Defund prisons: Man who served 38 years in jail calls for criminal justice reform

Leonard Jefferson said he was wrongly convicted not once, but twice.

RHODE ISLAND (WLNE) – On December 7, 1973, Providence Police responded to a home on Arch Street, where they found a bloody and unconscious elderly man lying in the hallway at the foot of a flight of stairs leading to the second floor. They transported him to St. Joseph’s Hospital where he died.

The deceased, Virginio DeFusco, owned the apartment house.

One of DeFusco’s tenants, Leonard Jefferson, who was 26-years-old at the time, was arrested and charged with robbing and murdering his 79-year-old landlord.

“I’m working in a textile mill, they found woolen fibers on my shirt, woolen fibers underneath my fingernails,” recalled Jefferson.

The prosecution argued the fibers found on Jefferson matched the fabric fibers of the victim’s jacket.

However, in the FBI evidence report, the agent never said the fibers were a perfect match and instead, warned against it. The agent wrote, “Woolen fibers do not possess sufficiently unique microscopic characteristics to specifically associate them with a particular garment of piece of fabric.”

According to trial documents, three of Jefferson’s neighbors testified at the trial, but their stories changed while on the stand and were deemed “unreliable.”

“The trial judge, he recommended that all of the witnesses who testified against me be charged with perjury. But of course, the attorney general knew they were perjuring themselves and he allowed that. This is just the way the system works. He’s not going to prosecute the people who did his dirty work,” said Jefferson.

In the end, Jefferson was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“I was released 11 years later on parole,” said Jefferson.

After being released from prison, Jefferson moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, he lived a quiet life for almost a decade, until December 1993.

“I had my young daughters, 19 and 6-years-old, and my 3-year-old granddaughter in the house sleeping and a trespasser comes in. I ejected the trespasser as fast as possible, without causing any physical harm,” said Jefferson.

Instead of arresting the trespasser, police arrested Jefferson for assaulting the intruder.

Jefferson then went on to what he calls the second unfair trial of his life.

“It was basically a lynching,” said Jefferson. “They said to me, ‘Rhode Island did not know what they were doing when they released you on parole. We’re going to show you what Rhode Island should have done.'”

He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“I did every day of that 20 year sentence,” said Jefferson.

Immediately after finishing his sentence in Pennsylvania, he was transported back to Rhode Island where his parole had been revoked.

“They changed my sentence to life, to life without parole,” said Jefferson. “I was shocked.”

He had to wait five years in jail in Rhode Island before he could get in front of the parole board to argue that his parole was unlawfully revoked. The board agreed and Jefferson was released from the ACI in Cranston in 2019, after he served six additional years behind bars that he never had to.

“I was happy to be released. I felt kind of odd because I had been in prison for such a long time,” said Jefferson.

To this day, he maintains his innocence and claims he was wrongly convicted twice. After spending 38 years behind bars, the 72-year-old now supports the growing national movement to defund police and prisons.

Jefferson believes the criminal justice system is broken and unfairly targets minorities.

“There are far too many people in prison who are actually innocent. They know this has been going on for years and years and years,” said Jefferson.

Jefferson’s story is just part 1 of our two part series on life behind bars. Next week, ABC6 will take a closer look at Governor Gina Raimondo’s plans to reform prisons. We will also sit down with the director of the Department of Corrections and discuss the $16 million budget cut her department is facing.
Part two of our life behind bars series airs on Tuesday, September 22, at 11:00 p.m. on ABC6.

Categories: News, Rhode Island