Why NY's 'Poster Child For Clemency' Is Still Behind Bars

By Rachel Rippetoe | January 23, 2022, 8:02 PM EST ·

Bruce Bryant pictured inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. Bryant, who is serving a 37-to-life sentence for murder, has been awaiting a response from the governor's office on his application for clemency for over two years. (Photo: Sean Sanders)

The new year brought a familiar sense of disappointment for Bruce Bryant, as he sat in his cell in Sing Sing Correctional Facility and discovered he had once again been overlooked for clemency.

Things got worse from there. A few days later, he tested positive for COVID-19. Sitting in isolation, it was hard not to despair.

"Mentally, I'm troubled by it," Bryant said in a Jan. 7 email on Jpay, a paid email service for inmates. "I hate this place. I am just feeling a bit discouraged and despondent."

Since December 2019, Bryant has hoped the start of each new year would offer a new beginning, one he's spent 27 years waiting for.

Two years ago his lawyers sent him a thick packet of documents, his application for an early release from prison. It's an informal tradition that governors, who have the power to grant clemency to their state's prisoners, do so on Christmas or New Year's Day to symbolize forgiveness, a clean slate.

Bryant is proud of that packet. The 300-plus pages are a snapshot of the effort he's made to better himself inside prison, where he is serving a 37½-to-life sentence for murder. There were dozens of letters of support. Two were from correctional officers. One was from Sean Pica, the executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, where Bryant works in Sing Sing, helping formerly incarcerated men with reentry and connecting those on the inside with educational opportunities.

There was a letter from an Albany pastor named the Rev. Charles Muller. Bryant started a fundraiser inside Sullivan Correctional Facility for Muller's gun buyback program in 2009. Sharon Content, executive director of Children of Promise, an afterschool and summer program for children with incarcerated parents, also wrote about her partnership with Bruce. He raised money inside prison to buy backpacks for kids in her program. The list goes on.

But January 2020 came and went, and Bryant was not offered clemency. He didn't get it the following new year, or this one. The hope he had at the end of 2019 hasn't faded entirely, but it's diluted.

"Hopeless, deeply depressed, discouraged, despondent are just some of the feelings I experience whenever I see my classmates, friends, men I've bonded with over the past two decades in prison, receiving executive clemency and going home, while I'm left behind," Bryant wrote on JPay in the fall. "It's like entering a room so dark you can feel the darkness seeping into your soul."

Bryant, 52, has spent 27 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit: the murder of 11-year-old Travis Lilley.

He has always maintained he had no involvement in the shooting that led to a stray bullet piercing a barber shop window and killing someone's young son. What's certain is that his trial in 1996 was suspect. A key witness later recanted his statement, and his lawyer admitted under oath to suffering from PTSD at the time.

But with his clemency bid, Bryant is asking the governor to look at who he's become while incarcerated: someone who has reached outside prison walls to try to do good, to address the root causes of the kind of violence that ultimately cost him his freedom.

Bryant isn't the only one confused as to why he continues to be overlooked for clemency. Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law, has helped over a dozen New York state prisoners successfully gain clemency, and he said there's no one more deserving of freedom than Bruce Bryant.

"Even if Bruce was as guilty as a human being can be, he still warrants clemency, because of all he's done inside," Zeidman said. "I've done hundreds of applications for clemency, there's no one who's done more. I don't think there's anything more he can do. He's the poster child for clemency."

Zeidman said he doesn't know why Bryant is getting overlooked, or why any clemency applicant gets chosen over another. While the governor's office says it notifies applicants when their application has been denied, many prisoners, like Bryant, submitted an application years ago and never heard back.

"If Bruce did get clemency, it would send a signal to those inside, that it pays to behave the way he does and to make the efforts he's made," Zeidman said. "When they deny someone like Bruce it has the opposite impact, it's like, what's the point?"

One of the reasons that Zeidman suspects Bryant has not been selected for clemency is because he is not considered an "aging" prisoner. The people governors historically choose to pardon tend to skew older than 60, but Zeidman said he finds it unfair for executives to grant "mercy" only when the person has very little life left to live. He sees it as wasted potential.

"It just misses the whole point of transformation and redemption," he said. "Bruce has been in for 27 years and he's 52 years old. Isn't that enough?"

The Crime

On Oct. 22, 1993, two men robbed a drug dealer, Michael Sterling, at gunpoint in Queens. Over the following days, tension brewed between these two men, their families and Sterling, culminating in a violent confrontation on Oct. 30.

As for Bryant, he says he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was drizzly and overcast that day. Bryant says he was in a taxi with his then girlfriend, Kamini, headed to do some last-minute Halloween shopping in Jamaica, Queens. He was 23 and had been convicted of selling narcotics.

He says he got out of the cab on Guy R Brewer Boulevard, where he saw Sterling, whom he knew from living in the neighborhood. Bryant says he stopped for a moment to say hi. Then Sterling spotted the two men who had robbed him earlier that week. They were across the street in a hair salon.

The two men also noticed Sterling. They pulled out guns and started shooting at him. Sterling returned fire. That's when Bryant says he ran.

Bryant says he couldn't see into the beauty salon. He didn't see the breaking of glass as stray bullets flew inside. He didn't see Travis Lilley, or Travis' grandfather as he held the boy's lifeless body and sobbed on the ground, sitting on shards of glass, as the New York Daily News later described.

Contrary to what police and prosecutors said, Bryant has always maintained that he wasn't armed that day. That he never fired a gun. But he recognizes that his actions as a young person, spending time with the wrong kinds of people, created an environment where someone's son could die, so because of that, despite decades of maintaining his innocence, he has spent much of his time in prison working on projects to help young people.

"You don't have to pick up a gun and shoot a person to be responsible for a life," he said. "You want to do your best to honor the potential that you have as well as honor the potential of young Travis Lilley. On my watch, I don't want to ever see another young person die."

Bryant has at least a dozen more years to go on his sentence, and there's no guarantee he'll ever be released. People with maximum life sentences often serve 10 or more years longer than their minimum sentence, according to experts.

Getting Out

Sitting in a visitors' room in Sing Sing Correctional Facility one Sunday in December 2019, Bryant donned a ribbed dark green sweater. Bryant's family says he's always been good-looking. Even now at 50, he looked like a much younger man. He had a buzz haircut and a neatly groomed beard, interrupted by a scar that brushed from behind his ear across his cheek. He said another inmate slashed him in the face a few years ago while he was on the phone, having mistaken him for someone else.

Bruce's family name is actually Bryan. The "t" was a clerical error from when he was entered into the New York prison system 27 years ago. But he's been Bruce Bryant for half his life now, preferring to go by the name that is consistently used through his correctional system records rather than Bruce Bryan, the man news reports claimed killed an 11-year-old boy. Bruce Bryant could be a different man.

"I think living kind of started for me while I was in prison," he said. "But I don't think that prison is the end of who I am, right? I don't think my life ends here in prison. And I pray it doesn't."

He knows he's lost weight, and it bothers him. His arms don't fill out that sweater like they used to. The last five years have felt particularly long — filled with advances but also defeats.

He earned a bachelor's degree in behavioral science. He was denied his third appeal for false conviction. He got divorced, and he lost his father to colon cancer.

Most of Bryant's energy in the last three years has gone towards seeking clemency. It's a formidable power that chief executives have to commute sentences of long-termers based on their behavior on the inside. It's also rarely used.

Between the start of 2016 and the summer of 2019, the most recent available data, more than 6,000 inmates applied for clemency in New York, according to a Freedom of Information Law filing done by nonprofit news website The City, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved less than 40 applications for adult inmates during his tenure, permitting their release or allowing them to apply for parole early. That comes out to about a 0.6% chance of getting out on clemency.

So it perhaps shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that Bryant was not released on New Year's Day in 2020 or since. An inmate is more likely to get cancer than to get clemency.

It's hard to draw many conclusions about who gets clemency, because so few inmates do. Cuomo's record on commutations and pardons was, for advocates, dismally disappointing. When he took office, Cuomo created the Executive Clemency Bureau, designed to look into giving deserving long-termers a second chance. He also created a program in 2017 that was supposed to connect inmates seeking early release with pro bono lawyers. But in November, New York News 4 reported that Cuomo had been ignoring more than 100 clemency applications filed under the program.

Now that Kathy Hochul is in office, Zeidman said he's cautiously optimistic.

Something else Zeidman finds promising is that some of the men and women who were released in recent years were granted clemency while also maintaining their innocence. This is something that can be a bit of a hurdle for prisoners, Zeidman said.

"The way clemency is now seen, it's an act of mercy," he said. "People say 'I've sinned. I've repented, have mercy on me.' But that's unfortunate because that's not the historical role of clemency. Clemency was to right wrongs. It was also about if the trial looked like a travesty, if there was something so disturbing about it that we collectively agree that this person deserves a second look, they should get that chance."

In Zeidman's view, the state's clemency bureau needs a complete overhaul.

The Executive Clemency Bureau lies within the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and assists the governor's office with clemency applications. It processes applications and determines who is eligible based on a list of basic criteria, including having served at least half the minimum sentence. And then there are broader requirements that those applying for sentence commutations have made "exceptional strides in self-development" and made use of the prison's rehabilitation programs.

But Zeidman said the state underestimates how many people in prison meet these requirements, and the office is not properly staffed to handle the number of applications it gets.

"It's a matter of asking if anyone is specifically designated to do this work," Zeidman said. "There are people in the governor's office who care about this. But they're taking it on along with other things that they do."

A representative for the New York governor's office told Law360 that Hochul is reviewing state policies and determining how to improve the clemency process.

There are many who think that those serving life sentences, particularly for murder, are exactly where they belong. They still invoke the name William Horton, a man who was temporarily released from prison and went on a crime spree, as an example of why releasing those serving life sentences can be dangerous.

But Bryant is hoping he won't be defined by his crime forever.

A Lifestyle

Bryant is the youngest of six, raised by strict West Indian parents in Jamaica, Queens. They immigrated from Antigua a year before Bryant was born. His mother, Gwen, cleaned houses, and his father, Hamilton, worked as a waiter at the Harmonie Club, a posh 100-year-old social club on the Upper East Side that still exists today.

Every day, Bryant's father wore a suit and a Stetson flat-brim hat. He carried a briefcase, which he'd use to sneak home leftover steak and cake in the evening.

"I waited for that every night. I wouldn't sleep until I knew that he was home," Bryant said.

But Bryant said he saw a different side when he started busing tables at the Harmonie Club when he was 13. He saw white, wealthy customers mouth off to his father and treat him with disrespect.

He made a decision: "I didn't want to struggle like that."

He started selling loose joints of marijuana at 13. A few years later, he sold crack cocaine too. Bryant said that in 1993, at 23, he was selling drugs on the street full-time. At that point, he had already been convicted of selling narcotics, selling to a minor, bail jumping and assault.

Still, he said nothing could have prepared him for Oct. 30, 1993, or what his life would look like from then on. He said he didn't know 11-year-old Travis Lilley had died until he turned on the news that evening. One suspect was already in custody, and police were looking for another man.

Gwen Bryan, Bruce Bryant's mother, pictured in her home in Jamaica, Queens holding a photograph of her son's graduation photo. Bruce gained a bachelor's degree inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 2017. (Photo: Sean Sanders)

This is Bryant's story. The police account was much more damning. According to them, Bryant was part of a group trying to kill a man that had robbed them.

News reports said Bryant, Sterling and Smith had come to the beauty salon to kill Roy Williams, the boyfriend of Cheryl Lilley, Travis' mother. According to court documents, investigators said Smith appeared to act as a lookout while Bryant and Sterling fired 10 to 15 shots into the men. Two bullets went through the glass of the beauty salon.

Six days after the shooting, more than 100 people attended Travis' funeral. Newsday wrote that Travis had dreams of becoming a firefighter. The boy's 9-year-old brother hand-wrote a poem on the back of the funeral program and read it out loud:

"By my house I hear gunshots at night. You can call it noise or you can call it night noises. I know what it is! We can make a change. When the change is made 107th St. will have peace."

Cheryl Lilley never spoke publicly about her son's death, and records show she moved to Richmond, Virginia, in 2012. But according to Strong's account, on the day of the funeral, in the steady rain, family members escorted her down the aisle as she wept.

Bryant has always maintained that on Oct. 30, 1993, he was simply with his girlfriend to do some Halloween shopping, that he had no gun and was not a part of the altercation between Michael Sterling and the two men in the hair salon. He has never denied he was there the day Travis Lilley was killed. He knows that these confrontations happened in his neighborhood all too often, that men like him in their early 20s could become desensitized to the violence.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about that day," Bryant said. "What could I have done differently? Instead of being anywhere near this? There's not a day goes by that I don't pray for that family and then say, 'How do I make amends?' How do you say, 'Well listen, I was in this lifestyle and this lifestyle created this atmosphere where this child can lose his life'?"

When he knew the police were looking for him, Bryant went upstate. He was already on parole and feared that any kind of arrest would send him back to prison. He was caught upstate a few months later and sent to Rikers Island to await trial.

The Sentence

After spending two years in Rikers, Bryant went to trial in 1996 and pled innocent.

He was represented by Reginald Towe, a private defense attorney working on an 18B, a voluntary plan in the New York County Criminal Courts that compensates private attorneys for representing indigent clients.

Bryant said Towe, a tall, older Black man with a few prominent scars across his face, seemed distant. He wouldn't look him in the eye, Bryant said. And he said Towe also wouldn't go back and consult with him in chambers during breaks and didn't talk to him as the trial was going on.

"He was always ... he was very off-putting," Bryant said. "He was very nervous and he never came close to me, not even in shaking arm distance. He was just disinterested."

Bryant said he couldn't help but feel like Towe was afraid of him.

Twenty years later, Bryant learned where the fear had come from. On Aug. 4, 1992, Towe was slashed in the face by Hector Ruben, another man he represented in an 18B case, court documents show. Ruben and Towe were arguing, and as Towe was leaving the holding cell, Ruben lunged at him and slashed an "X" into his face.

Towe later sued the city of New York for damages. He said in a deposition that he saw a psychiatrist after the incident and was having trouble sleeping at night. He also cited "a different attitude towards clients."

Towe could not be reached for comment, after several attempts at calling and emailing his office and home.

Bryant requested to be assigned to a new counsel twice, but each time he was denied. In the end, he was found guilty of murder and two counts of attempted murder.

In the sentencing, Bryant made his last plea of innocence.

"It was a horrifying situation," he told the court. "They know that I am innocent. Each and every one that got up there knows that they lied about everything."

"Anything else, sir?" Justice Robert McGann said.

"No. I trust that God will allow the truth to prevail; that's all."

Justice McGann sentenced Bryant to 37½ years to life, over 10 years more than what Michael Sterling was sentenced, citing Bryant's criminal record.

He closed by saying, "It is my hope that you never again have access to decent, innocent people."

Living for Travis Lilley

Bryant has been passed around several prisons in New York, as is common for long-termers. He spent nine years in Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Stormville before being transferred to Great Meadow, Sullivan and Sing Sing. Bryant's brother Tony said the first few times he and his mother visited Bryant in Greenhaven, it was hard to tell how his brother was really feeling. He would tell jokes and laugh, and the only tears he shed were from hugging his father goodbye.

"I would always tell him like, 'How could you, man? These people would know I had 30 years because I'd be walking around like a madman," Tony said. "I'd be going crazy."

He put on a good face for his family, but Bryant said he was angry. He had spent two years on Rikers Island, waiting for a trial he thought he'd at least have a chance of winning. And now he wouldn't be free until he was at the very least 61 years old.

But Bryant said he learned early on to channel his anger into something positive. He went to community college and ultimately began teaching courses on Black history, and running alternatives to violence workshops.

"I've reconnected to my own humanity," Bryant said. "You got so much bitterness and negativity around you, you got to reach beyond the wall now to find good people."

In 2011, community organizer Ayesha Hoda spoke on the radio about her nonprofit Justice by the Pen, a program aimed at engaging youth in social justice and community activism. Bryant was listening.

About a month later, Hoda received a letter in the mail. It was odd to get a handwritten letter from someone she didn't know. And even stranger was the perfect script, she said.

The letter was in response to her radio spot, from a man who was eager to help. It was signed, "Oceans of Gratitude, Bruce Bryant."

They became pen pals. She sent him Justice by the Pen's 150-page curriculum, and he edited it, giving feedback on what he wished he'd known when he was in middle and high school. He also started a program with Justice by the Pen called Mentoring Beyond the Walls, which connected formerly imprisoned 17- to 24-year-olds with incarcerated men.

"He would be running several nonprofit organizations if he was out of prison right now," said Hany Massoud, Hoda's husband and the co-founder of Justice by the Pen. "He'll look up what he has to do. He'll put it in the legwork, harass you until you make the phone calls and send the emails."

Sharon Content got a letter in the summer of 2009. Bryant read in a magazine about Children of Promise, her organization for children of incarcerated people, and was impressed.

Despite not having children himself, Bryant helped raise funds inside Sullivan to buy backpacks for the kids who spend their summers at Children of Promise. And with Content's help, he published a children's book called "Closeness Is Not Measured by Distance," a journal for children who come to visit their parents in prison.

"He had a great interest in the organization and it was really a profound interest for someone who doesn't have children," Content said.

Bryant performed a TEDx Talk in Sing Sing last winter about the psychological effects that having an incarcerated parent has on children.

"Bruce was handpicked by the superintendent to do the TEDx," Zeidman said. "He gave a very beautiful, stirring speech about children of incarcerated parents. It wasn't just a great presentation. If you dig a little deeper, that's who he is."

To Hoda, Bryant isn't just the sum of all his programs.

"Bruce is like family now," Hoda said. "Like, really, if he didn't have his mom when he comes out, he could stay on our couch. He's such an amazing human being and he's going to be in our lives forever. I just hope it's outside of bars and not behind bars."

Bryant might never get out of prison, though the way he talks about the red snapper his mother will cook him on his first day home might indicate he hasn't fully come to terms with this. Hope is all he has, Bryant said.

He gives a lot of speeches at various events inside Sing Sing. And there's a phrase he almost always says while he's up on stage, directed at the men he's next to: "Bloom where you are planted."

"If you want more, you have to be more," Bryant said. "I always end by telling brothers to love what they see when they look in the mirror, because when you really love yourself, your actions will reflect such."

Time in a cell won't make amends for the death of Travis Lilley, Bryant has realized. It was never about time. "You have to say sorry in the way that you live," he said — in a way that reflects years and years of deep contemplation.

"It's the only way to honor the potential of Travis Lilley, to honor my own potential. That's the only way to do it, is to live it," Bryant said. "It has to come from a place that's genuine, that's pure, and then you really want to say well, I abandoned that lifestyle. This is who I am."

--Editing by Marygrace Anderson and Brian Baresch.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

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