Will Duchon isn't a trial lawyer or criminal investigator, but he's on a mission to free a man convicted of murder. He's been director of music for Monroe Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Monroe, Conn. for seven years -- but Duchon has spent more time than that working to exonerate Shane Watson, because he thinks Watson is innocent and that society deserves the truth.
Duchon was certainly never obligated to help Watson, a man convicted of murder in the early 1990s. But he claims that Watson's case was rife with prosecutorial and police misconduct, with a legal system that aimed at closing a file instead of seeking the truth. Because of that, Duchon has been working to free Watson for the past decade, not because it's a quest for social justice or a statement, but because it is right.
"It seemed pretty clear to me that he didn't belong there," Duchon said. "I just decided I wanted to do what I could to get him out."
Watson, who was convicted and imprisoned in 1993 for the murder of Mark Johnson, gunned down on a street in the Bronx, will face an appeals court on July 15, thanks to Duchon's assistance.
"At this point, we've made tremendous progress. Our attorney made a motion to overturn the conviction, and our attorney wouldn't have done that if he didn't feel confident about it," Duchon said.
Duchon started a blog, the Opus 30 Mission, in 2004 with the sole aim of one day helping Watson walk out of prison as a free man who was wrongly convicted.
"I was looking for a way to share his story. On a human interest level our friendship has been so unexpected and close, and it's so unlikely that I would have known about him. The more publicity this gets, the more the possibility of people helping with legal expenses, but I felt Shane's case was compelling because the case was so common," Duchon said. The legal fees for the upcoming trial are about $12,000. "There are many people in prison who are there because they were rushed. His was a case that was rushed."
Duchon's blog outlines a case summary from a private investigator which lists numerous discrepancies in the eyewitness testimony that police and prosecutors used in Watson's conviction. According to Doug Walter's report, eyewitnesses said they saw the shooter run quickly from the scene. Watson, who has a steel rod in his leg from an accident, walks with a "noticeable limp." Furthermore, in the two years between Watson's arrest in 1991 and his conviction in 1993, the police never investigated anyone related to the victim, who was convicted of murder in the early 1980s, or his family, something the investigator thinks isn't in line with proper procedure.
"One of the striking things about the case is that for two years he appeared at court hearings, not once did police go to his house to look for guns, gun powder residue, bloody clothes," Duchon said. "Nothing."
Duchon also said that one key witness recently gave a deposition that she was pressured into identifying Watson, 25 at the time, as the shooter.
Duchon befriended Watson in 2003, after listening to a radio program discussing prison reform. Intrigued by the conversation, Duchon sent a letter to the radio station, WBAI-FM in New York City, which randomly put him in contact with Watson. The two exchanged letters, and eventually Duchon asked Watson why he was imprisoned.
Duchon obtained copies of case transcripts and police reports, reading through hundreds of pages to realize that, even without legal expertise, Duchon realized that "the case never should have gone to trial," so he began the Opus 30 Mission. In the years since, he has remained closed with Duchon and thinks of him as a brother.
"I know I'm biased, but it's a compelling story and Shane is a compelling person," Duchon said. Watson married his wife, Paula, at the prison three years ago, and they have two children
"I've tried never to make it about raising money, which is why I tell people to write to Shane," he continued. "He writes back and is gratifying. He's a human being, not a case or an issue."