110- How One Man Prevailed Over Malicious Judges and Excessive Sentencing to Seize His Second Chance
Manage episode 295687218 series 2579375
In 1988, Alfonzo Riley’s friend asked him if he wanted to make some money. As a broke college student, he said yes. Little did he know that simple decision would shape the rest of his life.
Alfonzo ended up transporting drugs from Brooklyn to Albany in a transaction gone awry. Two men ended up losing their lives and, while he was in a different room when the shootings occurred, he was charged under New York’s controversial felony murder law and sentenced to 71 years to life.
It would take overcoming two malicious judges, three decades behind bars, and multiple applications for clemency for Riley to be given a second chance — his sentence was commuted by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2018.
Having earned multiple degrees during his incarceration, Alfonzo is now a paralegal case handler in the New York Legal Aid Society’s wrongful conviction unit, attempting to judicial wrongdoings like that he experienced.
Why are felony murder statutes allowed to harshly punish people who didn’t commit murder? Several states have already abolished them — is a federal ban next? Were the judges on Alfonzo’s case ever held accountable for his excessively harsh sentence?
[00:01] Alfonzo Riley’s background and bio.
[1:51] Alfonzo, welcome to Open Mike! I’m so glad you’re here, I’ve read so much about you. Tell our listeners and viewers about the day that changed your life.
[03:27] Was this the first time you were involved in anything like that?
[04:18] I assume it probably sounded like easy money at the time! Getting paid money to transport… what was it, marijuana?
[04:59] You were the first person in your family to go to college. Went to New York Institute of Technology, got good grades… and it just sounds like you made a dumb decision. Take us through how everything went down. Were you the driver? Why were you needed on this drug run?
[5:54] Were you armed?
[06:27] I know you were on another level of the building when the shooting occurred… tell me how that happened?
[07:32] What did you think when you heard gunshots? You were there to show your support during the transaction, so what was going through your head?
[08:11] The drug sale took an antagonist turn when people were being declined the cocaine they wanted to purchase, which is when the shooting occurred.
[09:34] When did you know you were being charged with felony murder?
[09:22] In New York City, a typical murder trial will take between 12-18 months to go to trial. Alfonzo went to trial in 6 months in Albany, which was hugely accelerated, especially in 1988.
[10:43] On Open Mike, we’ve interviewed over ten exonerees, but yours is a different type of story. The fact that you weren’t in the room, but were charged under the felony murder rule nonetheless… have you ever denied that your presence or any actual involvement?
[12:47] Did the trigger man get the same exact sentence?
[13:26] Did you have a jury trial? Were all the other participants convicted?
[14:26] I remember in law school learning about felony murder, and it’s a bizarre statute. It was used as a deterrent for even being in a bit part in a crime. For example, if you drove someone to light an empty house on fire, and that house had a person inside who was killed, the driver will get the same charges as the person who actually struck the match.
[16:35] You’re sentenced to 71 years. You’re coming right from college, probably a decent dorm at a good university. Can you even describe the change, going from college, to prison for 31 years?
[18:55] What’s amazing to be is all you accomplished in prison. You got an Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor’s Degree, a paralegal degree, worked in the law library, volunteered at a children’s center, and — what’s most interesting to me — is you became a chess champion! So you definitely made the most of your time, which is pretty unusual — wouldn’t you say?
[20:26] Alfonzo is currently studying for the LSAT.
[20:42] Let’s talk about your chess championship! Did you know how to play before prison?
[21:13] Who taught you how to elevate your game in prison?
[21:56] What was your standard, opening move?
[22:00] What did you think about The Queen’s Gambit?
[23:35] Are you still playing? Have you ever been in a tournament?
[25:39] After various application attempts, on December 31st, 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo commuted Alfonzo’s sentence.
[26:03] How did you get Cuomo’s attention? He has about 7,000 clemency applications sitting on his desk and has let out less than twenty. How did you get his attention?
[30:42] There were only two criminal judges in the court that Alfonzo went through, and they had a mutual competition going in which they would see who could sentence defendants to more time before they retire.
[32:08] I’m going to assume they were never disciplined? Holding judges accountable is nearly impossible. It’s reprehensible, and I’m sorry you had to deal with that.
[32:57] You had some great people who got the governor’s attention, you found out about your release on New Year’s Eve… and it’s only been two years! I heard you still had to remain in prison for four weeks even after the governor announced your commutation? That had to have been excruciating!
[34:24] You’ve been out for two-and-a-half years. What are you up to now? How’s life?
[35:20] These days, Alfonzo is a paralegal case handler at the Legal Aid Society in New York in the wrongful conviction unit. The unit started in May 2019 and they’ve already experienced success with clients Carlos Weeks and James Davis.
[36:20] What a perfect job for you. I mean, how lucky are these guys to have you working on their cases. Someone who cares and takes it seriously. I’m really impressed. I also heard you got married in prison in 2014, not knowing if you’d ever get out! You’re still married and living with your wife now, congratulations!
[37:12] I wish you the best of luck in law school, and if you ever want to bring an exoneree on Open Mike to help generate publicity for the ills of our criminal justice system, I’d love to have you back on the show. It was super nice to meet you — keep in touch!
[37:59] What a nice guy, Alfonzo Riley. Really impressed with what he did in prison and how it’s serving him now. If you know anybody who needs to hear this episode, send it to them! Like, comment, subscribe, and let us know the types of things you want us to address. We really appreciate you listening and watching. We’ll see you next time.