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Clemency Gave Him A Second Chance. He Won’t Forget His Friends Who Haven’t Been As Lucky

A year after Alfonzo Riley returned from prison, he’s helping to vet innocence claims.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Spencer Gallop of the Legal Aid Society.

Every year, 650,000 people return from prison. In The Return series, we will share some of their stories.

When Alfonzo Riley was 18 years old, a friend from high school asked him if he wanted to make some money. 

It was 1988. Riley was in his first year at the New York Institute of Technology. Raised in poverty by a single mother who worked at a factory, he was academically ambitious, the first in his family to go to college. He aspired to study engineering and then enlist in the Navy. 

Growing up, Riley had been a shy kid who struggled to form strong connections with his peers, he said. He and his mom moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn, from Crown Heights when he was 13, and he said he struggled to balance striving at school with fitting in on the streets.

He was thrilled when he was accepted to college. But he felt like an outsider there, he said, unable to afford the luxuries his other classmates had, like cars. He was eager for extra cash. 

His friend said he would be transporting drugs from Brooklyn to Albany, New York, and all Riley had to do was come with him. 

“I made the regrettable and horrific decision to join them on that particular trip,” Riley told The Appeal.

The drug deal turned violent, and two men were shot and killed. Riley did not pull the trigger; he was downstairs, he said, while the shooting happened up above. Nevertheless, he and five other men were eventually arrested and charged under New York’s felony murder law, which allows prosecutors to charge anyone involved in the commission of a felony that leads to a death with murder. A judge sentenced Riley to 71 and two-thirds years to life. 

Felony murder laws are controversial. Opponents say that the statutes, which exist in a majority of states, allow for extremely harsh sentences for people who did not commit murder, and disproprotionately affect people of color. A growing number of states, including Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Michigan, have abolished them. Last year, California also enacted legislation that severely restricts how its felony murder law can be used. 

Although Riley acknowledges his role in the crime and takes responsibility, he said he felt it was unfair for him to be punished as severely as the man who pulled the trigger. “I couldn’t accept the reality of it,” said Riley, who is now 50. “That that was even possible.” 

It would take three decades behind bars and multiple applications for clemency for Riley to be given a second chance.

Instead of returning to Long Island for college, Riley would spend the next three decades in various prisons around New York. Despite his long sentence, Riley decided to make the most of his time. He earned an associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s. He earned paralegal and data processing certificates. He also worked in the law library, volunteered in a children’s center, and spoke to young people about his experiences. In many ways, he was a model prisoner. 

“He was the only person who had clearance to work in the children’s center,” said Bahar Ansari, supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society in New York who also worked with the City University of New York School of Law team that helped Riley with his clemency application. “Only later … we realized what a great accomplishment this was.”

On appeal, a judge reduced his sentence to 50 years, finding fault with how the original judge added up time consecutively. That meant that after 25 years, half his sentence, he was eligible to apply for clemency. 

As he put together a clemency application, Riley would learn that his sentence was even more unfair than he had imagined. The two judges in the Albany criminal courthouse where he was sentenced had a competition with each other to see who could give out the most time. 

In her book “Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” journalist Jennifer Gonnerman wrote that there was “courthouse talk” that the two were competing “for the distinction of toughest judge.” Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law who worked on Riley’s clemency application, said the trial prosecutor also confirmed the nature of the competition.

In 2013, he filled out the application and waited while it sat on the governor’s desk for four years. In 2017, he found out that he had been denied. 

But Riley had another plan. He reached out to various attorneys and legal organizations to ask for assistance, and Zeidman and Ansari agreed to accept his case. They reapplied in the end of 2018, and on New Year’s Eve, Riley was read an email from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo commuting his sentence.

“Something just came over me and everything went blank,” he said. “Everything she said to me after that was like the old Charlie Brown character where she just goes, ‘womp womp womp womp womp.’ I don’t know what she was saying. My eyes watered up.”

“The feeling was remarkable. It was overwhelming,” he added. “I’m getting choked up thinking about it.” 

Then he waited for four weeks. “Those were probably the longest four weeks I had while incarcerated,” he said. “I didn’t know when it would happen. I didn’t receive a single piece of paper. I was told that the parole officer would inspect where I’d be living. … I was just waiting.”

Finally, on Jan. 28, 2019, he was released and returned to Queens, where he now lives with his wife, a childhood friend whom he married in 2014 while incarcerated. “I’m taking in all the changes that had taken place in Brooklyn,” he said, describing gentrification and changing demographics that make parts of the borough unrecognizable.

For the most part, though, he says the transition has been smoother than he expected, thanks in large part to support from friends and family. 

“Some things take getting used to, of course,” he added. “Those things were expected so they weren’t really shocking. It’s life. You just have to move with the current.”

Although Riley is grateful that he benefited from Cuomo’s executive action to grant him clemency, he remains mindful that the governor has acted on only a small fraction of the applications that sit on his desk. According to records obtained by The City last August, state prisoners have submitted at least 6,489 applications for reduced sentences since 2016, after Cuomo announced a more merciful approach to dealing with requests. At the time, he had only granted 18 commutations. Since then, he has commuted two more.

“There are many more men and women incarcerated in New York who I believe deserve clemency and who have moved toward transforming their lives from whatever moment or mistake that led to their incarceration,” Riley said. “I believe that many of them are not the same people that they were when whatever offense was committed, and they’re deserving of clemency as well.”

Riley got lucky, Zeidman said, when many of his other clients may not.

“The serendipity is part of the problem with clemency because there are thousands and thousands of people who merit representation and who have compelling cases,” he said.

“My hope is that the governor’s office will see the sky didn’t fall, it didn’t affect his popularity,” he added. “If anything, the right people value what he did, so he can be a little less stingy.” 

Riley said he will do his part to help his friends who are still in the prisons where he spent decades. Through a job in the wrongful conviction unit at the Legal Aid Society, he’s helping vet innocence claims. He also provides mentorship to at-risk youth through a neighborhood organization and teaches chess to children there. 

“I had this moment where I was just looking at him,” Ansari said, “and we were talking about all the good work he was doing at Legal Aid and all the things he hopes to accomplish and I was like, ‘I cannot believe they wanted you to die in that place.’ It took my breath away.”