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After waiting 16 years and six months for his release from prison for a crime he didn't commit, Mario Victoria stood alone on an icy night in February 2015 at the exit of Wisconsin’s Green Bay Court.
The handcuffs were finally gone and he was dressed in blue inmate pants, a green jacket handed to him by the state, as well as size 11 boots that he was given in the waiting cell. “There was nobody there, not a soul. I thought I would see the reporters, my lawyer Cristina, my family or friends, but nobody was there…for a moment I felt like going back to prison,” he said.
Tears run down his face as he tells the story in front of his lawyer Cristina Bordé, three and a half years later, sitting in a room near the office of the attorney who directs a program at the Wisconsin Innocence Project in Madison, the state’s capital that seeks to address wrongful convictions in the Latino community.
Wrongfully convicted of raping a four-year-old girl and sentenced to 20 years in prison, Victoria's release from the Fox Lake Correctional Institution, was the realization of his goal of recovering his liberty. However, he did not imagine having to rebuild his life without financial compensation, without a housing plan, without savings, without healthcare insurance, about to turn 53 and lacking the self-confidence needed to start all over again.
Of the 33 states considering some form of compensation for wrongfully convicted individuals in the United States, Wisconsin has the lowest allocation for each case: $5,000 per year served and a cap of $25,000, which is what Victoria would get for the nearly 17 years he spent unjustly locked up.
More than money to rebuild a life
Several attempts to reform the law have failed to pass the legislature, leaving people like Victoria, often suffering from severe trauma, struggling to reincorporate into society.
He expected financial compensation from the state. While in jail, he spend nights thinking how that money would help make amends for his story. He would tell himself: “They have to give me money for everything I’m going through.” He refused to declare himself guilty, and declined to attend the sexual predator therapy that would have reduced his sentence. “I’m innocent” and “they have to compensate me,” were the two thoughts that served as his crutches during those years.
In an emotiional reunion with his lawyer, who inaugurated the Latino program of the Wisconsin Innocence Project a year after his release, she recalled how the day he regained his liberty was one of the most exciting days of her career. She also explained no-one was there to greet him:
- “Even though we had the good news that the judge was willing to set you free, the sheriff had said that you were going back in jail and that your freedom would happen days later. So, together with the students who worked with me, I went back to Madison. When we learned over the phone about your immediate release, we were already three hours away and could not make it back on time. It was very sad and frustrating not being there to accompany you and to hug you, Mario.”
- “Is that really what happened? And I find out about it just now. Well, I’m glad I’m free. That’s the important thing,” he says while wiping off his tears.
A team from Univision Noticias spent three days with Mario Victoria Vásquez in Wisconsin and there was not a day in which he didn’t cry and his voice didn’t break. “I warned you, every time I talk about this…I don’t know what happens to me,” he said.
How does one rebuild a life after losing 17 years? Victoria speaks as though his life stopped in 1998, when he was locked up at the age of 35. Nothing would ever be the same.
Soon after his conviction, his then wife Darcy Martínez asked him for a divorce. She also stopped visiting with their little son James. “It was very uncomfortable because, given the crime I was accused of, I had to stay away from minors under the age of 13, my son included. And so, I had to see him through a glass. He would ask me questions. He would say: ‘What are you doing in there, dad?’ I would tell him that I was studying, at school, that I had a lot to learn and that it would take some time…”
- What do you need to rebuild your life? We asked him over the phone four months ago.
- “To be born-again. To be reborn and that none of this had happened,” he answered.
- What do you need to rejoin society? We asked again during a two-and-a-half-hour drive between Madison and Green Bay.
- “Well, life arrangements, a place to live; some classes about how life is out there, with the computers; who do you choose to begin a new life with, the family, or what is going to happen; I was just thrown out there and I was not prepared.”
Wisconsin and the six prisons that housed him
Victoria arrived in the United States as a 15-year-old Mexican immigrant in 1978. He lived in California until 1985, when he travelled to Wisconsin to work at a restaurant. He married an American and had his first daughter, Heidi. With that marriage, he obtained a permanent resident status. Years later, he divorced her and married again. This time to Darcy Martínez, with whom he has his son James. By the time he got out of jail, he was divorced and he married his third wife Magdalena, from whom he has recently separated.
Had he served the 20-year sentence, and had he not been acquitted, he would have faced deportation to Mexico as soon as he got out of jail. However, he was able to renew his expired residency status and is now legal again. “At least I get to stay in America, where there are more possibilities of starting over,” he says while driving a car borrowed from a friend.
Traveling through Wisconsin, he relates to the cities according to the prisons he has been to. He points them out and recalls some insider details about the penitentiary system. “There are worse ones, and others that are less tough. Some guards are terrible, others offer you things and just sit reading the paper until their shift is over, and then leave. Some days you can buy stuff. If your family puts up some money you can call them occasionally,” he says while driving - and singing.
“First, I was taken to the Dodge Correctional Institution. I was there less than a month because that’s where you go until they decide where they are going to send you. Then I went to Waupun Correctional Institution for a year, and another year at the Green Bay Correctional Institution. But then they found my cigarettes and sent me to the Supermax Boscobel (maximum security) as punishment, for a little longer than three years. I thought I would go mad there. I never talked to anyone. I was locked up in a cell, counting bars, scratches and holes on the walls, not sleeping well because sometimes other inmates would go crazy and scream all night; they would fight with the guards, and then the guards released that gas that would make us cry and bleed through our nose…some would poop in their hand and spread it on the walls…”
He returned to Green Bay Correctional for about two years. Then he spent almost three years at the New Lisbon Correctional before serving out the rest of his years at Fox Lake. “All of that was very ugly…I have never had a therapy, a psychologist, a psychiatrist. Nothing.”
Four years before contacting Bordé, he had written to the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP), but they had not taken his case because it was too difficult to prove his innocence without DNA tests. Nevertheless, he insisted and wrote again from prison. Currently, it can take up to seven years for WIP lawyers to take a case, and the defense process can take an additional 10 years on average.
If you want to learn more about this program, read this article:
“I want to defend imprisoned Hispanics all over the country”: Cristina Bordé, the lawyer who gets
innocent Latinos out of jail
The wandering life
Victoria doesn’t have a home. He currently lives with a 45-year-old nephew who has severe alcohol problems. Previously, he lived with a couple in Minnesota while working as a restaurant cook. On leaving prison, he tried to repair his relationship with Martínez, his second wife, and their son James. But it didn’t work out.
“Mario is still the same good person he has always been, but he has lost all confidence in himself. Those years he spent locked up really damaged him and nothing is the same anymore,” says Martínez, who was concerned about the efforts to rebuild the life of her son’s father. “He needs help because he has suffered a lot,” she says.
Victoria doesn’t have a car either, although a friend lends him one to go to work, at a home cabinets manufacturing company. He has trouble sleeping and thinks is “stuff that stuck with me from prison.” He lacks preparation in any career or profession. He has nothing. His mother, who lives in her hometown of Michoacán, in Mexico, cannot visit the United States. Of his 13 siblings, he sees some of them. And then there is his compadre, Juan Maldonado, who went to pick him up the night he got out of jail.
“I lost so much all those years I was in prison. My wife and I got divorced. My son grew up without me. My father died and I couldn’t go to his funeral; and I had not talked to him in so long. My grandpa died too, and I couldn’t say goodbye or attend his funeral. Many of my uncles, aunts and neighbors who helped raise me got old and died as well without me being able to give my condolences or my support before they died. My nieces and nephews were born and grew up without me, and I never spent time with them, so they don’t know me,” he explained to the Wisconsin state congress in January.
He works 14 hours on Mondays and Wednesdays on kitchen cabinets, learning woodwork techniques. It is a good working environment. Coworkers have an hour for lunch. On a recent Thursday, some hurry to smoke a cigarette before getting back to work. Mario asks for one. They talk and laugh. Three of them speak Spanish. The owner makes sure everyone wears protective goggles to prevent damage to the cornea from the sawdust in the air. Victoria is one of five Hispanics working there. When other coworkers arrive, they switch to English and make jokes. He must be there at 6am and sometimes he says he doesn't sleep well because he worries he'll get up late.
One day, the business owner told him “Hey, I read your story. I learned what happened to you, about prison,” and he replied “Oh, ok,” without adding anything else. Given that he was acquitted, Victoria doesn’t have a document that explains that his conviction was anulled after all those years. “He doesn’t have a letter from anyone, apologizing for the time he spent locked up. Nothing, except that he is now free,” says his lawyer.
He's not fond of his job. Instead, he dreams of having his own restaurant to serve people and chat. "That’s what I like. Especially with older people, to talk about things from the past. I like to talk about things from the past, the things I know from before I was locked up: games, the [Green Bay] Packers, life without computers and smartphones. All young people do now is being on those phones that I don’t handle well.”
Attempts to reform the law
After several failed attempts to reform the compensation law for wrongfully convicted individuals in Wisconsin, another bipartisan proposal was proposed in 2015. It seeked to grant innocent felons $50,000 for each year wrongfully served, with a one-million-dollar cap.
“What we have been trying to get approved these past years is a reform of the existing law, which seeks to provide social services to help the exonerated rejoin society, simplifies the process to apply for compensation and seals the public files pertaining to the conviction (so that it doesn’t affect the ability to find a job), in addition to increasing compensation,” explained Bordé.
One of the reform’s co-sponsors is Republican Representative Dale Kooyenga.
At a press conference in Madison, in 2015, Kooyenga said that those changes to the law are “long overdue” and that no amount of money could truly make justice to victims of wrongful convictions. “How much money is it worth to miss your child’s birth…or that your mother thinks you are a rapist?” he argued. “You can’t put a price tag on that. All we can do is give these people the opportunity to have families, careers, a home. It’s a start.”
Three years later, in January 2018, lawmakers pushing the reform brought Victoria to testify before the state congress. On previous occasions, others were invited, including another Hispanic exoneree, Chris Ochoa.
“Contrary to those who are guilty (and are released after serving their sentence), I had no help from the state to rejoin society,” Victoria told the legislators.
The law has yet to be changed. “We will continue educating people and voters about this unfair treatment (to exonerees) until we change this law and increase the compensation amounts which are ridiculously low,” Kooyenga said via emai.
Bordé says that, in Victoria's case, they are waiting for the law to change so he can receive fair compensation. “Besides, that money is not released immediately. It is a long process that requires a lawyer to file a document at the State Claims Board to prove his innocence.”
Walking a few blocks from the state capitol where he testified in Janaury, he looks at a homeless man who extends his hand. Victoria immediately reaches for his pocket and hands him all the coins he has. “Why are there so many people like him on the streets?” he asks aloud.
Since the court began admitting DNA tests to prove innocence in 1989, the National Registry of Exonerations lists a total of 2,278 individuals who were acquitted of crimes they did not commit. On average, they add up to 20,000 years lost in prison due to wrongful convictions.
The registry is a joint project between the University of California’s Newkirk Center for Science and Society, the University of Michigan Law School and the Michigan State University College of Law.
The data points to a peak in exonerations in 2016, when 337 individuals were freed from jail. Bordé is aware that other innocent people in the prison system are waiting for a fair trial and that Hispanics, particularly, have a hard time with their defense because of cultural barriers and a lack of English. Because of this, she launched a chapter of the Wisconsin Innocence Project dedicated to Latinos.
She says 4.1% of inmates may be innocent, citing several studies including this one. Victoria thinks there are many more.
- Did you meet innocent people in prison? We asked Victoria.
- “Yes, sure. You can tell. Some people say they’re innocent but they’re not and suddenly it slips out of their mouths that they did commit the crime, or you notice it. But there are others who didn’t do it and you can tell. I met one who’s called Rosario, a Latino. I gave him the contact information for Wisconsin Innocence Project, but he doesn’t have a DNA (test) and that makes it very hard for them to take his case.”
At the end of the meeting with his lawyer, Victoria ponders his future compensation. When he gets it he will not only open his own restaurant, but also help his lawyer “put more money into freeing more wrongfully convicted people from jail.”
Bordé says she won’t accept the money. It all ends in laughter.
Olivia Liendo collaborated in this article.