Philp Vance, who maintains his innocence of a crime he was imprisoned for more than 20 years ago, has spent the last four months in solitary confinement for protesting unlivable conditions in Stillwater Prison. In essence he is waiting for two releases - first from 23-hour-per-day isolation, and then from what a growing number of people are calling a gross miscarriage of justice.
“He's in the dark and he's just hoping that one day when those keys jingle when they’re walking past his cell, that they’re jingling because they’re coming to get him,” said Kevin Reese of Until We Are All Free.
Vance has been in prison since 2004 on a murder charge for a December 2002 armed robbery at Sabreen's Supermarket in South Saint Paul. The robbery resulted in the death of 25-year-old grocery clerk Khaled Al-Bakri. Vance was found guilty despite a lack of physical evidence. Since then abolitionist and criminal justice educator Jason Sole has uncovered the involvement of corrupt officers, untrustworthy informants, and alleged bribery from an involved officer in the amount of $10,000 for a confession.
“There is no way when his case gets to court, a judge would deny his release,” said Sole. “It is really impossible with all that we found, for a judge to say ‘he could have done it.’ They don’t got nothing when they really break it down. So all we have to do is get his case to court. We’re looking good. A lot of lawyers want to take his case - he just met with two lawyers last week - so we’re excited! He's gonna be coming home soon.”
Sole says it was while he was working at Saint Paul Mayor Carter’s office years back that he opened a letter from Vance regarding his case. The Innocence Project had stopped pursuing Vance’s case due to lack of witnesses. Sole was inspired to take matters into his own hands and begin his own research.
Vance was ultimately sentenced to prison based on testimonial evidence. But after acquiring eight recanted affidavits, Sole suspected there were unjust methods at play. That led to the discovery of corruption through intimidation tactics and alleged under the table payoffs for confessions framing Vance as guilty.
“You can look at the evidence. They were giving people money. They offered one person $10,000 to lie on him. They were rouge.”
The first person to give Sole an affidavit was Regina Hagerman. Hagerman, who passed away recently, was a relative of Vance. Sole says she was the subject of police intimidation and manipulation.
“They stopped [Hagerman] five times on her way to work and she was on probation, and she was dealing with chemical dependency. They rushed up on her,” said Sole.
He says word got out that Hagerman had changed her original statement of Vance being innocent to him being guilty.
“When I got the address and the phone number, I called,” explained Sole. “She answered. I said do you mind if I record this? She said no. She said ‘I'm so sorry, man. I lied on him, I shouldn't have done that.’ She said ‘they forced me, they scared me.’ For 20 minutes, she’s pouring out her guts like, ‘they ran up on me.’ ‘They ran up on a few of my family members. They raided all of our houses. They had us scared. They made us believe that he could have done it.’”
Sole took Vance’s case to his Hamline University students. St. Thomas University law students have been digging into the case as well, as have family members, activists, and other supporting community members.
“Every year, the law students have been digging through files, listening to recordings, listening to what they did, the articles they put out about him,” said Sole. “And we’re still uncovering stuff. Every time we do our action form or put up a billboard, it gets a reaction and more information.”
One piece of information they uncovered was that the police officers involved in Vance’s case were identified as active participants in the Minnesota Gang Strike Task Force. The task force was disbanded in 2009 for corruption and settled in a $3 million dollar pay out.
Sole says his own personal experience of being raided by the Gang Strike Force at a hotel at the age of 21 gave him insight into the various tactics he’s seen others fall victim to. He ended up serving time on a drug possession charge, which inspired his now criminal justice and abolitionist trajectory.
“I could not understand how I got 40 months in prison for something that fits in your hand,” said Sole. “I said, okay, you got me. I got drugs on me. And they took me to jail. But the way they tried to make me think they could keep me for something else. I was like, man, get me the f*** out of here. What's my bail?” laughed Sole. “But when they’re snatching up a 16-year-old Myon, or 16-year-old Marvin Haynes, or a 23-year-old Philip Vance, you got to see that that’s what they were doing to a lot of Black people.”
Sole says he trusts that ultimately everything will eventually come to light. He says Philip Vance is an amazing human, full of love and compassion, and Sole is excited for the day when Philip Vance is welcomed home.
“We feel good about him being released but it's been 20 years for him; that his family has been mourning. For me, I'm grateful that he can actually get home to be with his family. They miss him. They've been harmed by him being gone for 20 years – for something he didn't do.” said Sole. “I'm rooting for him. I'm in it for the long haul. This isn’t just about bringing them home for me.”
Kevin Reese of Until We Are All Free says there are only a few people inside prison preaching their innocence. And Vance has always been one of them.
“One of the myths about prison is that everybody in prison says they are innocent. That is not true. I've been in a prison. I served 15 years. That's not everybody's story. Prison is full of real humans having a real experience,” said Reese. “Philip is someone that I served time with. I got to Stillwater Prison May 1, 2007. If I was on oath, and I was on the stand doing a character witness for Philip Vance, I would be able to say that the person that I met in 2007 – no way did he commit that crime. Nothing about that man said that he was out robbing grocery stores.”
Reese says when we can begin to question why we deny the accused that defend their innocence, but believe the accusers that decide who is guilty, we may be able to resolve this from happening over and over again.
“As a Black man who lives in a state, lives in this country, in this world, and travels those Minneapolis, St. Paul streets on the regular – it’s scary,” said Reese. “The power of the law, and what they can do with your body, and how sticky a jury is. When we live in a state where we're the minority, and then we get that jury who sees our bodies and our experiences as criminal to begin with, they think us being free is a crime. We are the home of George Floyd, Dante Wright… the list can go on and on. Minnesota is ground zero for the current social and racial dilemma in America; the wealth disparities, the racial disparities, the criminal disparities, it's all here.”
Reese says his heart goes out to Vance in solitary confinement. The court order for 23 hours a day in ‘the hole’ for 180 days for Vance has been questioned as an act of retaliation. Experts testified during the House Corrections Division on HF493 meeting on the impact of extended isolation on inmate health.
Reese says he can only imagine the impact of isolation on Vance being compounded with the release of his former inmates, who were found to be falsely convicted.
“After close to 20-something years being incarcerated, he was at Stillwater when Myon Burrell left. I wonder how Philip felt. He was at Stillwater when Marvin Haynes left. I wonder how Philip felt.”
Reese says he knows Vance is going to come home the compassionate guy he’s always been, and that he hopes the public will credit that to Vance’s character, not to the time he’s served inside.
“I watched my brother Marvin Haynes in his press conference, and he still had a smile, joy. He gave jokes to the white people in the room. He’s got charisma. And they think that that's an unending river of black joy that we all got after being abused. No, that's Black magic. That's Black boy magic,” said Reese. “That place didn't make him better. That place didn't make him humble. That's who he always was in spite of that place. The opportunities that you lose over years you can never get back. I will speak from my own experience. I'm 37 and I feel 21. I struggle with it every day because you’re suspended in time. It’s a real thing.”
Reese says coming home four years ago to a community that not only welcomed him, but linked arms with him in making changes that benefit those with stories like him, gave him a purpose. He says he’s excited to see Vance become a part of this community as a free man.
“It's known that the justice-impacted community, one, is a community. Two, we take care of each other. Three, we advocate for each other... and the list can go on,” said Reese. “And that's the new norm of what's coming from the justice-impacted community. So Phillip will be another comrade who will be joining a beautiful, vibrant community that needs his contribution. A shout out to all of us who survived and still contribute to the greater good. It is not because prisons are effective. It is because they had an effective strategy to incarcerate a beautiful generation of people. We were already beautiful.”
In the meantime, Vance is scheduled to remain in solitary confinement through early March.