harlem and drove to the Bronx. When he reached Soundview, the passengers pulled out guns and shot him dead. Diop's 1988 Lincoln kept rolling after the gunmen fled, eventually slamming into a dumpster.

Baithe Diop died about a block from Denise Raymond's home. The subsequent police investigation would link the two murders and herd together a dizzying array of defendants and witnesses. When the investigation was all done, New York magazine would laud the fine work of the New York City Police Department with an article entitled, "How to Solve a Murder."

Detectives found two key witnesses. One, a 16-year-old girl named Catherine Gomez, said she'd eavesdropped on Ayers and three other guys planning Denise Raymond's murder and boasting about it after. The other witness, a drug-addict named Miriam Tavares, told police she saw Ayers, his three buddies and two other people fleeing Diop's car after killing him.

Police would conclude the Raymond murder was a hit job orchestrated by a jealous boyfriend, while the motive for the Diop murder was to throw investigators off the scent of a different crime—the theft of $50,000 of cocaine.

Ayers's three friends Michael Cosme, Carlos Perez, and Israel Vasquez, were picked up, charged and arraigned for murder. Two months later, Ayers's grandmother phoned her grandson and told him, "You'd better run out and pick up a newspaper." Ayers grabbed the first paper he saw, which featured his picture accompanied by these words:

SUSPECT: Devon (Skloop) Ayers Description: Male, 18, 5-feet-6, 130 pounds.

His knees buckled. I know I'm doing dirt but I ain't doing murders, he thought. I didn't shoot nobody. I'm making money like the average kid in the streets of New York. Ayers turned himself in at the Forty-Third Police Precinct in the Bronx. News crews got the word and waited outside the building to get shots of police walking the perp out the door to a squad car that would take him to court.

"The police were so anxious to get themselves on camera before bringing me to jail that when we were walking out we had to wait for the camera crew to set up. I tried to keep my head down; I had long braids at the time and police were grabbing a handful of my hair to hold my head up."

In May 1997, Ayers and his three co-defendants were put on trial for the murders of Denise Raymond and Baithe Diop. Prosecutors and witnesses painted a convincing portrait of the four men as dangerous street thugs bred to commit cold-blooded murders. The jury brought double-murder convictions on all except Vasquez, who was only found guilty for killing Raymond. A subsequent trial would find two additional defendants guilty in the Diop slaying: Ayers's cousin Eric Glisson and a woman named Kathy Watkins.

"They said, 'How do you find the defendant?' and they said, 'Guilty,'" Ayers says. "My whole life flashed before me. I'm wondering, how did I get to this stage in my life? That's the first question you ask after you snap back to reality. How did I get here? How did this happen? "

Ayers, Cosme, and Perez were sentenced to 50 years to life and Vasquez to 25 to life. Glisson and Watkins would later each be sentenced to 25 to life. Ayers was ordered to be shipped 60 miles north to Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, the first of five prisons he'd do time in.

"I Found Myself Guilty!"

When you're locked up for a crime you didn't commit, Ayers says, time is too precious to waste. "I left the card games and the dice games and domino games alone and I became a peer counselor; I got into the Scared Straight program. I got into transitional services. I found a sense of direction, became Muslim. I even got some college, and if I couldn't pay for it, I still got the college courses, just didn't pay for the tests."

He also worked on his legal case, learned Arabic and sign language, and read every book he could get his hands on. And he had lots of time to read. Ayers estimates he spent between three and four years total in solitary for getting into scuffles with rival inmates. His longest stretch in solitary was eight and a half months following a fight.

Ayers did a great job keeping himself from getting stabbed until one summer night in 2002 at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock. He'd just finished dinner and was heading back to his cell when a crew of Latin gangsters surrounded him and stabbed him in eight places on his body.

The crew belonged to the Mara Deas, and their rivalry with a much, much bigger gang, the Bloods, was about to become a lopsided all-out war. The Mara Deas needed to get out of Great Meadow quickly, and there was one surefire way to make that happen. "It wasn't like something that me and them initiated, or that we had some beef prior to that. They just came at me as an easy way to get out of the prison," Ayers says.

Corrections officers came running and the scrum eased off. But just then one more gangster charged at Ayers. "I tried to throw one or two punches but I had lost a lot of blood at that time. I hit him but it wasn't hard enough to knock him out. It was hard enough to shock him. And that's when everything went black." Ayers was hospitalized with stab wounds on his rib cage, hip, elbow and arm.

But he came out of it okay. After the stabbing, Ayers was transferred to Shawangunk.

During a stint in solitary one day, he was reading a transcript from his trial when he hit upon a hard realization. "At the end of my reading, I found myself guilty," he says. "Deep inside, you know you had nothing to do with this case. But from an unbiased opinion, my own opinion, damn, did I just convict myself? Yes, I did. I found the defendant guilty. And I had to process why I found myself guilty."

In their determination to win a conviction, the prosecutors had put on a masterful performance, portraying Ayers and his co-defendants as bloodthirsty hell-raisers terrorizing the streets of the Bronx. "The impression they leave you with was this is a solid gang, and what they do is instill fear in the community. They steal. They kill. So you have an innocent little girl on the stand who doesn't speak too much English, and she's telling you we're part of a ruthless gang that ran the neighborhood, and she's still afraid? She can't look at us face to face? How much of the evidence are you really gonna listen to?

"The prosecution took my mind completely off the evidence and had me focus on fear, fear, fear. Not, Were they at the scene of the crime? Not, Did they find a gun? They totally lost that. They didn't convict me on evidence. They convicted me on the look on the witness's face. She's scared. Do you want to be scared?"

"What can you do?" he says when asked how it felt to convict himself. "If you're on a deserted island, outside of fighting to get off by swimming or building a raft, what else are you gonna do—kill yourself? Or are you gonna live with it? You're gonna find some way to adjust and adapt to that island, no matter how big it is. You're gonna find a way because your instinct is you want to live."

Sex Money and Murder

The events that led to the exoneration of Ayers and his co-defendants started in 2003, when a Bronx cop-turned federal-investigator named John O'Malley was investigating a gang called Sex Money and Murder. Two cooperating members, Jose Rodriguez and Gilbert Vega, told O'Malley that they had robbed and shot a livery car driver in late 1994 or early 1995. They did not know the driver's name or whether he died. O'Malley had little to go on.

Nine years passed.

In May 2012, Ayers's cousin Eric Glisson, who was serving 25 years for his supposed role in Diop's murder, wrote a letter to federal investigators saying he'd heard Diop's killers were members of Sex Money and Murder. The letter got passed to O'Malley, who immediately made the connection to what Rodriguez and Vega had told him years earlier.

The next month, the Bronx DA's office reopened the murder investigation. Much had come to the surface since 1997. The 16-year-old witness Catherine Gomez had recanted her testimony, admitting she'd given it under duress to homicide detectives. The other witness, Miriam Tavares, had died. Call records from Diop's cellphone revealed that after he was killed, the phone was used to call associates of Rodriguez and Vega.

These facts were enough to spring Eric Glisson and Kathy Watkins from prison on bond in October 2012. In December, charges against Glisson, Watkins, Ayers, Cosme, and Perez were dropped in Diop's murder.

Meanwhile, lawyers from the Exoneration Initiative were looking into the murder of the other victim, Denise Raymond. They learned that prosecutors' theory had been that Raymond's ex-boyfriend had hired Ayers and his buddies to kill her.

At McKinnon's own trial, surveillance video had surfaced proving that a key witness had lied about his whereabouts the night Raymond died. This cast doubt over the state's entire case, and McKinnon was acquitted.

When the Bronx District Attorney reopened the investigation years later, the New York City Police Department turned over the security video, which had until then never been shown to the lawyers for Ayers, Cosme and Perez. The Exoneration Initiative lawyers filed a motion to drop the convictions, arguing that the security video was critical evidence that should have been handed over years earlier. They also argued that because authorities had linked the two murders—incorrectly, as it turned out—the jury might have been unduly influenced by one to convict on both.

The District Attorney agreed that the convictions should be vacated. On January 23, 2013, Ayers and his co-defendants were bussed to Bronx Supreme Court—none knowing that this was a one-way trip. "No one told us we were going home that day," Ayers says. "They told us we were going to be home by maybe February."

So it was surprising to see members of his and the other defendants' families packing the courtroom. Ayers's half brother, who'd never missed a court date, was crying. Exoneration Initiative director Glenn Garber could barely contain himself as he whispered, "Did you hear?"

"What are you talking about?" Ayers asked.

"You're going home today," Garber said.

Ayers was too stunned for tears. He turned to Cosme and said, "Oh God, this can't be happening. It's happening for real."

Ayers has difficulty describing how it felt to hear the judge grant him his freedom. "Every word the judge said, I couldn't process. I felt so alive. Not to say I felt dead before, but I felt alive," he says.

"Got Rid of My Pride"

"You know what the first thing that I really enjoyed doing when I came home was?" Ayers asks. "Are you ready for this? Taking out the garbage.

"In jail you don't take out the garbage. To walk the garbage to the incinerator or walk the garbage outside, it was amazing. When you were a kid and your mother used to tell you take out the garbage, you'd be like, 'Oh, come on, Mom, I don't want to go outside. I don't have time!'"

Ayers is still astounded by all the changes in the world. "MetroCards, cellphones, the list goes on. I look at how people dress, how they interact with each other. I see how the world has changed since I left. Everything is new to me."

All told, he feels like he adjusted back into society pretty quickly for a guy who was cut off from it for 17 years. "I run into people who say, ' I can't believe you spent that much time in prison,'" Ayers says. "Well, I'm good at adapting. No, I'm not gonna say I'm good at adapting. I'm gonna say I'm blessed."

Blessed with a sense of humor and a sunny outlook, and landing a job out of prison that he loves: taking care of mentally challenged people for a mental health and social services agency. He's also blessed with a special woman, his fiancée, who stuck with him through everything.

"Am I upset? I'm very upset. I did a lot of time in prison for a crime I didn't commit. But look what came out of it. I got a beautiful woman. I got kids that drive me out of my mind. I'm completely educated. I came from a different style of life and look at me now. Prison changed me into the better person."

"I just got rid of my pride," he says when asked how. "If a man tells you, 'Bend over, let me look in your ass,' are you really gonna have pride after that? This is a man who was just telling you, 'I'll kill you, you aren't worth shit.' You're really gonna have pride after that? Pride gets your ass killed, in and out of prison. You're way better off without it.

"Pharaoh had so much pride, he went and followed the nigger into the middle of the ocean. Do you see boats out there? If Moses did that and you can't do that, why are you going out into that water?"

Taught Not to Hate

Ayers's grandmother Mattie, who died in her late 90s, was one of the few who believed him all along when he said, "I didn't do it." He wishes more than anything that she could have lived to see him unshackled.

"To this day, I still feel alone in this world without my grandma. I haven't been to her gravesite because I'm not strong enough to do it."

Grandma taught Ayers how to cook and to knit. Grandma, who grew up in Jim Crow Georgia, taught him not to hate. She taught him how important education was. "She showed me that, listen, you have to make decisions for yourself. Nobody can live your life but you. So the decisions that you make in life—that shit don't reflect on anybody else; that shit reflects on you."

Above all, Grandma taught him the importance of family.

"It took me up until the day she died for me to realize she was telling me to hold this family together no matter what," Ayers says. "They could be drug addicts, idiots, nincompoops, self-righteous, conceited, but at end of the day they're family, and if you ain't got family, you ain't got shit in this world. Family lets you know you're a part of something."

This is an excerpt from Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned, in which journalist Reuven Fenton looks into the lives of 10 remarkable individuals from across the country who fended off the blackest despair to fight for their freedom. With a posthumous foreword by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Available on Amazon and other stores November 10. Excerpt copyright © 2015, reprinted with permission of Tantor Media. Follow Fenton on Twitter @reuvenfen