Seventeen years after Rodney Roberts was first incarcerated for a kidnapping and rape he did not commit, he was exonerated and freed on March 14, 2014. Though sentenced to seven years incarceration, he was involuntarily committed for another 10 years by the State of New Jersey to a sex offender treatment facility, and the case he was convicted for remains unsolved.
Roberts, now 47, is one of countless individuals who have been victimized by a criminal justice system that relies on plea deals struck between over-burdened public defenders and comparatively well-funded prosecutors.
In a poignant conversation with TCR’s Graham Kates, he describes the shattering effect his years behind bars as an innocent man left on him—and why getting out of prison hasn’t ended his problems. Roberts, who now lives with his family in Newark, where he works odd jobs to get by, suggests changes in the judicial system that could prevent others from going through what he experienced.
The Crime Report: You were innocent of the crime you were convicted of. Why did you plead guilty?
Rodney Roberts: I had three separate public defenders (for different appeals). The third one claimed that the victim was out in the courtroom waiting to testify against me, and that I was 100 percent identified. He said that there was no chance of me winning the trial and that the best thing I could do was enter a plea agreement and try to keep myself from being in jail for the rest of my life.
A fear set in [when I heard] it from the one person I thought was there to protect me. I mean, he was the one person in the courtroom there for me. And for him to be telling me such a strong story about how much evidence there was against me and how my life was about to be destroyed, that’s what convinced me that pleading guilty to a crime I didn’t commit was the best thing to do to save my future.
TCR: Why do you think he did that?
RR: I think to his eyes I was no more than (part of) a caseload. I was his 30th client that morning and it was only like 10:30.
TCR: When you were incarcerated, did you come across other people who had similar stories?
RR: Yes, eventually. I started going to the law library and studying law on my own, and I started encountering people with similar situations of misrepresentation. And then, once I become a paralegal and started working on other inmates’ cases, helping with research and writing, I started seeing little patterns of how attorneys will overwhelm you. The prosecutor had so many resources available to them, their office was well funded and well staffed, and the public defender had no resources at all. Their office was understaffed and they were very underfunded. It was such an imbalance to the adversarial process that it was only inevitable that most of the people who wound up in prison were either not guilty or pleaded guilty to some lesser crime that they didn’t commit, just to keep the wheels of progress spinning in the courtroom.
TCR: What happened when you tried to reverse your plea?
RR: Once I discovered that the plea agreement wasn’t being honored by the parole board or the State Prison Classification Department, I started to withdraw the guilty plea … also because I kept telling them I’m not guilty, I’m innocent. But they started going by the police report and whatever the police report described as my offense, which was the arrest for the kidnap and the sexual assault. So they automatically put that the circumstances of the conviction in my record—which was not true, because the sexual assault had been dismissed and the kidnap, as per the plea agreement, was downgraded to second degree; and the judge put on the record that no harm came to anyone. But once I got in the prison system, all of those factors went out the window.
TCR: What did it feel like to be freed after 17 years?
RR: It was impossible for me to have envisioned or calculated what I was going to encounter, not knowing that New Jersey was so strict on compensation. The law was changed in 2013. Gov. (Chris) Christie increased the amount to compensate those innocent or wrongfully convicted and proven to be innocent with DNA, but he wrote a clause in the statute that said if you contributed to your own guilt then you’re disqualified. Meaning that even if your lawyer coerced you to plead guilty, you’re automatically disqualified from any compensation. So my lawyer put me in a position that automatically disqualified me from immediate compensation from the state, or else they would have had to give me money to help me readjust back into the community.
I was given nothing. When I came home, I had no money. All I had was my family. My wife, who has been working 100 hours (a week), was the sole supporter of the household at that time. Although I was happy to be home and living la vida loca — I was struggling hard financially. I would go out and look for jobs while trying to adjust to the different world. Seventeen years I was gone. I had to understand and process the changes to society, the technology, the cultural changes, the geographical changes. I had to adapt while not having enough money to do the things that I had to do.
And I couldn’t do the reentry program, because they had no distinct program in New Jersey for exonerees. There’s nothing in the book to help exonerees reintegrate, like family services, social services, housing. Because I guess they never envisioned making a mistake and putting the wrong person in jail.
So guys on parole, on probation, were getting hired before me. Employers would tell me things like, “Hey, you’re a great guy and I’m sorry what happened to you, but hiring parole guys (gets us) massive tax deductions.”
TCR: While you knew that you were not a sex offender, presumably you were living with people who actually were violent sex offenders.
RR: It was very, very hard. When I first got in, just hearing (other inmates) tell their stories, especially the crimes against the children, was just too much for me. I would start crying in the group (therapy sessions). The therapist would say, “Well, it’s an illness and some people have that illness.” I understand (it’s an) illness, but I can’t get my heart and my mind to say even as an illness, it’s explainable.
And a lot of people had a lot of issues with me because I couldn’t hold it in a lot of times. I wasn’t well received all the way across the board in that regard.
When I first went in, I was saying, “This is unconstitutional. You just can’t lock somebody up. We haven’t committed a crime. Everybody should be released.” But I changed that mantra after being there. I started understanding that there is a need to protect society. This is real. These are some monsters and there’s a need for a facility to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.
And they used to get mad at me, because I would say, “Hell, no. You ain’t never going nowhere.”
TCR: You weren’t diagnosed with some of the issues that other people were getting treated for, so what was the treatment like for you?
RR: I went to a lot of anger management — which I needed, because I was very angry about the whole situation.
I had a sense of righteous anger. I felt I had the right to be angry and I attached that to everything. But the group that really helped me was called “Criminal and Addictive Thinking.” It helped me understand myself better in regards to some cultural things and the neighborhood I grew up in. It helped me understand some of the behavior that you think is just normal is actually part of an addiction. I got so into that group and that mindset that I petitioned the facility to start my own “criminal and addictive thinking “self-help group. Within four, maybe five, months, many people signed up because it was such a relatable way (to talk about these issues). And it took away a lot of the bitterness I had.
TCR: Do you have thoughts on how you could fix some of the issues that left you trapped?
RR: There needs to be an arbitration-like process. A third-party need to be involved, not just the public defendant and the prosecuting officer (for plea agreements). Because right now, you have one agency that’s overwhelmingly financed and resourced against another agency that’s not. That’s a David-and-Goliath scenario. A third party can oversee the evidence and (make sure) the deal is fair and the defendant is making this plea agreement in good faith, before it gets to the judge.
There also needs to be an oversight committee to monitor the prosecutors, so that they can be held accountable for when they do acts of (grievous) behavior like withholding evidence or purposely prosecuting someone based on false police reports.
Until that’s done, you’re going to continue to see innocent people put in jail, you’re going to continue to see the system broken, because the one person who has the most power in the courtroom is the prosecutor – even sometimes over the judge who has limited discretion.
EDITOR’S NOTE: for further reading on this issue, please see “Why Innocent Victims Plead Guilty to Rape Charges,” in a June 30, 2015 TCR Viewpoints column by Matthew Johnson.
Graham Kates is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. Find him on Twitter, @GrahamKates. He welcomes comments from readers.