In a courtroom on Tuesday morning, Andre Gonzales was granted another chance at life.
After serving more than twelve years for a murder outside of a nightclub in Liberty City, prosecutors dismissed all charges against Gonzales. The outcome was the culmination of an effort by the Medill Justice Project, a student journalism project based out of Northwestern University in Chicago.
Stepping into the bright South Florida sun this afternoon, Gonzales was greeted by his brother, Abdul-Jalil Qadir. They slapped hands and embraced.
“Welcome,” said Qadir, sporting a childish grin.
“Thanks brah,” said Gonzales.
“I’m so thrilled right now. I’m so thrilled,” said Gonzales. “I just did twelve and a half years for a murder I didn’t do. You know, I’m an innocent man.”
The state’s case against Gonzales started to fall apart after students at the Medill Justice Project tracked down an eyewitness to the crime, ten years after the fact. The witness, who was by then an inmate for unrelated crimes, vehemently said that he saw who did it and that it was not Gonzales.
That man, Arnold Clark, was surprised that Gonzales had been charged and convicted of the murder. He knew who committed the murder but said he hadn’t spoken out about it because of the “code of silence”
“As for the person whose name that you said was locked up for it, I don’t even know him, you know, but I do know he wasn’t no triggerman,” Clark told the students.
The students tracked down several jurors who said they doubted the state’s case, and that they only voted to convict Gonzales because it was late on a Friday and they were exhausted. Steven N. Yermish, Gonzales’ public defender at trial, told the students that after practicing law for over thirty years, Gonzales was “the only person I truly, truly believe is in prison who I represented who was innocent.”
The reporting and research resulted in Gonzales filing a motion to vacate his charges, which started a series of events that ultimately led to prosecutors dismissing all charges and releasing him.
"Medill -- they worked really great, they worked together interviewing people to prove I was an innocent man. And I’m honored. I’m just thankful," said Gonzales.
For years, Gonzales steadfastly maintained his innocence to anyone who would listen.
In front of the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center this afternoon, a Corrections Officer stepped out of the building and gave Gonzales his hand. “You beat it! You had told me,” said the officer. “Hey, good luck, man. Stay out of trouble.”
In a close out memo for the case, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office said that it did not want to dismiss the charges against Gonzales. The memo says new evidence brought forward through Clark's new testimony made it clear that Gonzales would probably beat charges if the case were retried. The judge overseeing the case also wrote a 26-page order saying the testimony of another witness left "plenty of room for doubt."
"The State of Florida, in no way, believes that this defendant is innocent of the crime," reads the memo, in bold. "However, in light of the changes in the evidence, we are unable to again prove [Gonzales'] guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as required by law."
Gonzales wore a smile on his face and grabbed his stomach thinking about where he wanted to eat.
“I’m ready to go to Burger King,” he laughed. His brother said he wouldn’t be having any junk food on his watch. “Maybe Red Lobster or something,” said Qadir. “Get some decent food in his body.”
Before getting into his brother’s Mustang the two brothers slapped hands and embraced again.
“Ahhhh. Good to see you, bro,” said Qadir. “Free man.”
Gonzales has four children. He was looking forward to seeing them after years of seeing them under supervision. He would be sleeping at his brother’s place in Pembroke Pines for the next few days but “within a week” he plans to move to Georgia with his fiance Joy, to start a new life.
“Thirteen years,” estimated Gonzales. “Thirteen years, wasted.”