Exonerated Prisoner David McCallum Addresses Students
To say that wrongfully convicted former prisoner David McCallum and his attorney, Oscar Michelen, spoke before a full house would be an understatement. University Commons was bursting at the seams with Sacred Heart University students who came to hear from the man who spent 29 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
McCallum was articulate, engaging, forthright, funny and poignant as he shared his experiences from various New York State prisons and his campaign to be released. He was arrested and convicted of kidnapping and murder at the age of 16, along with his childhood friend, Willie Stuckey.
Prior to McCallum’s remarks, Michelen described how it happened, blaming forced video confessions by the two youths, inadequate defense counsel and manipulation of the evidence by prosecuting attorneys. He noted that McCallum and Stuckey were not allowed to call their parents and were beaten until they said what the interrogating officers wanted to hear. In addition, their statements conflicted with each other and with the results of the autopsy and other physical evidence from the case. He also pointed out that neither young man admitted to shooting the victim himself, but rather incriminated the other. This, along with a mountain of additional inconsistencies, was enough to convince Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson to ask that the convictions be overturned. The ruling came too late for Stuckey, who passed away in prison in 2001.
McCallum described his release as “truly miraculous. There were many days that I did not think I would ever be released from prison.” He described the experience of being incarcerated at Rikers Island as difficult, but noted that once he was moved upstate to Elmira Correctional Facility, he found himself in danger of getting comfortable. “You don’t want to do that because it leads to complacency,” he said.
He believes he truly began to mature around the age of 30. “I asked myself what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I knew I did not want to get comfortable with having a lot of down time in prison. I began to get involved with programs,” he said. “I facilitated a group myself that talked about violence and how to avoid it. It was a form of therapy for me.”
He also became obsessed with his campaign to have his conviction overturned. He wrote more than 600 letters to various organizations and people—some several times—that he thought could help. “After my state and federal appeals were exhausted, I had no choice but to fight my way out of this situation. I did not want to take no for an answer.” Eventually McCallum’s case caught the attention of former boxer Hurricane “Rubin” Carter, who himself had a conviction for triple homicide overturned, and a team was formed to work on his release.
McCallum also shared that two of the most difficult events for him during his incarceration were when his father passed away and when he found out that his friend Willie Stuckey was dead. “We had been out of touch for about eight years, and I wanted to reconnect. I was shocked to learn of his death,” McCallum said.
During the question-and-answer session, McCallum told the crowd that his primary goal now that he has been released is to become acclimated to society again. He is looking forward to getting a job and wants to be involved in education.
When asked if he could sue the State of New York for his wrongful conviction, he said, “I am qualified to receive compensation, but that is not my main concern. I have a life to live and will let the compensation take care of itself.”
On giving advice and relating to troubled youth: “I have found that if you talk with them rather than preach to them, they are more likely to pay attention. I believe when we are ignoring young people, we are really ignoring ourselves.”
On the first thing he did after his release: “I have a little sister with cerebral palsy, and I ran into her room and gave her the biggest hug I could give anyone.”
On the most difficult thing to get used to: “The hardest part is keeping up. I walk slow by nature, and everyone around me is walking so fast.”
On false confessions by young people: “I saw no problem going to the precinct, because I hadn’t done anything wrong, but when I said I didn’t know anything about the incident, the police officer slapped my face. When he threatened to hit me in the head with a chair, I began to say what he wanted me to say. You would do almost anything to get out of the situation. I was scared and wasn’t thinking about it being videotaped later.”
Added Michelen, “Ask for a lawyer!”
When asked what he was thinking as he left the prison, McCallum, who received a spontaneous standing ovation from the capacity crowd, said, “I was thinking about Willie Stuckey, because I was walking out alone—and that was a real problem for me.”
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