Early one morning last May, Sherman Townsend was hustling through the chow line at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake, grabbing some breakfast before heading to his job in the prison’s print shop, when he was stopped by a fellow inmate. The man asked Townsend if he was serving time for a crime committed in a northeast Minneapolis neighborhood in 1997. Â¶ Townsend was stunned by the question. Indeed, nearly a decade earlier, the 57-year-old former printing-press operator had been convicted by a Hennepin County jury of breaking into a Dinkytown home and attacking a sleeping couple. A judge had doled out the stiffest sentence possible—20 years. But Townsend had long maintained he was innocent of the crime: He had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Townsend studied his interrogator and suddenly recognized him as David Anthony Jones, the chief witness in the trial against him. The two had encountered each other in court, but never spoken. He gritted his teeth and affirmed the connection.
Jones seemed dumbfounded. “I didn’t know you were locked up,” he said. He asked Townsend to meet him later. He had something important to tell him.
Photo by David Bowman.
“I made an effort to lie my ass off
on that stand,” says David Jones,
now in prison for an unrelated
The next afternoon, the two met in the prison yard. Jones was agitated. He was distraught, he said, because his testimony, the only account that linked Townsend to the scene of the crime, had been a sham. Completely fabricated. The result of pressure by nagging investigators and overÂzealous prosecutors. What’s more, he knew something that could prove Townsend’s innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Townsend didn’t say much. He asked Jones if he was willing to put everything down in a letter. Jones agreed, and the men parted. The conversation had lasted less than seven minutes.
Sherman Eliaz Townsend had haunted the streets of Dinkytown for years before he was detained by police on the morning of August 10, 1997. A lifelong St. Paul resident, he had briefly attended the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s, and Dinkytown became his favorite hangout. “I just fell in love with that neighborhood,” he says.
On the night of his arrest, Townsend, then 47, was feeling social. He had finished work, dropped by the Camel Club in St. Paul to shoot some pool, and spent some time at his girlfriend’s place. He was heading home around 1 a.m. when he changed his mind and pointed his car in the direction of DinkyÂtown. He and a few students he had met in the neighborhood months earlier had started a band. Connor was on guitar, Scott was on bass, and Townsend played the piano. “There was nobody on drums,” Townsend jokes. “We weren’t that good yet.”
The guys’ house, on Seventh Street, just north of the neighborhood’s commercial district, was dark when Townsend arrived. Maybe the boys would be home soon, he thought. He parked his ’84 Chrysler Laser in back, by the garage, then walked a few blocks to a convenience store and bought some cigarettes. As he retraced his steps, a squad car passed him and flashed its lights. The officer ordered him to stop and asked him for identification. He took stock of Townsend’s appearance (5-foot-10, 200-plus pounds, a mustache), then handcuffed Townsend and packed him in the back of the squad. What did I do? Townsend wanted to know. But the officer said nothing.
They drove a few blocks, until they reached a small beige house near the corner of Eight Street and 15th Avenue. A small crowd, including half a dozen police officers, was gathered outside the two-story structure. Nearly 45 minutes passed before the officer opened the door and hauled Townsend out. With spotlights shining in his eyes, it was difficult to see, but suddenly a young man emerged from the glare, leaning in close. “He came up to me and sniffed me and said, ‘You don’t smell like him.’” Townsend recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean I don’t smell like him?’ And he said, ‘The guy and I got into a struggle and I got a good whiff of him. And you don’t smell like him.’” The attacker, he said, had tried to choke him.
The cops put Townsend back in the car, hauled him out briefly and made him stand in the lights again, and then drove him to the Second Precinct station. A sergeant read him his Miranda rights and began asking him questions. C’mon, Townsend replied, you’ve got the wrong guy. I was going to meet some friends. Just went for a pack of smokes. I didn’t even set foot on the block where the cops took me. “Do I look like someone who was in a fight or who just choked someone?” Townsend said.
To the officer, who had not mentioned anything about choking or a struggle, this seemed proof that Townsend knew more about the crime than he was admitting.
Shortly after 1:30 that morning, police had responded to an emergency call from a resident on the 1400 block of Eighth Street in the Dinkytown neighborhood. Officers arrived at the address to find a young white male standing in the front yard. He identified himself as the boyfriend of the woman who lived in the house.
That evening, the couple had watched a movie and then, shortly before midnight, gone to bed. Around 1:30 a.m., they had been jolted from their slumber by an intruder. The woman woke to find a hand covering her mouth and a man straddling her waist. She screamed, rousing her boyfriend beside her, but the stranger grabbed both of them by the neck as if to choke them. Briefly, the three struggled. Then, suddenly, the attacker dashed from the dark room, descended the stairs, and exited the back door. “He took off like a cat,” the boyfriend would later recall. It was like waking from a dream and finding yourself in a nightmare.
The shaken woman dialed 911. Her boyfriend raced downstairs to check on his 3-year-old daughter, asleep on the living-room couch. The child was unharmed.
Inspecting the scene, police quickly deduced the intruder’s route. On the first floor, they found an open window and a cut screen. They located a roll of duct tape next to the woman’s bed. One of the officers discovered that a bulb in the light fixture outside the back door had been unscrewed. “Whoever it was was really agile,” the woman later observed. “He didn’t touch anything anywhere.” Indeed, nothing was broken or knocked over. Forensic investigators looking for prints turned up nothing.
The victims described their assailant as black, probably in his thirties, and heavy-set. With a black top and blue shorts—or maybe jeans, the woman said. He had big hands, the boyfriend would later recall. But neither of them had gotten a good look at his face. It had been too dark to make out his features.
One of the first cops to arrive on the scene quickly tagged Townsend as a suspect. Officer Christie Weimar patrolled the area regularly, and she had encountered him on several occasions. He fit the bill: an African American male, weighing upwards of 200 pounds. What’s more, he was a known felon, had done time in jail for stealing money from homes in Dinkytown and elsewhere, and had been stopped several times in the past year for lesser offenses—jaywalking, loitering, driving without insurance. Weimar also seemed to recall that he was a sex offender. The man, the motive, the location—it all seemed to match. “I knew with this MO that the suspect was probably Sherman Townsend,” Weimar later noted in a police report. She broadcast a description of him over the police scanner. Within minutes, another officer found “a black male wearing a blue T-shirt [and] light-colored green shorts” a few blocks away. It was Townsend.
With a suspect in hand, police set about trying to obtain a positive ID. “The frame looked right,” the female victim would later remember, but the clothes seemed off. “I thought he had a sweatshirt on and jeans, [but] he was wearing a black cut-off sweatshirt and blue shorts.” The boyfriend, too, seemed unconvinced that the detained man was the attacker. “I began to doubt police officers,” he recalled later. “I thought to myself…maybe the cops just went and picked up the first black guy on the street.”
Officers must have been relieved when a neighbor appeared, saying he’d recently seen a man running through the area. The eyewitness, who lived across the alley, had been coming home from a local bar and was preparing to enter the rear door of his apartment building, when he was bowled over by a big black man wearing “greenish blue kind of shorts and a black T-shirt.” The fellow had knocked him into the neighbor’s Malibu station wagon, and the encounter had even left him with two broken teeth, see?
When officers opened the door of the squad and revealed their suspect, the neighbor nodded, saying he was “1,000 percent positive” that Townsend was the hurried man. When police asked the 32-year-old for his full legal name, he answered “David Anthony Jones.”
Townsend’s trial was held in late January 1998 at the Hennepin County Government Center, a purplish granite-clad tower in downtown Minneapolis. The defendant, with the financial assistance of his girlfriend, had hired an attorney named Stanley Nathanson. But from the start, the lawyer seemed unenthused about the case. “You’re not going to get a good defense lawyer for $2,000,” Townsend reflects now, his voice tinged with both anger and regret. “What he turned out to be was a plea bargainer.”
Whatever his abilities, Nathanson was no Perry Mason. Judge Deborah Hedlund, who presided over Townsend’s trial, regularly questioned his motions and procedure, and more than once she dismissed the jury in order to straighten out matters that Nathanson seemed ill-equipped to handle. At one point, the lawyer even got into an argument with Jones, the witness, over the location of objects at the crime scene:
Nathanson: Well, I thought you said there were barriers there, the flowerpot—
Jones: No, I told you there was a flowerpot thing to keep you from using—you been to a grocery store before?
Nathanson: I’m asking the questions.
Hedlund: Do you want the witness to explain?
Nathanson: I just want him to answer the question.
Jones: I can’t answer the way you want to hear.
To be fair, Jones was a problematic witness—even for the prosecution. He was 32 but often acted like a sullen teen. Just 5-feet-9-inches tall and weighing little more than 150 pounds, he resembled one as well. He was prone to argumentation, short answers, and eye-rolling. He was reluctant to talk. A defense investigator sent to his home found him testy and unÂcooperative. He didn’t respond to subpoenas. At one point, prosecutors asked a judge to issue a warrant for Jones’s arrest so they could talk to him.
Both sides quickly realized what the police had failed to note: Jones was a drunk. In various statements made before the trial, Jones admitted that on the night of the break-in, he was “slightly intoxicated,” then “three sheets to the wind,” and, finally, “not loaded” but definitely “on the way.” Jones was also liquored up when an investigator hired by the defense tracked him down a few weeks after the break-in. Nonetheless, neither side seemed keen on raising the specter of Jones’s inebriation at trial.
Such vices were perhaps overlooked because Jones’s statements, though tainted by alcohol, proved valuable—to both sides. Sometimes, his words served the prosecution. At other times, his account supported the defense. He told the defense investiÂgator he couldn’t identify anybody. “I can’t even remember what this man looked like,” he said. Compelled to make a sworn statement before a judge a few months later, Jones reiterated the point: “This man [Townsend] looks nothing like the guy I saw that night.”
Nonetheless, the prosecution steamed ahead with the case. And they must have been delighted when, after the trial opened, Jones changed his tune yet again. In a closed-door meeting with Judge Hedlund and attended by Nathanson and the prosecutor Gary McGlennen, Jones recanted his earlier statements. “I was not entirely honest so far…” he told the judge. “I guess you could say my conscience is kind of knocking me silly.” That afternoon, in front of the jury, he swore that Townsend was the man he had seen running from the house. (McGlennen would later sum up Jones’s behavior as “a recantation, and then a recantation of his recantation.”)
Strangely, no one seems to have dug into Jones’s past. Midway through the trial, in a conversation conducted with the jury out of the room but with Jones in earshot, Hedlund asked the attorneys if either had bothered to run a criminal-background check on witnesses. Nathanson claimed he had served McGlennen with papers asking him to look into the matter but gotten no response. McGlennen countered that he’d never gotten the notice, but given the circumstances, he’d be happy to put questions to Jones on the stand if Nathanson and the judge agreed. “You can do whatever you like if you’re waiving all the rules,” Hedlund said. Fine, Nathanson concurred, but the defense would ask the questions.
What no one seems to have uncovered is that prior to moving to Minnesota in 1994, Jones had spent several years in an Illinois prison for brandishing a knife and threatening to rape a woman. His criminal resumÃ© included charges of home invasion, armed robbery, theft, battery, and property damage. But when Nathanson asked if he had ever been convicted of a crime, Jones told him no—unless you counted the time he got in trouble as a teen for shooting out a window with a BB gun.
Ultimately, the prosecution mustered nine witnesses; the defense just one—the investigator. Townsend, persuaded by his attorney, had decided not to testify on his own behalf. But as Nathanson finished his closing arguments, the defendant asked the judge for a chance to speak. Hedlund dismissed the jury, and Townsend let loose: He told her Nathanson hadn’t represented him the way he wanted, hadn’t focused on the evidence Townsend thought was important. He said he believed Nathanson was “in cahoots” with McGlennen. He wanted to represent himself, to find a new lawyer, to reverse his fate. He was desperate. “This is my life,” he begged. “This is my life.”
After just three days of testimony, the jury returned a guilty verdict. But for Townsend, worse news was yet to come. Before the trial, prosecutors had offered him a 48-month sentence if he pled guilty, and the judge indicated that much of that time would be served on probation. Now, noting that Townsend had been tried and convicted by a jury and was not a first-time offender, Hedlund sentenced him to 20 years in prison. “This is maybe the saddest part of what I have to do as a judge,” she said. The sentence was five times as long as the plea-bargain offer.
“I’ve been a burglar my whole life,” Townsend admits. The third-oldest in a family of nine, he grew up with busy parents who didn’t have much time to mind their children. His stepÂfather (the only father he knew) did general labor for the city of St. Paul, and when Sherman was 12, his mother had taken a job as a custodian. “That was her biggest mistake,” Townsend says, “because it left me alone in the evenings.” He and a group of friends began stealing things that were easy to pawn: TVs, stereos, guns. But mostly, they just took cash. They always targeted empty houses. For a bored group of teenagers, burglary was the ultimate “adrenaline rush.”
The law eventually caught up with them, of course. Townsend got his first adult burglary conviction in 1969, and he did several stints in prison for burglary offenses. In 1991, he pled guilty to stealing $5 from a Dinkytown residence, netting more than five years in prison. Released on parole in 1995, he decided he would try to keep his nose clean. It wasn’t easy, though. “I had some direction, but not enough yet,” he says. “I had some self-control, but not enough.”
“I wasn’t exactly living a crime-free life when I was arrested” in 1997, Townsend notes. But, he says, whatever his faults, he had never laid a hand on anyone, never threatened anyone, never hurt anyone. Even Nathanson, arguing before Hedlund, pointed out that Townsend was always tied to “simple burglaries.” He was never found with weapons. He didn’t have a history of violence. The attempted criminal sexual-conduct charges that Officer Weimar remembered from his record had ultimately been dropped. (The charges were brought in 1983, Townsend says, after he bumped a sleeping woman’s ankle while reaching for her purse. The related burglary charges stuck, however.)
“The fact remains that I did not commit this crime,” Townsend told Hedlund at the sentencing. “It just isn’t my MO and it never would be. I don’t go and just attack somebody.”
The letter was carefully typed, single-spaced, and accompanied by a hand-drawn plan of a home. It was addressed to the Innocence Project of Minnesota, and when Julie Jonas, the organization’s managing attorney opened the letter last May, she instantly recognized it as the sort of note most lawyers only read about in John Grisham novels. The note was from a prisoner named David Jones, and it appeared to prove that Sherman Townsend was innocent of the crime attributed to him.
Jonas, a former Ramsey County public defender, was familiar with Townsend’s case. The Innocence Project, a St. Paul—based nonprofit, provides pro bono legal assistance to inmates with provable claims that they have been wrongly convicted. Shortly after the nonprofit opened in 2002, the staff had received a letter from Townsend, and two law students had been assigned to review his case, looking for alternative suspects and leads. The pair turned up only dead ends.
Townsend’s case was intriguing to Jonas. From the start, Townsend had maintained his innocence. He seemed consistent and credible, and he had spent the past decade appealing the verdict, to no avail. Yet the evidence that convicted him seemed particularly flimsy. And it puzzled Jonas that police and the prosecution had relied so heavily on the testimony of a witness who was drunk when he identified Townsend.
Now, as the attorney read the letter from Jones, everything seemed to fall into place. “It was like the other shoe dropped,” she remembers. “It made sense.”
Jones admitted to lying at the scene of the crime and fabricating his testimony on the witness stand. “I told [police] that I saw a man run down the street and identified him after they brought him back, not even knowing who the person was,” he wrote. “I didn’t care who it was.”
What’s more, Jones identified the person who attacked the couple that fateful night. His letter began: “I have found that there is a man in prison here in Moose Lake for a crime that I committed…. It is my wish to help him correct this injustice by accepting the responsibility for what I did back in 1997.”
Last fall, Judge Hedlund found herself face to face with Sherman Townsend yet again. She had agreed to hear his petition for a new trial. The prisoner, wearing an orange jumpsuit and sporting a graying goatee, sat quietly next to his attorneys in the courtroom, mostly staring at his hands. Jonas, her brown hair brushing the shoulders of her crisp blue suit, was at his side, joined by a thin man in a gray jacket, Michael C. Davis, a Hamline University law professor and a volunteer attorney with the Innocence Project. Opposite sat Steve Redding, an assistant attorney with Hennepin County. The gallery contained a handful of visitors—a couple of reporters, a half-dozen law-school students, and Townsend’s sister Mary.
After opening remarks, a bailiff escorted David Jones into the room. He had been brought down from the Moose Lake prison. (In 2001, he was convicted of attempted criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree.) His thick hair was swept up from his forehead, and he wore a heavy beard. He looked visibly uncomfortable as he took the witness stand.
Jonas thanked him for coming.
He flashed a half-smile.
“Why are you here today?” the attorney asked.
The witness sighed. “To correct a mistake that I made.”
Once again, Jones was the star of the show.
Born in Indiana, Jones had moved to Minneapolis in 1994, shortly after he’d been released from prison in Illinois. He worked briefly as a parking-ramp attendant, then obtained a job as an assistant manager at Burger King in Dinkytown. Neither employer had inquired about his criminal history, and nobody seemed to notice when he began sneaking money from the till.
The windows of his apartment in DinkyÂtown overlooked a small beige house, and Jones had a habit of spying on the two young women who lived there. They struck him as exotic. They often dressed in black, like goths, and the older one wore “Herman Munster—style” boots, which Jones found sexually arousing. He regularly watched the women come and go.
On the evening of August 9, 1997, Jones now testified, he finished work and went to a liquor store with a wad of stolen cash in his pocket. He purchased several six-packs of malt liquor, some Bacardi rum, and a large bottle of Coca-Cola. He returned home, drank it all, and decided to go back to the store for more.
Cutting a path between some houses, he caught a glimpse of an Asian girl studying in a basement apartment. She was topless, and Jones watched her through the open window, fantasizing that maybe he would return and rape her. He hit the liquor store, then went home and armed himself with a carpet knife and a roll of duct tape. He would use the knife to cut the window screen, and the tape would come in handy if the girl proved difficult to subdue. He slipped on some blue sweatpants and went out again. But when he reached the girl’s place, the window had been shut and the lights doused. Drunk and frustrated, Jones returned home. He needed a new plan.
It was well after midnight when Jones peeked in one of the windows of the beige house. Earlier that evening, he had heard a conversation between the two women: The younger one told the older, Have a good time!, as if she would be gone for the night. Now, he had a chance to prey on the remaining girl. He unscrewed the light bulb near the home’s back entrance, darkening the space that separated the residence and his apartment building. Then he found an open window, cut the screen, and slipped inside.
It was dark, and he was drunk. He nearly toppled a computer as he clambered over a desk. Suddenly, he froze: There was a figure sleeping on a couch. “In my mind, if she was over 15, I didn’t have to go upstairs,” Jones told the court. “I could just rape this girl.” But he decided she was between five and 10 years old. He moved on.
He began mounting the stairs to the second floor and slammed face-first into a wall. Still, nobody stirred. Reaching the second floor, he opened a door, lost his balance and crashed into a closet. Coats and hangers fell everywhere, but again, no one seemed to hear the noise. Jones found a second door and rushed in. His foot struck the edge of a mattress lying on the floor and he tripped, landing on a person. It was a woman, but his hand immediately detected a man lying beside her. Surprised to find two people—especially a man—in the room, he bolted. Exiting the back door, he dashed around to the front of his apartment building and entered through the lobby. He snuck back to his apartment, breathing heavily, and kept watch as the police arrived and the scene unfolded. Seemingly, no one had seen him.
From inside, however, it was hard to make out what was going on. Jones was particularly unnerved as he watched an officer fiddle with the bulb he had unscrewed earlier. “I thought, ‘It’ll be a matter of minutes before they’re over here,’” Jones remembered. “So I got the bright idea to try to throw them off my trail.” He guzzled a beer and went outside.
His head was spinning. He had to think fast. He’d say he’d seen a black guy bust out of the door and run down the street. “Telling a bunch of cops in Dinkytown that a black guy [did it]…well, it didn’t seem that farfetched and I knew they would believe it,” Jones later said.
For a moment, though, it seemed that Jones had been caught in his own snare. “As I told them all this, I felt really drunk and stumbled against the squad car,” Jones recalled. “The cop asked me to have a seat in his car, and I thought it was curtains for me. I’m thinking, ‘I should’ve stayed my ass in my house.’”
After what seemed like an eternity, the car door opened and the officer let him out. He asked Jones if he could identify the man who’d knocked him down. “He said, ‘Look this way,’ and showed me someone standing in a spotlight of a patrol car. And I said, ‘That’s him,’ not even being able to see anyone at all, because I’m way too drunk to focus on anything.”
Jones’s flip-flopping in the weeks that followed the break-in was both intentional and accidental. On the one hand, he wanted investigators off his back: The last place he wanted to find himself was in court, even if it was only as a witness. But his lies were also the result of a faulty memory: “I can remember what I’ve done, but I can’t remember when I make things up.”
During a recess in the 1998 trial, Jones was approached in a hallway outside the courtroom by the two women and the boyfriend from the beige house.
(Typically, witnesses are forbidden from talking during the course of a trial, but Hedlund had forgotten to mention this to those testifying.) The younger woman thanked Jones for coming forward on the night of the attack. The boyfriend suggested they might play basketball together and that Jones should come over sometime for a barbecue. Ever the predator, Jones instantly saw an angle: If he testified against Townsend, the victims would feel they were indebted. They would owe him their friendship. As he later put it, “I could finish what I started.”
Still, he didn’t think his words would result in a guilty verdict. “In my mind, there was no way in hell [Townsend] could’ve gotten convicted,” Jones recalled later. “I thought I screwed up that trial so bad…. I made a conscious effort to lie my ass off on that stand.”
As he recounted all this before the court this past fall, Jones seemed to relish the act of revelation. “This guy’s been locked up for 10 years for a crime that I’ve committed,” he said, nodding toward Townsend. “It’s not right…. I figured it was time to get it right, time to fix it.” He seemed indignant about the miscarriage of justice: “I’ve never been convicted and not done [the crime],” he said. “So it was my belief that it worked the same way here.” He ridiculed the cops for failing to identify him as the real criminal: “My fingerprints were everywhere. The computer, the duct tape, the knife, the light bulbs.” And that story about his front teeth? He’d broken them while horsing around in the fifth grade.
As before, Jones proved difficult to pin down on some details. When the state’s attorney asked him if he remembered making several on-the-record statements, Jones responded with a shrug: “If it’s on the paper, I’ll say it’s true. But I’m not going to tell you I remember it if I don’t.”
Seemingly emboldened by the stir caused by his confession, Jones went to say that he’d been involved in numerous other assaults as well—crimes that had gone unpunished: Maybe the “eight to 10 girls that I raped” after the Dinkytown break-in would have been spared if law-enforcement officers had fingered the right guy in the first place, he said. “I got that one wrong,” Jones added. “But after 1997, I got a whole hell of a lot of them right.”
Redding, the attorney representing the state, tried to suggest that Jones and Townsend had collaborated while in prison, cooking up a story that would set the older man free. But the two had rarely talked after their initial conversation, and without any witnesses or evidence, Redding could only float theories. In fact, the two had kept their distance after their initial meetings, fearing accusations of conspiracy. Jones pointed out that he had little to gain by admitting his guilt. If nothing else, he was adding to the evidence that state officials would weigh when deciding to civilly commit him as a sex offender in a few years, after he’d served his criminal sentence. “Honestly,” Jones said, “I think I’m screwing myself.”
Townsend emerged from the Hennepin County jail a free man on a drizzly Tuesday last October. Wearing a gray T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, he was met by his sister Mary and small crowd of reporters. Earlier that morning, just eight days after she had heard Jones’s confession, Judge Hedlund had ordered Townsend’s immediate release.
“I don’t think they took my life away from me,” Townsend told the journalists. “I think I go from this day forward doing the best I can.” He said he wanted to reconnect with family—his five children and several grandchildren. He planned to visit his elderly mother in California as soon as possible. That night, he said, he was going to eat fried chicken for dinner.
A few minutes later, across the street at the Hennepin County courthouse, the county attorney, Mike Freeman, stood before the television cameras, wearing a suit coat, a pin-stripped shirt, and a pink tie. A retrial was impossible, he said, given that the state now lacked “a solid ID to convict Mr. Townsend.” The state had decided that 10 years seemed sufficient punishment and had recommended that Townsend’s sentence be shortened to exactly the number of days he had already served. Freeman said Jones’s new account had certainly raised questions “in some people’s minds,” but that he still believed Townsend was guilty. He noted that Hedlund had not expunged the crime from Townsend’s record.
Redding remains convinced that Townsend is guilty and that Jones is a liar. Witnesses recant their testimony all the time, he says—though few of them actually admit to the crime. Jones is free to say whatever he wants and can’t face punishment because the statute of limitations on the crime has expired. “He’s now seen as a good guy by all of the other inmates, instead of a snitch,” Redding says. “David Jones went back to prison as a hero.”
So was justice denied in this case?
Redding hesitates before answering: “If Sherman Townsend has turned over a new leaf, as he says he has, and learned his lesson and can stay out of other people’s houses…well, 10 years is a long time to serve for what he did. I’d be satisfied with that.”
“I’m glad he’s free,” says Nathanson, Townsend’s former attorney, reached by phone in Arizona, where he lives in semi-retirement. “I felt that he wasn’t guilty. I mean, they all say they’re innocent. I don’t know if they are or they’re not. I wasn’t there. But I certainly felt that he didn’t get a fair shake by the jury.”
It’s a few days before Christmas, and Townsend is rehearsing with a half-dozen musicians in the sanctuary of a church near downtown St. Paul. The dilapidated building, a stone’s throw from the capitol and the chambers of the state Supreme Court, has seen better days. The oversized Christmas tree is only sparsely decorated. Several dried-out poinsettias are defoliating onto the teal carpet. But the band members—a keyboardist, three guitarists, and two guys on drums—seem not to notice the dreariness of the surrounding. Townsend doesn’t say much. He seems happy just for the company.
The past three months have not been easy. Townsend’s efforts to connect with his children have yielded little. None of them came to visit him in prison. “I believe they believed I was guilty,” he says. He’s not resentful; given his checkered past, they had no reason to think he didn’t do the crime. But his daughters still aren’t speaking to him. One of his sons urgently needs a kidney transplant. Another was recently arrested for robbing a bank.
Townsend’s meager savings are almost gone. His sister has given him room and board at her house on Selby Avenue, but he’s already behind on the payments he promised to give her as rent. And he’s worried about retirement: He has lost out on 10 years of investing in Social Security. Nevertheless, he says he’s not fretting about money. “I believe that will work itself out,” he predicts.
After nearly a dozen job interviews, Townsend is still without work. The most promising lead was with an employer in Eden Prairie, but without a car, the commute from St. Paul would have been impossible. “It’s kind of discouraging,” he says. It’s harder for felons to get jobs than it used to be. After 9/11, everyone’s preoccupied with security. In early November, Townsend attended a fund-raiser for the Innocence Project, where people were all dressed up and wanted to shake his hand. “They wished me luck,” he says. “But nobody offered me a job.”
Still, he’s at peace, he says. He’s a different man than when he went into prison 10 years ago. Maybe it was part of God’s plan. Maybe he needed to be humbled, learn some lessons. “Honest? Prison was easier,” Townsend admits. But he’s not about to do anything to jeopardize his newfound freedom. “Ten years in prison made me realize that I don’t wanna die in prison,” he says. “And the only way to avoid that is to stay out.”
Tonight, at rehearsal, he has good news. He got a call from Goodwill. They have a temporary job for him, and they’ll enroll him in their forklift-operator training program. They have a solid record of placing drivers at companies.
The rehearsal gets underway, and someone tells Sherman to do the solo. His voice is low, and even though he’s mic’d, it’s difficult to hear him above the over-amped guitars. He doesn’t know the words yet, so he reads from a sheet:
Walking in rhythm
moving to the sound
humming to the music
trying to move on.
Joel Hoekstra is managing editor of Minnesota Monthly.