By Joseph Berger, January 12th 2015
Dewey Bozella was once the light-heavyweight boxing champion of Sing Sing, a distinction he won while serving 26 years in prison for a murder for which he was eventually exonerated.
More recently, he stepped into the ring for another fight, a legal one that sought $25 million for wrongful incarceration, and it concluded with a technical knockout. He reached a tentative settlement with Dutchess County, which will pay him an undisclosed sum, though it will make no admission of wrongdoing, according to lawyers familiar with the case.
After the settlement was announced in court Monday morning, Mr. Bozella hugged his lawyers and his wife, Trena.
“It’s a steppingstone in the right direction where I can move on with my life,” he said.
Mr. Bozella, a sturdily built six-footer, strode up the steps of Federal District Court here Monday for what was originally supposed to be a civil jury trial of his claim that he was put in prison for a crime he did not commit — the brutal murder in 1977 of a 92-year-old woman, Emma Crapser, who came home from a night of church bingo while a burglar was inside her home in Poughkeepsie. Mr. Bozella’s lawyers contend that prosecutors and police officers for the county withheld four pieces of evidence from his defense lawyers at the time — so-called Brady material — that would have pointed to another man as the murderer.
The county responded that it had entirely legitimate reasons for not turning over the evidence. The trial was to be presided over by District Judge Cathy Seibel, who had indicated in pretrial papers that Mr. Bozella had a strong argument that some of the evidence might have helped his case.
Lawyers for Mr. Bozella and the county negotiated the tentative settlement over the weekend. Judge Seibel announced in court Monday that lawyers informed her Saturday evening that “an agreement in principle” had been reached. The County Legislature is to vote on the monetary amount of damages within 60 days.
Mr. Bozella, 55, was born in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and raised in group foster care after his father killed his mother. When the Crapser murder took place, he was 18 and already had a history of petty crime. He was twice convicted — first in 1983 and then at a retrial in 1990 — of beating Ms. Crapser, tying her up with an electrical cord and then suffocating her.
“I fell to the floor and started crying, screaming that I didn’t do it,” Mr. Bozella told a writer for the alumni magazine at Amherst College, which one of his lawyers attended, about his 1983 conviction. “When I heard the words ‘life sentence’ I thought, ‘Don’t take my life. That’s all I got.’ ”
The prosecution, a judge later found, relied mainly on the testimony of two men with criminal histories who changed their stories to get favorable treatment in their own cases. Prosecutors also failed to turn over favorable evidence that might have cleared Mr. Bozella, including testimony from a neighbor who said that on the night of the murder she had heard garbage cans rustling in the alleyway, near a window of the Crapser apartment where the police had found a fingerprint of a man named Donald Wise. Mr. Wise had been convicted of killing another elderly woman in the same neighborhood and in the same manner. The location was important because prosecutors said Mr. Bozella had walked through the building’s front door, not through an alleyway.
In 2007, Mr. Bozella contacted the Innocence Project, which seeks out cases of improper convictions, and it asked Ross E. Firsenbaum, a lawyer at WilmerHale, to handle the case pro bono. He questioned a retired police lieutenant who had been the lead investigator and discovered that he had kept a file on the Crapser case because he felt uncomfortable about the way it had been handled. The file included witness accounts that had not been turned over to Mr. Bozella’s original lawyer. In 2009, the State Supreme Court concluded that Mr. Bozella had been wrongfully convicted, saying, “The court is firmly and soundly convinced of the meritorious nature of the defendant’s application.”
While in prison, Mr. Bozella earned a bachelor’s degree from Mercy College and a master’s from New York Theological Seminary. He married another inmate’s sister. He also boxed in the building that once contained Sing Sing’s electric chair but had been converted to a ring, later telling reporters that boxing gave him the discipline to make it through prison. He became the prison’s light-heavyweight champion, and after his conviction he taught boxing at a gym in Newburgh, N.Y., and was offered a shot at a professional bout.
In October 2011 he fought his first and only professional match in Los Angeles. He was 52, and officials believed was he was the oldest fighter ever licensed to box in California. He won a unanimous decision.