"24 YEARS TO FREEDOM"
ROJAI FENTRESS'S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE
Our speakers for the July 28 Virtual Breakfast will be Rojai Fentress and Deidre Enright, key players in the story of a 24 year old Midlothian murder case that reached a major turning point early this month. On Wednesday July 1, Governor Northam signed a conditional pardon that had been on his desk for three years. No one was more surprised than Fentress and Enright.
Rojai Fentress woke up on July 1 at the Augusta Correctional Center as inmate No. 1038804. For Fentress, now 40 years old, it was just another day in prison - not unlike the other 8,500 days he had spent behind bars since he was arrested in 1996 on a murder charge when he was just 15.
But after a morning visit from jail officials, a flurry of phone calls, some paperwork and a quickly organized welcoming crowd of relatives, friends and supporters, Fentress ended the day at a dinner and celebration at the Charlottesville home of one of his lawyers, Deidre Enright. Enright is a University of Virginia Law School professor and the founder and one of the directors of UVA's Innocence Project Clinic. As part of the year-long clinic, law students investigate and help litigate wrongful convictions of inmates throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.
In 1996 at the age of 16, Rojai Fentress was arrested for malicious wounding during a drug deal in Midlothian. The victim died, and Richmond prosecutors charged Fentress with murder. With what seemed like a weak case, the prosecution offered plea deals for 18 years, then 15, then 12, and then 8. Finally, just minutes before the trial began, he was offered a 5-year sentence. Insisting he had not been involved in the murder, Fentress told his attorney he would not take the plea deal.
He was convicted and sentenced to 53 years behind bars, more than 30 years longer than the prosecutor would later say was appropriate for the crime. For two decades, Fentress made the most of his time. He earned a GED, became a prison barber, worked as a cobbler in the prison shoe plant, learned Spanish and got engaged to be married, all the while maintaining his innocence In 2014 his case gained momentum when a fellow inmate confessed to the killing. Fentress contacted more than 50 newspapers and an article published in 2016 introduced the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia to the case.
Deidre Enright and other members of the Innocence Project team secured another written confession from Fentress’ fellow inmate and uncovered serious inconsistencies in the account of a key prosecution witness as well as other information that was not given to the defense at the time of the trial. They submitted a pardon request to the Governor’s office in 2017 where it sat for 3 years. Recently the Innocence Project and other supporters launched a social media campaign and quickly gathered more than 6,000 signatures demanding Fentress be freed.
This is another in a series of Encorepreneur! meetings using Zoom video conferencing, and everyone with a smart phone, iPad, laptop or desktop can participate for no charge. (You will have to supply your own coffee and pastries). For newcomers to Zoom, we will be sending you some easy to follow instructions and everyone will receive a link a day or two before the event.