As COVID-19 Grips Prisons, a Grandfather and Youth Mentor Appeals for Clemency

To learn more about clemencies and their impact on the criminal justice system, visit the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) State Clemency Project.

David Herion has served 23 years and is currently behind bars in Sing Sing Correctional Facility for a crime he says he did not commit. His appeal for early release is not only compelling, but common sense for anyone who looks at the basic facts of his case.

Following his conviction for attempted murder and other related charges (a 45-year prison sentence), the two main witnesses from the trial have since recanted their testimonies and stated that they did not see Mr. Herion at the scene of the crime. Other circumstantial evidence has shown that Mr. Herion was visiting a friend at a hospital when the crime took place.

Furthermore, his co-defendant was granted clemency by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017 based on an innocence claim, which is objectively identical to Mr. Herion’s claim for an executive pardon. In short, Mr. Flournoy’s newfound freedom makes Mr. Herion’s ongoing incarceration unreasonable and his claim for clemency evident.

What’s extraordinary about Mr. Herion’s case is that the victim of the crime, Carolyn Jones, also supports his early release from prison.

“My heart breaks to know that he’s separated from [his] children and grandchildren. To know that David remains in prison with no end in sight provides me no solace, and his further incarceration serves no redemptive purpose. True closure, for me, will come when he returns home,” says Mrs. Jones.

At a time when COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in prisons, policymakers must consider every tool at their disposal to safely reduce the number of people in incarceration; executive clemency is one of these tools (the Governor of New York has the power to grant clemency in the form of reprieves, commutations, and pardons). Every year, Gov. Cuomo’s office is tasked with going through thousands of clemency applications—thousands of stories like David’s that serve as pleas for a second chance.

Despite his perceived wrongful conviction, Mr. Herion views the last 23 years in incarceration as a lifetime of redemption. Although he was not involved in the crime that led to his conviction, he admits that he was headed down the wrong path as a young man before his incarceration.

At Sing Sing Correctional Facility, however, he has built a reputation as a model citizen. He serves as a mentor for at-risk youths. He often provides counseling to others to find non-violent solutions to conflict. He has even taken a formal leadership role, acting as a liaison for the facility’s incarcerated population and working with staff to address various problems.

His exemplary behavior has garnered praise from his supervisor and others who know him, even receiving a Commendable Behavior Report from the facility for his outstanding leadership in helping protect both correctional staff and the incarcerated population during the COVID-19 crisis—despite living with multiple health risks and having contracted the virus earlier this year.

Having spent more than two decades in prison, Mr. Herion cautiously looks forward to a life outside of the prison’s walls, where he wants to apply the interpersonal and job skills he developed in prison to become a “productive worker, citizen, and taxpayer.”

He says he plans to follow his passion for cooking and work in the culinary industry. If that doesn’t work out immediately, he mentions that he has a standing job offer from a construction company in Brooklyn.

Most of all, Mr. Herion looks forward to a time when he could spend time with his family, especially his now-adult daughters whom he was separated from when they were just young children 23 years prior.

“[Receiving clemency] would mean going for walks with my daughters, cooking for my family, hearing how their days went every evening. It would mean that I get to hold my grandchildren, support them, and watch them grow up. It’d mean that I could sing to them at bath time. I hope to provide for them in ways that I haven’t been able to with my own children,” said Mr. Herion.