YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Freedom Can't Save Wrongfully Convicted Man


SOUND BEACH, N.Y. — Prison took a lot from Lenny Callace, but he walked out from behind bars holding tight to his innocence and his life. For a while, at least.

He lost nearly six years to prison for a crime he didn't commit. He missed the chance to say goodbye to his dying mother--"my heart" he called her. He couldn't trust anyone anymore, his father said. The mother of his children left him.

Callace himself, trying to describe it, said: "I'm not right. I snap. Last night, I had to go for a walk--2 o'clock for a walk!"

Facing a sexual assault charge, Callace spurned a plea bargain that would have freed him. No, he insisted, he was innocent. DNA finally proved him right.

"I'm a free man!" Callace shouted when a judge vacated his 25- to 50-year sentence.

But there were things he was not free of.

Before prison, Callace was his neighborhood's "happy-go-lucky guy," said Val Gallo, a friend from his days in "The Hole," an Italian American enclave in East New York.

Thirty-two when he was arrested, he was a lean guy with a blond goatee, chiseled features and a cross tattoo on his hand from his rough days on the streets. A sometime thief, he worked construction and drove a cab. He had four kids, an estranged wife and a girlfriend who left him while he was in prison.

Free at 38, he was ecstatic at first, taking a bunch of friends to Atlantic City in a limousine, talking about buying a house. But slowly, his friends and family could see the changes.

"Things kept coming back," says his younger brother, Pierre. "He went back on drugs, he was drinking, he could never live with it. Words never really could describe the pain he was in."

In 1992, two months after he was set free, Callace tried to explain, telling an Associated Press reporter: "I'm just glad it's over with, but I've got a lot of hate, frustration."

He got steadily worse, said Gallo, who lived with Callace in the years after prison. He drank more and more-- "24-7," a pint bottle of vodka always in his pocket. Heroin, a part of his life before and during prison, led to cycles of rehab and relapse.

He got $500,000 from the state for his wrongful conviction, but what wasn't spent on lawyers went to drugs and booze. He was treated for substance abuse and depression.

Callace would keep watching the videotape of his half-dozen TV appearances--he was on "Nightline," a Geraldo Rivera broadcast, talk shows--feeling like a rock star, his brother and friends recalled.

Telling his story, he always was angry that the real criminal never was charged--and that the five-year statute of limitations meant he never would be.

"The system isn't perfect," acknowledges James Catterson, the former district attorney, adding he was glad Callace was freed.

When Lenny Callace died, four years after he won his freedom back, it was by his own hand, with a needle and a high.

He overdosed on heroin, his body was found in a parked car a few miles from the neighborhood where he grew up.

Earlier that day, he had received a check for part of a government settlement for the years he spent as an innocent man behind bars.

Los Angeles Times Articles