In 1991, Fernando Bermudez had the world at his fingertips. The 22-year-old was preparing to complete his college education when his bright and prosperous future was unfairly snatched away from him.
Bermudez was falsely detained, accused of murder and imprisoned for 18 years, a horrific experience that has forever changed his life. “Back in 1991, I was set to begin school," he explains. "My plans were already focused. Obviously, my life took a big detour."
I caught up with Bermudez and his wife recently to speak further about his horrifying tale of the criminal justice system run amok. In a three-hour conversation at a downtown Manhattan Starbucks, I learned more about the couple's story of faith, hope and a long healing process that continues today.
In what he calls "the rudest awakening," Bermudez says that he saw his hopes and dreams that once seemed so close diminish before his eyes. In 1992, the young man was convicted of shooting and killing Raymond Blount, a 16-year-old who died after a fight inside of a Greenwich Village, New York City club.
Rather than cracking books open to study in collegiate libraries, Bermudez found himself struggling to survive inside of some of New York State's toughest prisons in the 1990s -- all the while knowing that he was entirely innocent of the crime he was convicted of.
In a tragic journey that extended nearly two decades, he fought against his detention every step of the way, proclaiming his innocence and climbing an uphill battle that offered little hope of success or eventual freedom.
With no DNA evidence involved in the case, Bermudez was in a he-said, she-said battle with prosecutors, who, based on initial witness testimony, maintained that he was responsible for killing Blount. But here's the irony -- just one year after his conviction, the five witnesses who originally testified against him recanted.
In sworn affidavits, they claimed that police and prosecutors "coerced or manipulated" them to identify Bermudez as the killer. These admissions, which wasn't officially uncovered until years later, did little to prevent him from spending another 17 years behind bars. But they were later relied upon in the eventual court battle that led to his release.
In another bizarre inconsistency that should have raised suspicions among prosecutors, Bermudez explains that his height and weight didn't match the perpetrators.
“The shooter was described by all accounts as 5 feet 9 inches and 150 pounds. At the time on the record I was 6 feet, 1 inch and about 215. There was a big discrepancy.”
"By about 2005, the current legal team that I had thought that there was nothing else than they could do than get a confession from the actual killer," he told The Blaze. The situation was grim, but there were many advocates and supporters who refused to give up.
After enduring 10 failed attempts to overturn his conviction, Bermudez finally found success in 2009, as his eleventh appeal for mercy was granted. At the conclusion of his final appeal, Justice John Cataldo overturned the murder conviction and ruled that prosecutors could not retry him unless there was a reversal by an appellate court.
As The New York Times noted at the time of its conclusion, Bermudez's case signifies one of the rare times in which a judge has ruled a defendant innocent without DNA evidence. Following the case, Scott Christianson, an author who has written on wrongful conviction, said:
“This case, like the overwhelming number of wrongful convictions, does not have the advantage of DNA. So for this judge to assess all the evidence in the case and come to this decision is quite unusual.”
During my time with Fernando and his wife, Crystal, I learned more about the back story that led to his evental release. The couple met one another while he was incarcerated. Their story, which is certainly less than traditional, is intriguing.
Crystal, who lived in Oklahoma in the early 1990s, first saw Fernando's story on national television. After seeing his claim of innocence on national television, his story resonated with her. Following the newscast, Crystal, a woman of deep Christian convictions (her father is a pastor), just couldn't forget about the man she had viewed in the newscast. She explains:
“After learning about his story, I had a burden. I couldn’t shake it. But I was attracted to him initially. I was attracted to the story."
Despite knowing next to nothing about Fernando, she found herself praying for him and thinking about his wrongful conviction. As this stranger's story continued to eat away at her, she began to take action to reach out to him. She says she felt God compelling her to do so.
But, as you can imagine, contacting a prisoner before the advent of the Internet age was a difficult task. Still, Crystal was determined, she says, to pray with Fernando and to let him know that God loved him. So, against the odds she reached out to Rikers Island Prison, obtained Fernando's information and began corresponding with him.
Before long, the young woman flew to New York to meet with her newfound pen pal face-to-face. Then, the unexpected happened. Their friendship quickly grew into a love affair. What followed was somewhat of an unconventional relationship. The two married and in 2000, Crystal decided to move to New York City to support Fernando.
Of course, moving to a new and unfamiliar city wasn't easy. Faith, she says, was her bedrock. “I was a preachers kid who had never been away from her parents," she says. "I was very sheltered, but my parents were very supportive of my decision to relocate."
Crystal struggled to find employment and stable housing while she helped Fernando with his appeals and efforts to prove his innocence, but she fought on. While all of this chaos was unfolding, the couple also began to build a family -- yet another intriguing element to this story. During his incarceration, Fernando and Crystal had three children -- Fernando, Carissa, and Chayla.
Crystal remained strong throughout the ordeal, especially when visiting her husband in prison. “I never cried in front of him. I was the only one who wouldn’t cry," she explains. "I’d get in the car and have a crying feast afterward, of course. The kids and I would just cry. But I had to stay strong for him...in front of him...so he wouldn’t lose hope.”
When asked how he handled his time in prison, Fernando explained that he decided to put all of himself into his family. For Fernando, faith was the cornerstone that guided him through his long journey. The road, of course, wasn't easy, but his faith in God, he says, guided him along the pathway.
In prison, he says, conditions were rough. Luckily, Fernando was able to blend in and ensure his own safety throughout his nearly two decades of incarceration. "A person can just perceive he’s being disrespected and when you’re watching television, he’ll just slit your throat,” he explains.
“God just protected him," Crystal says. "Even when he was under pressure to be attacked [in prison] he was able to get himself out of those situations.”
The journey hasn't been easy, though. After leaving prison, Fernando experienced post-traumatic stress disorder -- something he continues to battle. Earlier this year, he filed a $30 million lawsuit against the both the city and New York State.
But Fernando has proven that he's a survivor. Since gaining his freedom, he's been speaking to audiences about his experience. Additionally, he has nearly completed his college degree -- an accomplishment that deserves celebration. In the end, justice has been served.
Now, Fernando and Crystal can focus on their future, as he shares his story in an effort to positively impact a criminal justice system that so epically failed him.