On December 16th 1997 32-year-old Richard DiGuglielmo, a former New York City cop, walked into the Fishkill Correctional Institute in New York State. The decorated officer was beginning a sentence of 20 years to life for the October 1996 shooting death of Charles Campbell, a 37-year-old African American sanitation worker. It was a difficult moment.
“I was a white cop sent to a prison full of black inmates,” says DiGuglielmo. “And the shooting had been portrayed as an act of racial hatred by the prosecutor.”
DiGuglielmo had maintained his innocence throughout a contentious trial, claiming the killing, which took place one hour north of Manhattan in the parking lot of his father’s Dobbs Ferry delicatessen, had been justified.
DiGuglielmo, who was off duty, shot Campbell as he attacked the police officer’s father with a baseball bat.
“Even after I was sentenced I believed that what I had done was right,” he says. “To this day I believe I saved my father’s life.”
Given the highly charged nature of his trial, with daily protests organised by the Reverend Al Sharpton, one of New York’s most radical black activists, DiGuglielmo knew prison was going to be tough. But as he walked down a narrow corridor in the grim building, originally opened in the late 19th century as an asylum for the criminally insane, he had not anticipated how the first assault would come.
“They had a assembled a team of prison offices in emergency response gear,” DiGuglielmo recalls. “Some of them had the visors down on their helmets. I said ‘Is there a problem?’ One of the officers said ‘Shut the f**k up, this is your welcoming party.’”
After running the gauntlet DiGuglielmo was required to remove his clothes and place them in a cardboard box. He was told to write his address on the outside so that his belongings could be mailed to his next of kin. He was then left naked in a holding pen for four hours.
“Eventually two black prison officers entered the pen,” says the former NYPD patrolman. “One said, “You don’t look so tough now, you racist” and he spat in my eye. I began to wipe my face. He whacked me on the head and said “I didn’t tell you to wipe that.’ I started to get up, but the good Lord told me to sit back down. That saved me from getting much worse.”
Before his conviction DiGuglielmo had patrolled in the Bronx, a racially diverse New York City borough with a high crime rate. In ten years the muscular cop had won several awards, including one for saving the life of a Hispanic subway train driver who had been stabbed in the leg, severing his femoral artery. Now he sat shivering in an unheated cell. He had to wait for another hour before being frogmarched, still naked, to a shower where he was forcibly deloused with torrents of ice cold water. His head was shaved and he was issued with prison clothing.
“I was taken into a cell that was absolutely filthy,” says DiGuglielmo, remembering the next phase of a process designed to strip away his past identity. They had taken his freedom, now DiGuglielmo sensed they wanted to have his self-respect as well. Minutes later an enormous black prison officer entered the cell. The disgraced cop braced himself for another beating. What he got was a warning.
“He told me to change my appearance,” DiGuglielmo says. “He said grow a beard, stay clean shaven, look different. He warned me that there were people out to get me”.
Fast forward 12 years through endless nights of screams and tears, boredom, depression and occasional slivers of hope. It’s September 18th this year and DiGuglielmo is about to walk another gauntlet through a wall of prison officers. This time the men are smiling. The cop who had been painted as a despicable racist was being released, his conviction quashed and it seemed like every staff member in the Eastern Correctional Institute, an Ulster County state prison where he served the majority of his time, had assembled to celebrate his freedom.
“They were ecstatic that I was getting out,” says DiGuglielmo from his parents’ home where he has been living since his release. “The whole lobby of the prison was full of officers, black and white, and they were applauding.”
Six weeks later DiGuglielmo joined Rueben Carter – a black boxer who was framed for a triple murder and whose case was immortalised in the Bob Dylan song “Hurricane” (Carter’s ring name) – as the two men attended a press conference held to highlight the plight of the wrongly convicted.
“There are more innocent people in jail (in the United States) than there ought to be,” says DiGuglielmo. “What happened to the idea that it’s better to let one hundred guilty men go free than let one innocent man rot in jail? That’s gone because there is no accountability – bad prosecutors rarely pay a price for putting innocent men in jail.”
DiGuglielmo – and many others – believe that the U.S. judicial system is rife with corruption because it’s so politicised – most public prosecutors’ offices are led by a district attorney who is elected – in other words a politician. And, as the recent U.S. election proved, ambitious men – and women – are prepared to say almost anything to win power. Where Barack Obama had Sarah Palin alleging, falsely, that the president-elect was a close friend of domestic terrorists, Richie DiGuglielmo had Jeanine Pirro, a glamorous but hard-nosed Westchester County District Attorney with ambitions to be much more.
In 1996 Pirro was running for re-election as D.A. but she also had her eye on a seat in the U.S. senate. To get there – she eventually ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2006 – Pirro had to broaden the base of her support, especially among New York’s numerous ethnic minorities.
“Richie DiGuglielmo was perfect for Pirro,” says Jerry Palace a former New York city detective who is now host of “The Wrong Man” (truTV), a cable network show that seeks justice for wrongly convicted prisoners.“It was Hollywood central casting, big bad white cop slays innocent black guy who works part time in a community centre. She milked it for all she could to win support in the black community.’
Even the normally cautious New York Times rushed to be DiGuglielmo’s judge and jury, their celebrated columnist Bob Herbert – who is an African American - making unproven and unsupported allegations in an October 14 1996 editorial (just 11 days after the shooting) that helped stir up racial tensions. Herbert’s piece praised Pirro’s rush to judgement and included the notably inflammatory statement that DiGuglielmo and his kind were “the first cousins of every vigilante who ever reached for a rope.”
In truth DiGuglielmo could not be further from the kind of Southern bigots who make up a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob. In over a decade as a cop he had never been accused of even a hint of racial bias in his work or his life. While they may be racists in police forces across the U.S. DiGuglielmo does not appear to be one of them.
“Richie never had any complaints about excessive force or racial bias,” says John Depasquale, DiGuglielmo’s patrol partner of 12 years. “We worked in the heart of the South Bronx at the height of the crack epidemic and homicides were at 2,000 a year. Most of the cops we worked with were black or hispanic. Till this day there is a bond with those guys. We are all brothers and the only color was blue.”
The only truly undisputed facts about the October 3rd 1996 shooting are that Charles Campbell died and that DiGuglielmo was the man who fired the fatal shots. The rest has been lost in the fog of politics and racial biases that characterise the US judicial system.
Campbell had gone to the parking lot to visit an adjacent pizzeria and he had parked in a spot reserved for customers of the DiGuglielmo family’s deli. Some say the fight that followed was started by a DiGuglielmo, others that it was Campbell who threw the first punch.
At some point the pugilists disengaged and Richard DiGuglielmo went back into the store. Campbell returned to the fray with a baseball bat in hand which he used to strike Richard’s father. Did he hit the 53 year old businessman in the head with the metal bat? Was he about to? DiGuglielmo says he thought his father, who suffers from heart disease was in danger of being killed and, following NYPD protocols he’d absorbed in the police academy, he fired three times “into the assailant’s body mass.” A team of NYPD investigators ruled the shooting was “good” before they were ushered from the scene by local Dobbs Ferry cops.
DiGuglielmo’s trial was all about manipulating perceptions and Pirro’s spin was that this was a case of racial bias, that the DiGuglielmo family, including Richard, had uttered racial epithets during the incident and that their motive had been to teach “an uppity black man” a lesson. Yet Pirro did not produce one witness who could verify this theory. Worse, her detectives and prosecutors used pressure to force exculpatory witnesses to change their testimony and maligned witnesses who could have exonerated DiGuglielmo. Judge Rory Bellantoni, who overturned the conviction in September, accused the prosecutors in the case of “a wholesale assault on the judicial system” and police of using “psychological trickery” to confuse witnesses.
Indeed, the October 3rd incident was not the first time DiGuglielmo had drawn a weapon. As a cop he had been forced to take out his gun many times and had always shown restraint, including one hostage situation where a felon held a gun to a fellow officer’s head. The situation was resolved without bloodshed.
None of these mitigating circumstances would have come to light had it not been for the investigators whom Depasquale persuaded to work on his old partner’s behalf, including Palace, who also runs an agency that investigates wrongful conviction cases throughout the U.S.
“Jerry Palace saved my life” says DiGuglielmo. “He was very sceptical when we first met but once he began to believe he worked non-stop on the case. He was almost living at my parents’ house.”
Despite Palace’s involvement it still took over a decade to free DiGuglielmo, years that were never easy.
“The first challenge came the day after I was sentenced,” says DiGuglielmo. “I went to have my blood taken. The nurse, a black woman, said “If it’s not the devil himself” then she purposely missed the vein. She stuck the needle in five times. I told her if she didn’t get it right the next time I was going to do the same to her. She started screaming and four guys came in. They threw me against the wall but when the police officers saw my arm they took my side.”
As DiGuglielmo tells this part of his story his mother begins to cry softly in the background. She had not heard these details before and has never had to confront the reality of what her son had to endure, having been labelled a racist and “a brutal rogue cop”, the description foisted on him by the Campbell family attorney.
“I had never been called a racist,” he says “People I worked with were of colour, they came to my house and I broke bread with them. It hurt to think they would believe what was being said about me..
After eight months he was transferred to a protective custody unit in the Clinton Correctional facility, five hours north of New York City. He was housed in the 1845 jail with other convicted law enforcement officers and a motley collection of rapists and child offenders.
The unit’s exercise yard was overlooked by cells housing prisoners from the general population and some of these inmates found out DiGuglielmo’s real identity. They began talking about killing him.
“I was doing pushups and these guys, they were mostly Hispanics, were hanging out the windows, talking about me being the cop who shot the black man and they were sending somebody to kill me,” says DiGuglielmo. “A guy attacked me and we went at it. I had him on the ground and he said to me ‘I have no problem with you, they wanted me to do it.’ So I backed off and so did he.”
DiGuglielmo kept out of similar situations in Clinton by working everyday in the law library, researching the law surrounding his case. He was frequently interrupted by a steady flow of visitors..
“There was one woman who helped escort visitors and she had been very cold toward me,” says DiGuglielmo “One day she came up and said ‘I want to apologise to you, anybody who has the number of different visitors that you have must be a good guy.”
After four years in jail, and without any sign that his appeals would succeed, DiGuglielmo applied for a transfer out of the protective unit into the general population. Being in Clinton, so far from Dobbs Ferry, had become a terrible hardship on his family, especially his father who had suffered three heart attacks. Saving his parents an eleven hour drive almost cost DiGuglielmo his life. At the Eastern Correctional facility in Naponach, New York, just two and a half hours from Dobbs Ferry, a contract was put on his head.
“In prison I always let people know what I did for a living,” he says. “If people had a problem with that I only asked that they give me the respect I deserve as a man and I will do the same and we don’t have to have any contact. That wasn’t good enough for this one guy - he decided he wanted to have me killed.”
One night DiGuglielmo was followed by two other inmates in the yard and they pursued the former cop into the basement, where a confrontation took place in which DiGuglielmo refused to back down.
“I told one of them this was his one and only opportunity to ask me something about my case,” says DiGuglielmo. “For one hour I was an open book to him. At the end he said ‘I don’t blame you for doing what you did’ and I had no more trouble with him.
Although the threat of violence was never far away DiGuglielmo’s worst moments came whenever one of his appeals failed, an outcome that Pirro fought to guarantee until she left office in 2005. His time in the law library convinced DiGuglielmo there were thousands of others like him, pawns in the never ending game of American judicial politics, but that did not make his incarceration any easier. The blackest day was when his second appeal was turned down in 1999.
“The denial was a rubber stamp.” he says. “At that point I told myself ‘I’m doing at least 20 years.’ There were times after that when I would cry for hours on end, you need that release. You can’t allow your emotions to die, then you’re dead. I’m saying to myself ‘What am I going to do to survive.” I made a decision that I would not allow myself to be changed for the worse.”
And then, almost ten years later, he was free and Pirro’s manipulation of the facts in his case became a public embarrassment for the Westchester County D.A.’s office. Jerry Palace drove DiGuglielmo’s family to the prison to pick him up. As they waited in the visitors area dozens of black inmates embraced DiGuglielmo and wished him luck. Even as this affection rained down on him he felt numb. “It was like the day I was convicted,” says DiGuglielmo. “I was unable to believe what was happening, I kept thinking ‘this is not for me, this is for somebody else.’”
As they drove away in Palace’s truck, the air thick with yelps of delight, DiGuglielmo made the investigator stop. “I said ‘You got to pullover” and I walked around the vehicle just to make sure I was out. When I saw there were no handcuffs, no shackles then I knew I was really free.”
In the years since Charles Campbells’s death his older brother, William Campbell, has become the pastor of a church in Harlem. He has yet to offer DiGuglielmo complete forgiveness. .
“The Jesus in me makes me forgive him as another human being,” Campbell told a local Dobbs Ferry newspaper last month as he participated in the 12th annual vigil the dead man’s family has held outside the DiGuglielmo family's delicatessen. “But I'll never forgive the act.”
Many of those who have studied the case say the Campbells have suffered a double injury: First by Charles Campbell’s death and then by Jeanine Pirro’s mendacious insistence that the shooting was an act of racial hatred. With their anger constantly replenished by politically generated hate they have been robbed of the chance to finish their grieving and let Charles Campbell go.
There is also irony for all in the fact that DeGuglielmo’s release was won by a man who was a leading member of the Obama campaign’s national finance committee, top New York lawyer Andrew Schapiro, a partner at Chicago-based Mayer Brown (which recently merged with Hong Kong based law firm Johnson, Stokes and Master).
“We are pleased that the outcome we have worked so hard for has finally been realized,” said Schapiro (who personally donated almost $30,000 to Obama’s campaign) in a press release issued by Mayer Brown in September. “But the fact remains that the improper actions of the police and prosecutors unjustly cost Richard more than 10 years of his life.”
Pirro has refused to comment on DiGuglielmo’s release. The woman whom People magazine voted as one of its most beautiful people in 1997- now has a reality T.V. show called Judge Pirro set in a mock-courtroom. She has never expressed any remorse about her handling of the case although her political ambitions have been all but destroyed by the conviction of her husband on multiple counts of tax fraud (he served 17 months in prison), allegations that she commissioned an illegal wire tap of her husband (she is currently under investigation by the F.B.I) and the exoneration of Jeffrey Deskovic whom Pirro caused to spend 16 years in jail for murder when a simple DNA test, which she refused to conduct, would have proven his innocence.
DeGuglielmo would like to see Pirro punished for her misdeeds but it’s not the focus of his life. He has re entered the world of work as a builder and he plans to help other innocent men win their freedom.
“It’s almost impossible for an American to get out of jail after a wrongful conviction unless they have an investigator working on their behalf,” he says. “Without Jerry Palace I would probably still be in prison.”
And what about Barack Obama, an African American and DeGuglielmo’s new President? “I look at his vision, not the colour of his skin,” he says. “I’m glad he won, but we still have a long way to go on race relations in this country Racism is not something we will overcome unless kids get raised properly.” And maybe America’s prosecutors could help if they condemned the acts of rogue district attorneys’ like Jeanine Pirro and refused to use the race card, even if it taking the high road and being honest might cost them a few votes.