Update 9/24: Last week a federal jury in Massachusetts awarded New Britain’s Mark Schand $27 million. Schand was arrested in Hartford at the age of 21 for a 1986 murder. He spent 27 years in prison before being released in 2013 when new evidence destroyed the state’s case against him. This decision comes in a suit against several now-retired Springfield police officers who Schand says framed him. The city of Springfield is appealing the ruling. Reached this morning, Schand told Connecticut Magazine that, “Twenty-seven-million dollars of which I do not have yet, could never give me back the time I lost. It was much more important for me that I finally heard in an open court that someone was responsible for what happened to me.” Our 2018 story on Schand’s arrest and the private investigation that ultimately freed him is below.
The smoothie list at Sweetwater Juice Bar & Deli in New Britain covers the wall, stretching almost from the ceiling to the floor. Written in a kaleidoscope of chalk colors are flavors such as Purple Haze, Kiwi Bright Silly Wabbit and the Mayor Erin, a peanut butter-powered smoothie in honor of the city’s mayor, Erin Stewart. But there are also flavors that hint at the years stolen from owner Mark Schand’s life. The “Linda & John Thompson” is named for the husband-and-wife lawyers who represented him for more than two decades. The “Centurion Freedom” is made in honor of Centurion Ministries, the Princeton, New Jersey-based nonprofit that helped prove his innocence.
Each smoothie recipe was designed in-house, Mark says with pride. “Me and my sons came up with them.” The Windsor resident adds that the smoothies, as well as the assortment of wraps, sandwiches and salads offered at the restaurant, are made with fresh ingredients. “We don’t have or use sugar, butter or oil at all. We don’t have an extensive menu but what we have is fresh. Nothing fried, nothing dunked in oil.”
A self-described lifelong exercise and health fanatic, the 53-year-old’s passion for his new business is evident as he interacts with customers, many of whom he knows by name, as is his enthusiasm and joy. Because despite everything that happened to him, Mark is happy.
“I look at it like this, anger is another prison,” he says. “So to get out of physical prison and then to put myself in a mental prison with an emotion like anger, it’s kind of a wasted emotion. I’m genuinely not angry. I’m just not. I’m just happy to be home.”
But he hasn’t forgotten the 27 years he spent in prison when his wife Mia and sons Mark Jr., Kiele and Quinton could only visit him once a week. The 26 birthdays he marked but did not celebrate. The times he wondered whether he really would die in jail, but then pushed those thoughts away to continue fighting to clear his name and regain his freedom.
Thin but muscular, Mark is wearing a dark baseball cap and sunglasses. On his left arm he has a tattoo detailing the time he spent in prison down to the second. It reads: 26 Years, 11 Months, 20 hours, 26 minutes, 8 seconds, 4 nothing. He says he remembers the first of those seconds, the moment it all began, Oct. 26, 1986, “like it was yesterday.”
It was a clear, crisp October day. Mark, who was 21 years old at the time, was walking his dog, a Rottweiler named Dutch, in front of a building his father owned on Albany Avenue in Hartford. A native of Queens, New York, Mark was passionate about motorcycles, rap music and dogs. His family had relocated to Hartford where Mark was already an aspiring entrepreneur. He was close to opening a clothing shop and was also looking into opening a McDonald’s franchise. He had two young children from previous relationships and a third on the way with his new girlfriend, Mia, with whom he shared a deeper connection than he had with anyone else.
As he walked the dog, a kid on the block warned him that a police cruiser had driven around the block a few times and the police inside it kept looking at him. Mark didn’t pay it any mind. He had nothing to hide. When the police got out of the car and approached him, he still wasn’t worried. They asked if his dog bit. When Mark told them Dutch did, they told him to put the dog in the car. Once the dog was away, the police arrested Mark, charging him with murder.
Dumbfounded, Mark thought it was some type of practical joke. As the police put him in the cruiser, friends of Mark’s saw the commotion and approached on motorcycles and asked what was going on. One of the officers pulled a gun and told them to get away from the car. As this occurred, the gravity of the situation hit Mark — whatever was happening was far from a joke.
The previous month, on Sept. 2, 1986, 25-year-old Victoria Seymour had been shot and killed in Massachusetts outside the After Five Lounge, a long-closed Springfield bar. A bystander, Seymour was hit by a stray bullet during a botched drug deal that occurred around 11:15 p.m. Charles “Heavy” Stokes and his brother David had just attempted to sell drugs to two other local men, Anthony Cooke and Michael Hosten. Cooke and Hosten were still nearby when at least two men the locals didn’t know approached about buying drugs. As Charles Stokes was showing the drugs, one of the men grabbed either at the cocaine or the gold chain on his neck. Cooke, who was still nearby, grabbed this man, who then (at least according to original accounts) pulled a gun and shot Cooke in the shoulder. Cooke, Hosten and the Stokes brothers fled, Charles Stokes tripped and fell, and the original gunman, or possibly another man he was with, robbed him of cocaine and cash. In the commotion, an errant bullet hit Seymour in the back. She died from the wound a few hours later.
From the beginning it was a difficult crime scene. John Thompson, who along with his wife, Linda, was Mark’s longtime attorney, says it involved “people who were strangers to each other, who witnessed something that happened over a space of two to three minutes in the middle of the night outside a bar where almost everyone there was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or a combination of the two.”
As police investigated the case, they learned that the buyers were a group from Hartford, and for reasons that Thompson says remain unclear, a photo of Mark began circulating among witnesseses of the crime, as did photos of Mark’s brother, Roger.
Mark was photographed after the shooting by Hartford police, after they towed his motorcycle for a minor traffic infraction. When Mark, whose record was clean, protested the towing of his motorcycle, he was taken to the station, where he agreed to have his photo taken. He says this was a mistake, as unknown to him at the time, Hartford police were already assisting in the Springfield murder investigation and would send that photo to witnesses.
“I wasn’t the nicest kid. I came from New York, I was a little rambunctious, so I guess I was in their crosshairs for one thing or another,” he says. “Had I not been in their crosshairs I probably wouldn’t have done 27 years. Had I not been known to them, they wouldn’t have had my information to set me up with and take to Springfield to show around for those guys to point at.”
Thompson says Springfield investigators never kept detailed records of which witnesses were shown what, but there’s evidence that a Polaroid photo of Mark was shown with other photos to witnesses. This was problematic, Thompson says, because a Polaroid would have stood out from the other mugshots.
Ultimately Mark was identified as the shooter based on the testimony of six eyewitnesses. All were career criminals using and selling drugs; all received reduced sentences in exchange for testimony. (Three later recanted, acknowledging they had implicated Mark to save themselves from long prison sentences, while the testimony of a fourth was largely discredited during the appeals process. Two other witnesses died before investigators working on behalf of Mark could reinterview them in recent years.)
Even as the case against him mounted, Mark believed he would be proven innocent. He had only been to Springfield one time before, to see a Run-D.M.C. concert. He went to school with the group’s Jam Master Jay and was friends with all the members. He attended the concert on Run-D.M.C.’s tour bus, never setting foot anywhere in the city outside the concert venue. In addition to having no connection to the city the crime had taken place in, Mark didn’t know any of the witnesses. There was never any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and he has consistently passed polygraphs during which he asserted his innocence. Perhaps most importantly, Mark had an alibi for that evening. Actually, six of them.
Around noon on the day of the murder he had a root canal-like procedure. The dentist who performed the procedure, Dr. Thomas Acierno, testified to this, and said Mark would have been in severe pain that day. That evening Mark was waiting for his girlfriend Mia Williams-Bey to finish work at the Hartford hair salon she worked at. He went in and out of the salon and was complaining about his mouth hurting. The salon was open late that night because it was the evening before the first day of school and parents were bringing their kids in for last-minute haircuts. Six people including Mia testified they saw Mark between 11 p.m. and midnight (the murder took place around 11:15 p.m., 27 miles away from Hartford). The alibis included Mia’s sister and niece, plus several friends, but they also included Carol Parrish, who neither Mia nor Mark had any connection to. Parrish was Mia’s last customer that night and she remembers the evening specifically because she got a late-night haircut for a funeral the next day.
“This was a case in which everything depended on eyewitnesses to one event or another, the events at the salon and the events at the bar where the murder occurred,” Thompson says.
In addition to the six witnesses who testified against Mark at trial, two 15-year-old employees at the Pizza King, located near the After Five Lounge, testified to seeing Mark and three other men at their pizza shop shortly before the shooting. This testimony helped the prosecution place Mark in Springfield before the shooting. But, one of these witnesses, Al Chase, described the men who came into the place as getting into a “grayish custom van with large windows on the side and a Connecticut license plate.” The importance of the testimony related to this gray van would not become clear for years.
The jury, evidently, found the prosecution’s witnesses more believable. Mark was convicted on Nov. 20, 1987, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“It’s kind of surprising to have that many alibi witnesses disbelieved,” Thompson says. But he adds, “the prosecutor was clever in the way that he dealt with them and he suggested to the witnesses and the jury that Mia had concocted this alibi.”
Jim McCloskey, of Centurion Ministries, who helped free Mark almost three decades after his original trial, says it’s not uncommon for credible alibi witnesses to be disregarded, and it has happened in other cases Centurion has worked on. “Juries by and large do not believe alibi witnesses. They just don’t. When you think about it, you are with friends or family most of the time.” He adds that he believes there’s also “a racial element to it. If you’re a black defendant the white jurors think the black alibi witnesses will come in and lie on behalf of the defendants and that’s just simply not true.”
When Mark was arrested he and Mia had been together for a little under a year. Yet Mia never considered walking away from the relationship. “We just connected,” she says. “The love is there. I knew Mark was innocent, and I knew one day he was going to come home.”
She gave birth to their son Quinton while Mark was in jail, and Mark and Mia were married at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Shirley, about 50 miles northwest of Boston. Mia visited Mark every week. She’d bring the kids whenever she could, and got permission from the mothers of Mark’s other children to bring them as well.
“When I brought my son, Mark always told him the truth, that he didn’t do it. He didn’t pretend that he was in there for something he didn’t do,” she says. “As the kids grew, they grew in the system with their dad.”
For Quinton, now 31, and an environmental health and safety professional at UTC Aerospace Systems, visiting prison was part of growing up. “Going through metal detectors and pat-downs, sign-off sheets and things like that were just something that was a part of my life, just what I was doing to go see my dad,” he says.
Even just from these short weekly visits, Quinton and his brothers developed a deep connection with their father. As Mia puts it, “They just love their father. They’re very close.”
Quinton says, “He was the best father he could be to me in the situation that he was in.”
As the years went by the kids became markers of time. First they thought Mark would get out by the time Quinton grew up, but he turned 9, then 10, and later went to college. Mark Jr. had a son, Javier, Mark’s first grandson, and again they thought Mark would be out while Javier was young.
As time marched on and Mark remained in prison, both he and Mia stayed focused on the day they both were certain would one day come.
“I didn’t look at it like it was 27 years. I didn’t count the years, I really didn’t,” Mia says. “I just knew that one day my husband was going to come home. I always kept the faith.”
After his conviction, Mark retained Linda and John Thompson as his attorneys. Linda had consulted on his case during the initial trial, but the couple now took the lead as they looked to explore every legal option left to Mark. First, they filed a motion for a new trial.
“We challenged some aspects of his trial that were unfair including what we thought was a deliberate misidentification and shoddy identification procedures by the police and secret arrangements to reword prosecution witnesses for their testimony,” John Thompson says.
New evidence was emerging in this regard, and several of the six men who had testified against Mark began to change their stories.
In 1989, Charles “Heavy” Stokes recanted his testimony identifying Mark as the man who robbed him. Many years later Stokes and witness Anthony Cooke would tell Centurion Ministries that the lineup in which they originally identified Mark on Dec. 15, 1986, was “bogus” because they both knew everyone in the lineup but Mark. Cooke even identified one of the men as a former roommate of his.
Also in 1989, during Mark’s motion for a new trial, Assistant District Attorney Francis Bloom discredited David Stokes’ testimony that Mark had bought the drugs and pulled a gun by saying that when Charles Stokes identified Mark, he “directed his brother to do the same.”
In 1990, Mark Schand’s older brother, Roger Schand, was charged with being involved in the shooting. Roger’s trial was declared a mistrial in 1991 after the Stokes brothers refused to testify, and the charges against Roger were dismissed. More importantly for Mark’s case, Roger’s trial revealed police reports showing that in 1986 police had found a man named Randy Weaver of Hartford who owned a gray van exactly like the one described as being outside the Pizza King restaurant. Neither the police nor prosecutors working on the case appeared to follow up on what many years later would prove to be a crucial piece of evidence. (Weaver was not the shooter, but would provide key information about what happened that night.)
Despite the new evidence and witness recantations, the courts continued to rule against Mark — denying his appeal of the original ruling, his motion for a new trial, and an appeal of the ruling denying the motion for a new trial.
In the mid-’90s, Mark filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. That was denied in 1996. It fell to Thompson to break the grim news to his client.
“I went down to talk to Mark in prison and told him that we had exhausted avenues that we had for attacking his conviction and that unless something changed, unless we got some new evidence, he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison,” Thompson says. “That was a very, very hard thing to do. It was a hard conversation to have. We both cried during it. But what he said to me was, ‘John, I’m not giving up. I’m not going to sit here and let this happen to me. I’m going to fight this.’ ”
With traditional legal options exhausted in the mid-’90s, Mark and the Thompsons began looking to find new evidence and for help in their search. Mark hired private investigators in the hopes of finding new witnesses. He sent letters to more than a dozen organizations that assist the wrongfully convicted. He reached out to prominent lawyers and even Oprah Winfrey, to no avail.
In the early 2000s, he contacted Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that works to free the wrongfully convicted. Its founder, Jim McCloskey, is something of a legend when it comes to overturning such convictions. Since 1980 his organization has freed more than 54 people in the U.S. and Canada.
“I think Jim is a walk-on-water kind of guy,” Thompson says.
A former Navy officer, McCloskey became consumed with the cause of wrongful convictions while getting his Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. As part of his work for that degree, McCloskey worked as a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison, now known as the New Jersey State Prison. There he met Jorge De Los Santos, who had been convicted of a 1975 murder but who maintained his innocence. McCloskey came to believe Santos, and began investigating his case, helping gain his freedom in 1983.
Knowing there must be others like Santos, McCloskey founded Centurion Ministries that same year, and started investigating wrongful convictions full-time. The organization is named for the Roman military officer in the Bible’s Luke 23:47 who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion, and while Jesus was on the cross said, “Surely this man was innocent,” according to some translations.
By the time Mark began writing to Centurion Ministries, the organization was receiving between 1,100 and 1,600 requests per year, and at first Mark’s case didn’t stand out. It broke through the clutter when McCloskey received a letter from John Thompson on Mark’s behalf.
“Very rarely would the person’s defense lawyer come to us,” McCloskey says. “John’s letter to us really provoked our interest and gave his claims of innocence credibility in our mind.”
As McCloskey and his staff looked closer at the case for several years, they received boxes of documents related to it and became convinced of Mark’s innocence due to the strength of his alibis. Even still, McCloskey didn’t think it was a good case for Centurion because the eyewitness testimony against Mark at that time seemed insurmountable. McCloskey changed his mind in 2009 when a member of his staff received a letter from Mark containing just three words: “Please help me.”
“My heart ached for him,” McCloskey says. “We committed right then and there.”
McCloskey began to look into the case along with investigator Richard Hepburn. By that time Charles Stokes had long since recanted his testimony and Michael Hosten, one of the original witnesses against Mark, had done the same before his death in 2006. As Centurion launched its investigation, Anthony Cooke recanted, meaning three of the original six witnesses against Mark now said they deliberately misidentified him for reduced sentences.
But the courts had ignored recantations in the past. To free Mark, Centurion and the Thompsons needed more: they needed to gain a better understanding of what actually happened in Springfield that night. They knew about Randy Weaver, the owner of the distinctive gray van, and Hepburn approached him. In one of the major breakthroughs in the investigation, Weaver agreed to speak with Hepburn and McCloskey.
“Randy Weaver was the hero of this case. He was just determined to clear Mark Schand — who he knew, but they had no relationship,” McCloskey says.
After the events of Springfield that night, Weaver had turned his life around and had followed Mark’s case, McCloskey says. “Randy Weaver felt so bad for Mark Schand being in prison for something he knew Mark Schand had no involvement in. He was so brave to come forward not knowing if the prosecutors may indict him for some involvement in this. He just told the whole story clear as a bell both to us in the privacy of his kitchen and in open court.”
Weaver led the investigators to several other witnesses who helped them finally understand what had really happened the night that had resulted in one murdered young woman and another young man wrongfully put in prison.
The Saturday before the murder, on Aug. 30, 1986, Weaver had been at a concert in Springfield, and while at a club near the After Five Lounge a fight had broken out and someone from Springfield had robbed Weaver’s gold chain.
A few days later on Tuesday, Sept. 2, the night of the murder, Weaver decided to go back to Springfield to look for his chain. He announced these plans at a Hartford bar, and three friends came with him in his distinctive van. Two other men, Tracy Fisher and Ty Johnson, were at the bar, and overheard these plans. Unknown to Weaver’s group, they decided to follow them to Springfield in a stolen Audi in order to buy drugs. All these men knew Mark because they lived near him, but they were not friends.
Weaver’s group’s first stop was the Pizza King. Weaver is sometimes described as a look-alike for Mark. At the time they both wore their hair in cornrows and were about the same height, age and weight. Weaver went into the Pizza King and recalls talking with the employees who later testified they talked to Mark in the Pizza King at that time. Weaver then got back in his van, the one described by the Pizza King employees.
Looking for the chain, Weaver and his group went to the club where the jewelry had been lost and then the After Five Lounge. Failing to find anyone wearing Weaver’s chain, the group left the club and saw Johnson outside. Fisher was apparently nearby but Weaver did not see him. Weaver walked down the street. Soon afterward the shooting started.
Who actually fired the shots that killed Seymour remains unclear, but Fisher, who also looked somewhat like Mark, admitted to Centurion during the organization’s investigation that it was he who confronted Charles Stokes and grabbed the bag of cocaine from him and had then been grabbed by Cooke. Though Fisher’s story corroborated Weaver’s account, Fisher refused to go on the record for fear of being indicted for murder.
In October 1986, a month after the shooting, Weaver was arrested and charged with possession of drugs. The Hartford Police Department took a photo of his van and sent it to Springfield investigators noting that it fit the description from the Pizza King witnesses, and that Weaver had the same hairstyle and wore the same glasses as Mark. But there’s no record that investigators in Massachusetts ever followed up with Weaver, which likely would have led them to question Fisher or Johnson — the men actually involved in the drug deal gone bad that had resulted in the shooting.
Decades later it’s clear Mark had been mistaken first for Weaver at the Pizza King and then mistaken for or deliberately misidentified as Fisher at the scene of the crime. While investigators missed or ignored evidence leading to other culprits. Fisher, who was never questioned about that night, is currently serving time for a murder committed in 1987, not long after Seymour’s killing.
With the new evidence in hand in 2013, Mark’s legal team filed a motion for a new trial. During the legal proceedings for this motion, with the case against Mark rapidly crumbling, the state of Massachusetts offered Mark a deal: plead guilty to manslaughter and go free with time served.
“Mark declined to do that; it was a very difficult decision,” Thompson says. “It meant facing the possibility that the ruling would go against us.”
For Mark the decision was easy.
“In a plea deal you have to admit guilt,” he says. “I don’t know many people who can admit guilt to a murder they didn’t commit. That’s got to be the hardest thing to ever do. I never even contemplated it at all.”
During an evidentiary hearing, Fisher was summoned to testify but refused, invoking his privilege against self-incrimination. The judge granted him immunity and Fisher under oath confirmed what he had told Centurion Ministry investigators: that he had followed Weaver’s group to Springfield that night, that he never saw Mark there, and that it was he, not Mark, who had grabbed the cocaine from Charles Stokes.
The judge granted the motion for a new trial. Within two weeks the state decided not to prosecute. Mark’s name had been cleared and he was a free man.
Mia was the first to learn Mark was coming home. She got a call from John Thompson telling her to pick her husband up the next day. She was at work at a beauty salon and somehow finished her shift. She placed the call to their family who gathered from far and wide to make it to Connecticut and welcome Mark home.
That night Mia didn’t sleep.
When she returned from prison with Mark the next day, she says, “Everyone was there. Everyone.” She adds, “I felt like it happened yesterday and it will be five years since Mark came home this October.”
After prison, Mark’s entrepreneurial spirit was reignited. Last year he spotted a vacant storefront in downtown New Britain while he was visiting his father who lived across the street. In prison his interest in healthy eating had increased and one of his hobbies was his vegetable garden.
He decided to open a smoothie and deli shop in New Britain that would be vegan and vegetarian friendly, but not exclusively either. With the help of his family he designed a vibrant space, with bright colors and a fun, welcoming feel. He’s quickly become a star of the New Britain community.
“He’s the most upbeat, engaging, happy guy,” says Gerry Amodio, executive director of New Britain’s Downtown District. “Every once in a while people enter your life and you want to know them. He’s that kind of guy.”
Rashmi Patel, Mark’s landlord, says everyone on the block supports Mark. “He’s been dealt a pretty bad hand, so I want to make sure I can do what I can for him to succeed. I think a lot of neighbors over there look at him the same way,” Patel says.
“I couldn’t believe how upbeat he is,” says Bill Carroll, New Britain’s business development director. “He’s got a lot of faith and believes in his faith and his friends.”
The city’s mayor, Stewart, is also a fan of Mark and his shop. She was among the more than 100 people who packed into the storefront and overflowed onto the sidewalk outside at the store’s ribbon-cutting in January. “I’ve never seen this many people show up for a ribbon-cutting,” she says. She adds, “It’s an amazing story of resilience.”
Mark has plans to open a second location in Hartford and a third in Southington. “I have the paint waiting,” he says.
His three sons, who all have full-time professions of their own, regularly pitch in at the store and his niece, Jazmine, who is Roger’s daughter, manages it.
Mark received a $450,000 settlement from Massachusetts for his wrongful conviction and has a civil rights case pending in federal court. Though he is focused on the future, his burgeoning business and his family, including his four grandchildren, he still thinks about others wrongfully imprisoned. “I am of the firm belief that we have the best legal system in the world, but I think it’s human beings and their faults and their biases that ruin the system,” he says. He adds that investigators will always approach a case with certain biases, sometimes based on race, but that if district attorneys were penalized for withholding information, huge progress would be made. “They probably could wipe this out in one fell swoop if they made district attorneys accountable for knowingly wrongfully putting a person in jail.”
Asked what he hopes people learn from his story, Mark says “perseverance.” After a pause he elaborates, “I know a lot of people who have gone through and have been through worse than this. But what happened to me is nothing to shake a stick at. If they can take anything from it, it’s you can come out of a tragedy like this on the other side.”
A few minutes later, as a smoothie for one guest is prepared, a blender roars to life, filling up the small, colorfully painted shop. Above the roar of the blender the sound coming from the stereo can still be heard. It’s Pharrell Williams’ hit, “Happy.”