Living With Freedom | The triumph of Obie Anthony: After 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, on his release the hard part began
Anthony was wrongfully incarcerated on murder and armed robbery charges in 1996 at the age of 19 with no physical evidence tying him to the case
Living With Freedom is a special series by MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that explores the lives of those wrongfully incarcerated after they are exonerated. Through these stories, we hope to give readers an insight into what it takes to start over.
On March 27, 1994, Felipe Angeles was fatally shot by two men outside of a Los Angeles apartment building. The men argued in what appeared to be an attempted robbery, and in the scuffle that ensued, Angeles was shot and killed.
At the time, John Jones, who lived in the building, told law enforcement officials that he had seen the shooter flee the scene carrying a leg injury. After searching local hospitals, the police claimed they had their man -- Reggie Cole -- who was later identified by Jones as one of the shooters. In a completely unrelated crime, the police brought in a teenage boy named Obie Anthony, 19 years old at the time, he was a friend of Cole's. Jones identified him as the second shooter in the Angeles murder.
When Anthony and Cole were identified as Angeles's shooters, panic set in. "Cole kept telling me we are going to jail, that's the only thing I remember from the time," Anthony said, "I just remember telling him, 'stupid we already in jail'." Anthony believes that the Southwest police department was looking for an opportunity to clear their books of unsolved murders. He says. "The police department had a case that they were going nowhere with and it's as though they called the 108th and said, 'we have these two boys here you may want to look at'."
No physical or forensic evidence connected either Cole or Anthony to the murder and yet they were slapped with nine charges. tIn court Jones's testimony sealed their fates - they were going to prison for a long time on charges of murder and attempted robbery. What was not revealed until much after the duo's 1996 sentencing was that Jones -- the prosecution 's star witness -- was a pimp running a brothel in the building at the scene. He didn't even see the shooting, his daughters did.
Ten years after Cole and Anthony were incarcerated, evidence emergebd that the eyewitness account had been fabricated and that the DA on the case had favored him on a pimping and pandering charge.
Anthony's trial attorney had also not conducted an investigation that would have undermined the prosecutors’ case. Detective Razanskas, the detective who was working the case, was accused of pocketing shell casings from the crime scene by his partner. A later ballistics analysis concluded that the bullet that killed Angeles matched one found on the roof of a building at the scene, lending credence to the theory that neither Cole nor Anthony shot Angeles. Anthony also alleges that former 'Los Angeles Times' investigative reporter Miles Corwin had evidence in his possession, a crucial slug that could have seen him go free.
Cole was released on May 15, 2010.
Prosecutors dismissed the charges against Anthony on November 18, 2011, he was 36, and at the beginning of a very long journey. "You're never free, that is the truth about exoneration. You can't forget the place they put you in and you can't exonerate your thoughts," says Anthony. But his story is that of triumph.
"How do you prove a lie," he says recalling some of the darkest days of his life, "He made it up - they made it up." For someone who had never ever been to a penitentiary, Youth Authority or even county jail, this was his worst nightmare coming true. He had dreams of pursuing a career in dentistry and maybe try his luck with the Department of Forestry, but what he got was a life sentence without chance of parole. It forced him to grow up: "I always say, if you put hot water on noodles, it will blow up."
Every day was a fight for survival. "They put me in a place that I had to grow up in. I saw people get killed, get jumped and there were times when I had to defend myself from getting jumped. I was surrounded by violence from the moment I entered to the moment I left," he says. He was in a level 4 penitentiary, where some of then most violent inmates in America are housed; where prisoners die every year due to violence.
And yet, he isn't angry. "I've never been angry like that, never angry," he says. It was like being in a fight that just doesn't end to this day, he says. "It's a mold I'm stuck in. I've been fighting for 30 years since I got incarcerated and I still continue to fight for others. I can't rest, I can't sleep, my mind won't stop racing..." and then he says after a long pause, "I just wanted to be treated as human, that's all." No one should do this to anybody, he says.
Anthony didn't have a family network to get him through. "My mother died before I got locked up and my dad was too far away in St Louis at the time. My grandma was elderly -- I didn't have a family going for me," he says. He did, however, find god. Faith helped him process the grief and accept what had happened and it made him hold on to life for almost two decades.
Anthony has been instrumental in the passage of California Assembly Bill No. 672, also called Obie's Law. The bill requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to assist exonerees with transitional services, including housing assistance, job training, and mental health services.
His advice to those coming out of prisons looking for employment? Language. Being incarcerated at 19 leaves one with zero skills to find employment when they come back out, but there are certain skills that you pick up when you're working in prison. Landscaping, cooking, and laundry are some of those skills that one can teach themselves that will help them find a job on the outside. "You don't need to go through school for that but change the language - you can't say you worked in the yard in a prison!" he says laughing for the first time during the interview.
As for the people who helped put him in jail, they are thriving. His laugh turns bitter when I ask him about what happened to them. "They've progressed. The detective, Marcella Winn, she had an early retirement and is enjoying her pension; the attorney, George Castello, he got an attorney of the year and I was there starving," he says.
But like the fighter that he is, he got up and today, he's a motivational speaker and is the founder and CEO of Exonerated Nation, a nonprofit that works to provide exonerees with temporary housing, job resources, health, and healing as well as leadership training.
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