It is difficult — impossible, really — to describe in words the cruelty of a wrongful conviction. Over the past three decades, more than 200 people in the state of New York have been exonerated of crimes they did not commit after living through unimaginable nightmares in prison.
Last week, a man named Cory Epps woke up from one of those nightmares. He walked free from the Erie County Holding Center after District Attorney John Flynn announced that he had vacated the second-degree murder conviction.
Another witness came forward with new information, Flynn said, pointing to an alternate perpetrator and clearing Epps of any involvement. That information and evidence will remain sealed and confidential, but it was apparently enough to convince Flynn's office that Epps should never have been arrested in the first place.
Epps was convicted in 1998 for the murder of Tomika Means on Buffalo's East Side, based solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness. There was no corroborating physical evidence ever tying Epps to the crime, a fact that was ignored by the jury but not by the trial judge. During the sentencing phase, Judge Joseph McCarthy said on the record that "eyewitness testimony, in and of itself, is not the most satisfying of evidence that can be received in the courtroom." But his hands were tied. He could not overturn the jury's decision, no matter how questionable it seemed.
I first met Cory Epps four years ago. After stumbling upon his case in Dec. 2013, I became intrigued by the circumstances surrounding the eyewitness identification. I contacted Cory's lawyers at the non-profit Exoneration Initiative, and they directed me to Cory's wife. Eventually, I sent Cory a letter at the Attica Correctional Facility to see if he would be interested in discussing his case in an on-camera interview. He wrote back and said he'd been waiting 17 years for the chance to speak again.
In Jan. 2014, we aired a nine-minute special report about Cory's case. Cory adamantly denied having any involvement in the murder of Tomika Means, and our own review of his case revealed a number of questions about the investigation.
Now that Cory Epps is a free man, he visited the 2 On Your Side studios in downtown Buffalo to discuss his life, his future, and how it feels to finally be vindicated after two decades in prison. I sat down with Cory for about a half-hour, alongside photojournalist Dooley O'Rourke.
DANNY: It's been a long time coming, but you've been free for a week now. How does it feel? And has it sunk in?
CORY: It feels great. I'm loving every minute of it. I deserve it. I've been waiting for it for so long. Hard work paid off. Exoneration Initiative, they fought so hard for me. There need to be a lot of other lawyers out there like that. They're freedom fighters. They have a passion for justice. That's the thing a lot of lawyers need to have: See the truth. If there's an injustice, they should fight it. That's what their oath was. Exoneration Initiative, they define what they took the oath for. I feel good, man. It's a hard transition but I feel good.
DANNY: What have some of the biggest adjustments you've had to make? I know you've mentioned the crowds can be kind of crazy at times. What's that been like trying to adjust back to your regular life?
CORY: It's been kind of rough, because I've been bombarded. I haven't really had a chance to sit down with my nucleus: My family, my core family, and really, really get a hand and try to build our bond a little bit more stronger than what I had it. I've been away a long time. The crowds of people, sometimes I just want to be by myself, with my family, my grandbabies, that's it.
DANNY: How has it felt being with your grandkids? With your family? In the same room, being able to see them and touch them?
CORY: It's an expression you can't even put into words. You know, since I was a baby, my family has cuddled me. To be cuddled by them again after 20 years, it's astounding. Astounding. I can't put it into words.
DANNY: Seeing their faces when you walked out for the first time on Friday: What was that like, if there are even words to describe how that felt walking right out that door?
CORY: It was surreal. It was surreal, man. When I came out that door, I seen all my family and friends, it brought so much emotions that I blanked out. I blanked out. I'm looking at everybody and I was stunned. You know what I mean? I was so happy, I didn't know who I was hugging when I was hugging them until I hugged my wife. My wife like, brought me back alive. I realized, wow. Like I said, to link onto that, she's my core, so, when I hugged her, I knew it was real.
DANNY: You had probably imagined and dreamed of that day you'd get to walk free. Did it play out the way you'd always dreamed it or was it a little bit different?
CORY: I wouldn't say dream it. In there, it seems like dreams are just confined, just like you. I believe it was exactly how I planned it to be, how I thought it to be, rather. I knew it was going to be like that with my family and I knew it was going to be like that but I didn't know the feeling I was going to have when I leave out here, the feeling I thought I would have, I didn't have. Because it was way beyond what I thought it could be-- the feeling was so beautiful. When I touched my wife, man, it opened me up. And I knew it was real. And the emotions came in. That's why I tried to get out of there! With all the cameras and stuff, it was frustrating me.
We got in the car and we left. It was beautiful.
DANNY: Do you feel back to your old self? The way you were when you were in your twenties and before the whole nightmare?
CORY: I look like I'm in my twenties! (laughs) It's not the same. I think it's going to take a while to transition into that, because a lot of things. I isolate myself a little bit if I'm around a lot of people too long, I have to get away and sit down and gather my faculties.
DANNY: Have you been surprised by stuff like, seeing people with video phones, and all these things that weren't here before all this happened? Has anything stuck out to you like, 'Oh my god, what is that?'
CORY: Downtown Buffalo, Canalside, all these different things. You gotta understand: I was born and raised in the city of Buffalo. I'm a Buffalonian. To see my city transformed like it has today, is amazing. I'm proud of my city and the way they're trying to transform it and build us up. It's a resilient city and this is what we do. Buffalonians stick together, that's what we do. Go Bills, too.
DANNY: Did you get a chance to drive around downtown a bit?
CORY: Yes, I did. I drove around, I took about an hour just to drive around Buffalo and downtown, and the West Side, places I'm familiar with.
DANNY: A lot of things probably look the same but I'm sure a lot look different, too.
CORY: Look real different. Canalside was just a scrap pile back in the day. The way they transformed it, it's beautiful down there. It's beautiful. Like I said, I'm proud of them. Now we can have people come here and be proud to take them somewhere.
DANNY: I can imagine you probably saw a lot of that on TV, seeing the news and reading the newspaper. But to see with your own eyes, had to be pretty cool.
CORY: Oh yeah, oh yeah! It's like seeing something through the window that you want to buy, but when you touch it, it's even better. You know? Yeah, it was real nice.
DANNY: So take me back to the moment you find out there's a hearing. Walk me through that last week. So there's a hearing: At what point does someone say, 'hey, you're getting out of here.'
CORY: My lawyers are already reserved to protect me. I really didn't know nothing, I didn't know how this hearing was going to go, but they fought so hard. They dedicated themselves, and their time, and they pushed through, and I knew about the hearing. A lot of people don't get that type of hearing, which they should, if there's validity to your situation... I didn't have no expectation at that point, because I had been duped in the beginning. It's hard to trust and believe but, the power of prayer, when I went to court, God told me when I was on my knees, he spoke to me. And said, 'you're gonna be all right.' And right then and there, I didn't have no butterflies in my stomach at that time. I went there, and I put it in his hands, and like I said man: God, you can pray to God, he hears your prayers, he gets to you when he gets to you. It may not have been meant for me to be out all this time, you know what I mean? May have been meant for me to be in there (in prison) to save me from future things.
By me being there, I became a man in there. I became a man in there. It was a hard struggle. The things I went through in there... so I didn't have expectations when I went (into court). I went in there without butterflies. I put it in the hand of God, and this is what he delivered to me. Freedom.
DANNY: Was there ever a point over the last 20 years where you started to lose hope? Where it felt like maybe you weren't going to get out?
CORY: No, and I'm going to tell you why: My wife, my mother, and my family, we are a strong-knit family, and the one thing that my mother always taught me is to never give up. Especially when you're in the right. Always admit when you're wrong, it takes a man to do that and she taught me very well. I live under her tutelage. I respect my mother and love her so much, she installed fight in me and I wouldn't quit. I fought until the bitter end and this is the result, man. Freedom and the truth.
On Tomika Means:
CORY: I do feel for Tomika Means. I feel for her family. It was two wrongs. It was two people wronged, and two people forgotten: Me and Tomika Means. I share some feelings with her, man, I really do. I pray for her, and I try to talk to her through the power of prayer sometimes. Sometimes, in my mind, I think she's talking back to me. I think she helped me a little bit. When you get an incident like that, and every day you go over your legal work, you go over a situation, you try to make sense of it, you know what I mean? And why? And then, why me? Why did they pick me? It's like I said her names a thousand times. I read her name a thousand times, you know? I just feel her soul, man. I really do feel her soul and god bless her people, too.
DANNY: The judge, Judge McCarthy, at the time, said that it wasn't the most satisfactory of evidence to just have one eyewitness and no corroborating physical evidence. Do you think about him a lot, the judge that kind of felt helpless during the sentencing?
CORY: Yes. Judge McCarthy, he had a lot of integrity. I know his hands were tied, he didn't want to disturb the jury, but his general premise and what he felt at that time, right, I think he was a little bit beyond his time (in understanding of eyewitness procedures and testimony).
On prison conditions
CORY: Being in prison, they treat you like peasants. It's about the administration. Albany's got to be cleaned up. Right now, I feel the pain of my brothers in prison under the conditions they're living in. And it's a lot of things we have to do. To clean up our justice system, our correctional system, and a lot of other systems we got here, police departments. We need to come together as the people.
DANNY: When we first met you four years ago, I didn't feel that you had any resentment. You weren't angry. You don't have a sense of resentment, I don't think. Where do you think that comes from, being able to stay so positive through all you've been through?
CORY: Well the thing is, man, my brother used to always tell me... my big brother, Vince, he used to always tell you, 'don't wear your feelings on your sleeve. Feelings are your feelings for the intimate-- share them with the people you're intimate with.' And sometimes, I'm reserved, and I like to have people around me comfortable. So I try to be a people person and keep the people around me comfortable.
DANNY: I don't want to get too much into the witness (from the original trial) or anything like that, but I know when we talked to you a couple of years ago, you didn't really blame her. You'd forgiven her and you knew she'd made a mistake. Do you still feel that way? That she made a mistake and you don't harbor resentment toward her?
CORY: No, I don't harbor resentment toward her, but after all these years... see, it's hard for someone to say I made a mistake. Her decision is pulled by questions, people bombarding her, pressure to get somebody, pressure to convict, pressure to close the books... I'm not mad at her. I'm not mad at her. This is what she thought. This is what she believed. I could see anyone making a mistake like that. We're all human...
I'm not mad at her. I left that behind when I left out that door. When I left out that door, I left all that behind. All the pain, all the things I had bottled up inside... When I walked out that door, when I hugged my wife, I said, this is a new life. Love is love, give everybody a new start.
DANNY: So what now? What are your plans and dreams now that you have a new lease on life?
CORY: My focus is to bond with my family. After 20 years, we know each other naturally through our DNA (but) we have to bond. And get further memories of good times. Mine stopped when I was 26. Now, I'm 46, so I got a lot of catching up to do. That's my main focus. Family, family, family, that's my happiness, that's my comfort zone. My grandkids, you know, that's my world. I get to raise them from kids. I haven't gotten a chance to raise my kids, and that was devastating. Now, I've got a chance to raise their kids.
DANNY: Over the last 20 years, did it feel like time stopped outside of your world? Was it hard to grasp what was happening you, just having to be in that confined space?
CORY: Any time you're in a small cell, with your toilet and your sink inside of it, it's not going to make you feel good. So that's indescribable, the feeling, unless you've sat in that cell for 20 years going through what you've gone through. Eating the food that they serve you... you may get a handful of cereal, just a little cup, a handful, two pieces of bread, and a juice, maybe. if you're lucky. They just don't feed us right in there. There's a lot of things we went through.
I'm not gonna leave them brothers behind. I'm gonna try to campaign to get these prisons a little better for the people... You're dealing with human life, regardless of what these guys did. You sentenced them to this and you say that's justice, now you're housing them. You're responsible for them. You can't treat them like a dog in there. So that part was hard. That part was hard.
And the transition out here, it's so real, man, I can't really explain that to you. From being in that little cell, to being in my house. Our house. My family. My kids.
DANNY: Is it scary at all — being out back in the real world with endless possibilities? I don't know if scared is the right word. Is there any anxiety about coming back to regular life?
CORY: It's a lot of anxiety. I try to talk to my mother every night. She's a woman of great wisdom and compassion and love. She's one of the most humble women in the world, and her and my wife, they're my rock. My mother, I think she's an angel sent down by God. She's just a blessing, man. I don't even think she knows how she got me through that. I don't think she knows, it's not an explanation of how I feel about that woman. You know, if they told me, 'Listen, man, you gotta spend another 20 years in there for your mother man to keep her alive,' I'd gladly go in there and lay happily on that cot and look at that TV. As long as I can talk to her and call her I'll be all right. It's my mother, keeps me grounded. My wife keeps me grounded.
DANNY: I don't know if people, when you were in Attica, if they were familiar with your case. Were there people, when you were serving time, people who believed you were innocent and knew you were innocent?
DANNY: Did you feel people were on your side on the inside?
CORY: Absolutely... Just like, you read the case and understood that there might be questions here. They read my question and they see questions. If you read my case and you understand how it unfolded, and you knew the dangers of this case, you see it in your heart, a lot of them did believe. A lot of them did root for me. I still got friends that I hold dear back there, that got me through it and the one thing a lot of people do is they forget the guys behind in prison. I'm not gonna forget them. I grew up with them, I've been on the earth 26 years before I went to prison. That's six more years I've had on this earth than I had in prison, 20 years. You build bonds with people. You don't want to break bonds, because we helped each other out.
DANNY: And now that you're out, there's probably a lot of things you have to do that people wouldn't realize... like get your driver's license again and look for work.
CORY: My cousin is going to take me to do that right after this!
DANNY: Oh really, OK!
CORY: We're gonna get a bite to eat and then we're going down to the DMV.
DANNY: Do you think you'll remember how to drive?
CORY: Yes, I remember how to drive. Immediately. I'm like a NASCAR driver.
DANNY: Like riding a bike.
CORY: Yep, like riding a bike. That's like saying you forgot how to eat a silverspoon. I do know how to drive... I'm going down there immediately to get me a big F-150.
DANNY: I'd say you deserve it.
CORY: Yeah, yeah. That's what I'm gonna do after we leave here, going to the DMV and then getting a bite to eat.
On learning of his release:
CORY: I didn't know when I took the ride to court. I knew when the judge took them into chambers and sat me in there and my lawyer came in there and they looked at me. And, they always protected me. They never gave me false hope, they said it was going to be a fight. They never said 'it's looking so good, it's looking so good', they never gave me false hope. This is what I love about my lawyers. They stick to the script. I found out when my lawyer came in, I looked at my lawyer Rebecca (Freedman)... I looked at her and I seen it in her face before she even said it. She said, 'You're going home.' And I froze. I said, 'You for real?' And when she hugged me I knew it was for real, just like when my wife hugged me, I knew it was for real.
On transitioning from prison life
CORY: I'm never going to forget. I am never going to downplay what I went through, you know what I mean? It was real catastrophic, what I went through. I'm still dealing with the remnants of it right now. I still have to deal with it. I shouldn't be so excited to go to the DMV, so excited to eat something, I shouldn't be so excited to do anything. And when you strip that freedom away from someone, it's real puzzling, you've gotta put the pieces together. I could be putting the pieces together for 1 year, 2 years, 10 years, or for the rest of my life. But, best believe, I'm not gonna stop putting that puzzle together.
On his grandkids
CORY: My grandkids are amazing. It's beautiful, my grandkids, they're all that and a bag of chips. That's what amazed me, man.
DANNY: Seeing them, I can imagine, when you see them, you probably realize the magnitude of all this.
CORY: Right. It's just amazing man. Come home to them every day. Come home to them every day. I just want to raise them, man, it's my heart.