artwork by Carl Christensen
“My motto is: never let fear determine who you are, and never let where you come from determine where you are going. That’s what I preach, and what I talk about. I would love to be able to give that back, and share it with anybody. I don’t care what part of the world it is.”
What Dewey Bozella accomplished on Saturday, October 15th, was nothing short of a miracle.
With his hand held high, Bozella, 52, achieved his life long dream of fighting, and winning, his first professional boxing fight. The venue was the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and thousands showed their support and admiration. Rarely does a fighter step in the ring past the age of 40, but in this story age is far from the most fascinating angle.
Dewey Bozella’s journey to the ring that night was over three decades in the making, and for many it culminated one of the most inspiring stories in recent memory. Because before he could fight in the ring, Bozella had to fight to clear his name, and regain his freedom.
In 1983, at the age of 24, Dewey Bozella was sentenced to 20 years to life for the murder of 92 year old Emma Crapser. The case had taken six years to reach a trial and verdict, and the murder which had happened in 1977 was seemingly closed.
Throughout the entire trial Bozella had maintained his innocence, but it made no difference and he was sent to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.
For most, jail signals the end of the road. Dreams disappear, and hope fades. But for Dewey Bozella it was just the beginning of his life. After a rough start, he was encouraged by some inmates to make the most of his time. He took the reins thereafter and excelled. He discovered the sport of boxing and became the Light Heavyweight Champion of Sing Sing. The sport brought him back to life; he found purpose. He also began to study, and would go on to attain his High School diploma, Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and 52 other certificates.
All the while, Bozella maintained his innocence and sought freedom. On several occasions, beginning in 1990 – when a failed re-trail ended in another guilty verdict – he was offered parole if he would just admit he had committed the crime, and explain how he did it. He refused each time, and further increased his jail time.
Bozella’s steadfast commitment to the truth, and his innocence eventually payed off. After five years of writing a letter every week to the Innocence Project – an international not-for- profit organization that uses DNA evidence to free wrongly accused prisoners- they finally took on his case. In a whirlwind of events, the Innocence Project, in collaboration with lawyers at WilmerHale, began to dig up the original evidence from the case. After hitting several dead ends, a chance meeting with the police officer that arrested Bozella changed everything. Then retired New York Police officer, Arthur Regula, had kept Bozella’s original case file, and when further examined it clearly proved that he was innocent. The only evidence against Bozella had been two eye witness accounts from men known to be criminals in the neighbourhood. The uncovered evidence proved that they had lied in their testimonies.
In October of 2009, Dewey Bozella was taken back to the courtroom where he had pleaded his innocence 26 years ago, and was set free. Following his release the story began to spread across America. In July 2011 it culminated with ESPN honoring him with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPY awards.
The award dignified Bozella’s journey, but there was one thing left to accomplish that he had dreamed of for years: a fight on a professional boxing card. That dream came true October 15th, when Dewey fought four rounds of boxing on the Bernard Hopkins/Chad Dawson undercard. He was victorious in what was to be his first, and last fight.
He accomplished his dream of fighting professionally, and now he is moving on to a higher calling: teaching Youth the art of boxing in an attempt to instill morals, discipline, and hope.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from a man with a story so inspiring, and so full of courage.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Dewey Bozella – and briefly, his wife Trena – from their home in New York.
From the fight at the Staples Center, to the call from Obama, to life in Sing Sing, to his relationship with his wife, to his future plans, we cover it all.
. . .
Ryan Kohls: Congratulations on your victory last Saturday night. How have you been feeling in the days since you achieved your dream?
Dewey Bozella: I’ve been feeling mellow, and real good. I accomplished that, and I got it out of my system, you know. Now I move on with my life. I got that out of the way, and I’m very happy.
From Sing Sing to Staples Centre
RK: When you look back on that night, can you describe the emotions you felt stepping into the ring?
DB: This is it. I can’t go out in front of all these people and lose. That was the main thing: not to go out there and get my head knocked off, and get knocked out. After 20 years of not boxing, and then fighting with someone 20 years younger than me was even more of a challenge.
RK: After the bell, when you were announced the winner, what kind of emotions were you experiencing then?
DB: I did it. Everybody who said I couldn’t do it; I did it. I was satisfied, I was happy. It made me feel like, “OK. Now, it’s time to move on to something new.” This is not an old man’s sport, it’s a young man’s sport. I’m 52 years old, and I can’t be sitting up here playing no games. That’s it, I’m done, I’m finished. I did what I had to do. People are going to want me to fight again, but I’m done. I’ll spar, I’ll work out, I’ll learn the game, I’ll work with people. I’d love to be an announcer if I could, little things like that. I love the sport of boxing, but I know my limitations.
RK: Were you satisfied with your performance in the ring?
DB: Well, it turned out with a win, and that’s all that matters. I know that I could have done a lot better. It took me about a round and a half to get myself together, and to find my momentum. Once I found it I did what I had to do. I definitely didn’t want to disrespect the sport. If I’d have gotten hurt, they would have said, “What was wrong with the commissioners? What was wrong with the doctor’s? Why would they allow this man to fight?” It would have been nothing but chaos. They’d have probably torn the sport apart, and I’m not going to give them that excuse. I’m not going to let them say, “there was an old man by the name of Dewey Bozella who ruined the sport.” It won’t be me. That’s how much I love that sport. I respect it that much.
RK: Reportedly, President Obama called you to wish you luck on the fight. What was that conversation like?
DB: It was amazing. I wasn’t expecting it. They asked me to sit down, and said a phone call was coming. I thought it was like this, just a regular phone call where I’m talking to people. Next thing I know I hear President Obama’s voice. I said, “Obama? Are you kidding me? Are you serious?” It brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t expect that at all. It was a shock to receive a phone call from the President. He was wishing me well, congratulating me on my accomplishments. It seems like more and more things are being added on to my life. I’m over joyed with what’s happening in my life.
RK: Looking back to when you first began boxing in jail. When did this start, and why did you begin to get into the sport?
DB: Once I found out that a man by the name of Bob Jackson was going to start a boxing league in Sing Sing, my whole attitude changed. He told me when I tried out for the team, “Listen, once I put you on this team, you can’t be getting into trouble. You can’t do this, and you can’t do that.” My whole life straightened out after that because I wanted it that bad. I got into school after this, I became academically inclined. I dedicated myself to boxing, it was my morals, my discipline. It helped me to make a total change as a human. That’s what boxing did for me.
Sing Sing Light Heavyweight Champ
RK: How frequently did you fight while in Sing Sing?
DB: We would fight anywhere between two to three times out of the year. It would be on a Saturday, and civilians would come in and watch us. A couple times we had fights in 16 building. 16 building was the death house at one point, where the electric chair used to be (laughs). Our ring was right up underneath it. I had over 10 fights, and had one lose against Lou Del Valle. He was the Golden Gloves champion at the time (1990). He went on to win the WBC Championship of the World.
RK: Did training become a big part of your daily life?
DB: Yeah, we trained on Saturday’s and Sunday’s when we had fights. The majority of the time we went down there twice a day.
RK: On top of learning to box you also attained your Bachelor’s and Master’s degree while incarcerated. What was that process like? And, what exactly were you studying?
DB: I got my High School diploma first. After I got that I got 52 certificates. I got HIV/Aids counseling, Human Development, substance abuse. The list just goes on and on. I became an assistant teacher of the Christian Ministry Program. Then I went and got a Bachelor’s of Science, and then I got my Master’s in Professional Studies from the New York Theological Seminary. These are the things I took advance of from the inside. I also got myself several trades.
I learned this from older, wiser brothers who stopped me and said, “Listen, what do you want to do? You want to sit around and get high, play basketball and waste time? Or, do you want to make this a university of learning?” So, I decided to make it a University of learning. That was a decision I made, and I ran with it. Don’t get me wrong because for the first year and a half I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I was mad at society, I didn’t know how I was going to do my time. When I finally made a commitment, I never looked back.
RK: Were you allowed to listen to your own music at Sing Sing? If so, were there any artists that you listened to regularly?
DB: I listened to a lot of R & B music, sometimes I would listen to Hip-Hop. I would have to say I listened to music like Al Green, Barry White, Stevie Wonder, artists who helped me to relax myself. I listened to jazz; it would depend on my mood swing. I even listened to Opera.
I really didn’t get too involved with it though because it reminded me too much of society. I had to get myself away from that and do my time. So, I only listened to music from time to time.
RK: Did you ever regret not taking parole in 1990?
DB: No. That was my second trial in 1990. In 1983 I was sentenced to 20 years or life, and then I got a re-trial called because of Batson vs Kentucky, which means I didn’t have a jury of my peers. When my case got overturned, I had six and half years in. When they sent me to a parole hearing they said all I had to do was sign a piece of paper admitting my guilt, and explain how I did it. Well, I couldn’t do that. So, I didn’t take the deal. Then, they offered me another deal which was time served, and I couldn’t do that. Before the jury came back, they were going to offer me a scenario plea, which means all I had to do was sign a piece of paper admitting guilt, but not having to explain how I did it. I could have walked out of the courtroom right there on the spot. No. It cost me another 19 years of life. From 1990 all the way to 2009 when I got out. I went through four parole boards in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008. They kept hitting me every time with more years because I would not admit to a crime I did not commit.
RK: You describe in your documentary for ESPN the time you ran into your brother’s killer in jail. If you don’t mind talking about it again, what was that experience like? And, how did you find the strength to forgive that man?
Bozella attends the premiere of ‘Conviction’ with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell
DB: First and foremost it wasn’t easy. I had to deal with the code of the streets. The code of the streets is that when someone does something to you, you have to do something back. You have to remember that I was in prison, and the prison code is if someone lays a hand on you, you lay one on them, otherwise you’re known as a punk, etc. I had to deal with all those issues. I went and sat by myself for three days, and the answer was the same one that I had in the courtroom: How am I going to ask for forgiveness, if I can’t learn to forgive? How am I going to ask someone to let me out of jail, if I’m going to act like an idiot and a fool and do something that everybody wants me to do? Now, I had to step up as a man, and make my choice. When I walked up to him and talked to him I said, “I forgive you.” It was much easier to forgive then going out there and taking his head off. By going out there and doing that, what did I prove? What did I gain? I would have proved to everybody what they said I was: a murderer, a low life, a piece of trash. If I would have done that, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
That was my test of adversity, and I lived out what I said I was about. But, please don’t get me wrong, it was not easy. It was a choice I made, and one I will live with until I die.
RK: Could you tell me a little bit about the evolution of your relationship with your wife Trena Bozella? How did you meet for starters?
DB: Well, Trena in fact needs to come and tell you herself. Let me call her.
RK: Good morning, Trena. I was just wondering about when you met Dewey, and how your relationship evolved while he was in jail?
Trena Bozella (left), Dewey, Daughter Diamond and friend at ESPY Awards
Trena Bozella: Good morning. Well, one day I was visiting my brother who was also incarcerated in Sing Sing. He was very anxious about taking some pictures, and Dewey happened to be the photographer. He took the pictures of the inmates and their families. My brother introduced Dewey as the Light Heavyweight Champion of Sing Sing, and I’m definitely a boxing fan. So, we just became friends. We talked a long time, so long that my brother got a little bit jealous (laughs). He said some extremely sacred things to me that day. As I look back, the things he was saying just show who is. I’ll give you one example, we had a great conversation about life and school, it was a really tough time then for me also, and I remember him saying to me at the end of the conversation, “I’m not looking for a girlfriend.” He threw me way off. It didn’t make sense to me because I wasn’t looking for a guy who was in jail. And then in a very calm voice he said, “I want a wife.” I just didn’t see it. But, 17 years later this is what it was.
Trena and Dewey leave court. 2009.
RK: When Dewey was released in 2009, what did that moment feel like to you?
TB: It was amazing. I knew he was coming out all the time, but I didn’t know when. With my faith, I had to hold on. There were some very dark moments for Dewey and I. But, neither one of us were down at the same time, so it worked. When I was down he picked me up and told me to hang on. When he was down I would tell him to hold on. When he walked out of that door, it was a life I had no imagined. I was not prepared because I had never lived with this man. I met him in prison, fell in love with him, and knew he was a great person, but that’s a different experience when you have to live with that man. So, we had our adjustments, nothing crazy, but we’re still adjusting. It was worth the wait.
RK: With Trena there beside you now, how would you describe her impact on your ability to stay positive about your future?
DB: At times it was difficult, but you learn to take the bitter with the sweet. That was our journey. It was truly to build some type of bond to where when I’m down we could learn to pick each other up. That’s the best way to describe it. It wasn’t a situation where we were handed a bowl full of roses, but we built ourselves to a position, that even on the outside, we can grow together.
RK: Is there anything that you miss from Sing Sing?
DB: I do not miss anything about Sing Sing (laughs). The only thing I could say is that there were some good brothers I ran into. So, I miss the people I built a bound with. I wish they were out, and they could move on with their lives, and find peace and joy, the same way I’m trying to find mine. That’s what it’s all about. I would love to be able to go back in Sing Sing and do a presentation, and tell the brothers to never give up on their dreams. My motto is: never let fear determine who you are, and never let where you come from determine where you are going. That’s what I preach, and what I talk about. I would love to be able to give that back, and share it with anybody. I don’t care what part of the world it is. I want people to see through me the ability to take your life to another level, and even through ups and downs that you can turn your life around and make the best of it. It’s not going to be easy, that’s the way life is.
RK: I think a lot of your message involves the word “courage”. As the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, what does that word mean to you?
|Bozella receives the Arthur Ashe Award from Keifer Sutherland.
DB: Courage can be seen like this: What’s the difference between a man who sees death in front of him, and says to himself, “I’m going to save this person’s life regardless of the situation.” Compare that to the other man who says, “I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to watch this person pass away” The courage is from the guy who says he’ll do something. The difference in my life was I could have coped out, and lost everything I stand for as a man. Or, I could stand up, knowing I may die in prison, and handle it. I chose the handling part. That’s the only difference is that I said my integrity is more important than anything in the world to me, more than admitting to something I didn’t do. That’s a decision everyone has to make in life. Are you willing to make the sacrifice to get an education, and get a decent job? No matter what, it’s a decision you have to have courage in your life to make.
RK: How well do you think the courts are serving justice in America? I don’t know if you followed the Troy Davis case, but a lot of people thought he was innocent, much like yourself.
DB: There are a lot of issues I feel about that. I think the Troy Davis case was ridiculous. The first thing is that I do not believe in, or agree with, the death penalty. Even when you have circumstances when a guy had a chance to prove himself and the court system denies it, that’s ridiculous. Come on. A person’s life is more important than a piece of paper, but they made the paper more important. It serves no purpose. Why do we have the death penalty? Here’s a country where they’re supposed to follow things in the Bible, and they turn around and do the opposite. You show the opposite of what America is supposed to be about. You don’t forgive. What I see is a tit for tat, and that’s the reason I don’t agree with it all.
I really don’t want to get into a political stand against America because that’s not my thing. I think America is fair when it wants to be. On certain issues they’re very fair, on other issues they’re trifling. That’s my opinion.
RK: What role has faith played in your journey? And, where does your faith come from?
DB: I believe that faith is never giving up, and believing in the mysterious. It took me 32 years – I was 17 and just turned 18 – to prove my innocence. All I had was faith. There was nothing left for me. I ran out of every turn in the court system, I was just ruled against, until one day justice was served when the guy who arrested me had a file that showed that I didn’t commit the crime. That’s faith. I just believed that one day something like that would happen, and it did happen.
RK: Tell me about the Dewey Bozella Foundation. What do you hope to do, and achieve with this foundation?
DB: The Dewey Bozella foundation is for me to open up my own gym. It’s to deal with morals, responsibilities, discipline, and obligations. To help the kids to understand their responsibilities in life as human beings. It’s not there to turn them from amateurs to pro’s, if that’s what they want to do that’s fine, but the foundation is to let them see through boxing they can turn their lives around and get an education, and a trade, and be in society as regular members. They don’t have to be criminals, and selling drugs. This is about all nationalities making a change to truly value who they are as human beings, and to use that in today’s societies to be able to pick themselves up and say, “I can do it.” For a lot of people, to just step into the ring they will realize if they can do that they can do anything. They can hit that punching bag, and get that anger out, get their self-esteem back – that is what this is about.
People misunderstand the sport of boxing, they think it’s just a physical thing. No. that’s why they call it the art of science. You have to get up there and analyze how you are going to do things, that’s how life is. People are misconstrued about the sport. This is what I want to teach the children. This is what my foundation is about. I want to show them how through boxing you can make a better person out of yourself, male or female, and it doesn’t matter what nationality you are.
RK: When you got out of jail, how different did the world feel? Did it take a while to re-adjust?
DB: I’ll put it to you like this, when they gave me a cell phone I was talking to it one way, and then using it as a walkie talkie to listen! They were looking at me like I was crazy saying, “That’s not the way you do it!” It felt funny. But that showed me how much I was away from society. The other thing that I’m still learning is computers. I also had to learn how to drive at the age of 50. I’m still adjusting, and there are lots of things I’m learning. There are things my wife is still teaching me, there are things my daughter is teaching me, there are things my lawyers are teaching me. Society has changed, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get it back.
For More Information on Dewey Bozella:
1) Visit him personal website at: http://www.deweybozella.com
2) Visit his foundation’s website at: http://thedeweybozellafoundation.org/index.html/
Nice work, Ryan. A great interview!