In the fall of 2001, Michael Green walked out of prison after serving 13 years for a crime he did not commit.
The story of his wrongful conviction is, in its particulars, an all-too-familiar one in America. He was accused by a white woman who had never seen a black man until she came to the Cleveland Clinic for cancer treatment. Michael had worked at the clinic for a short time, so police used his ID photo in lineups. Eventually, the woman, who had never before seen Michael Green, identified him as her rapist.
Michael was a 23-year-old school dropout without money or influence, so he was dependent on a public defender, who was no match for a zealous prosecutor. The rapist had wiped himself on a washcloth and thrown it on the floor, but DNA testing was years away. Evidence against Michael was scant, and at least one so-called expert was inept, but the jury convicted him anyway Oct. 21, 1988.
More than a decade later, his stepfather’s sleuthing turned up the washcloth in a dusty evidence box. The Innocence Project took his case and arranged for the DNA testing that proved Michael was innocent.
I met Michael days after his release and followed him throughout his first year of freedom. I wanted to tell the story of this man, who, on the day he got out, insisted he was not bitter. The five-day series ran in The Plain Dealer in October 2002. The following week, the real rapist turned himself in after reading the series and recognizing his crime. On the day of his sentencing, Michael entered the courtroom to tell him he forgave him.
It took the state of Ohio more than two years to begin paying Michael what it owed him. There is no compensating a man for taking away 13 years of his life, but wise investments allowed Michael the time and flexibility to figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
Michael always insisted to me that he wanted to work in corrections to help young people. In the early years after his release, he couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. He may have been innocent, but he had spent 13 years behind bars. People judge you for that. They think they have you all figured out without knowing anything about you.
Michael and I lost track of each other for a few years, but we recently reconnected for the best of reasons.
At age 52, Michael is now a police academy graduate.
You read that right.
The system that betrayed him, that robbed him of more than a decade of his life, is the one he wants to join.
In September, Michael graduated from Cuyahoga Community College’s Peace Officer Basic Training Academy. We met last month in the kitchen of his Cleveland home, which he shares with Patricia, his wife of 14 years. She worries sometimes about his generosity — he has a habit of paying for strangers’ groceries and meals at McDonald’s — and his eagerness to join a police force. “I’m leaving it to God,” she said.
Michael shrugged. “When I walked out of prison, I told myself I would be an advocate — that as long as I was able, I would help others. For the longest time, it seemed I couldn’t get things right. I wasn’t doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” He smiled. “Graduating from the academy? This is what I am meant to do.”
Unfortunately, he’s got one more obstacle ahead, and it’s one he can’t control. At 52, he’s too old for big-city police forces.
Jamie Tavano, commander of the college’s police academy, says there are plenty of other police departments — including those for some villages, colleges and hospitals — that could be willing to give Michael a chance, and should.
“Mike works hard,” Tavano told me in a phone interview. “I’m not worried about him being able to do the job.”
Michael still wants to work with young people. “My job is to get back out here, show my face and show people there’s an alternative to violence. Anger puts a wall up, gives you tunnel vision.”
He’s putting in applications. He wants a paying job, not an auxiliary post. Not for the money, he said, but for the respect that comes with a paycheck.
In the meantime, he’s trying to recruit young men in the neighborhood to go through police training.
“Most cadets in my class came from families in law enforcement,” he said. “We need some police officers to come from our neighborhood, too.”
We all need that, as a community and as a country, and Michael Green deserves to be one of them.
— Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with Creators Syndicate.