Justice Withheld Series
The News & Observer / North Carolina
Presented here as a public-educational service by
Bonnie M. Wells
A Rape Case Totters;
A Marine's Life Falls Apart
By Joseph Neff, Staff Writer
Born in Haiti, Lesly Jean immigrated at 12 to New York, where his few family members took little interest in him. He grew up in a part of Brooklyn where street fights were common.
At 19, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps to toughen himself up and to be with people he could count on for support, structure, even love. He went overseas, to the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal.
Back at Camp Lejeune, on a Monday night in July 1982, he walked into a Dunkin' Donuts store and had his new life shredded.
A Jacksonville police officer stopped him. Jean, the officer said, resembled the composite drawing of a man who had raped a woman nearby five days before. Three months later, Jean was convicted of rape and sexual assault and shipped off to Central Prison to serve two consecutive life terms.
"I was 22, just beginning to grasp life for what it is," Jean said. "It was like cutting down a tree."
The jury had convicted Jean on the testimony of two eyewitnesses, the victim and a police officer who briefly stopped the rapist before he fled.
Their testimony was shaped by hypnosis, the details of which were withheld from Jean and his lawyer.
The hypnosis was conducted by the Jacksonville chief of detectives, Delma Collins, who had no training in psychiatry or psychology. Judges later ruled that Collins asked leading questions and focused the victim's attention on Jean's photo. He did not keep a detailed record of the subjects' pre-hypnosis memory.
Jean learned about the hypnosis only after the victim testified on direct examination.
Jean's lawyer twice asked the prosecutor for audiotapes, records or other material on the hypnosis but received nothing. Four Marines testified that Jean was in his barracks that night.
On one of his first days on the yard at Central Prison in 1982, he happened upon two men having sex behind a pillar. He learned to avoided danger spots, such as a remote corner by Central's old gym where rapes took place.
"I feared that the most," he said. "I thank God I kept my manhood."
Jean lucked into a passionate advocate, Paul Green, a lawyer at N.C. Prisoner Legal Services. Green got a court order to unearth the audio recordings and other materials. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals freed Jean in 1991. Had prosecutors handed over the recordings and records of the hypnosis, Jean probably would not have been convicted, the court said.
Collins, the chief of detectives, said he discussed the hypnosis with the district attorney's office. Walter Vatcher, the assistant prosecutor who tried the case, said the police never gave him the tapes. Still, he said he feels terrible and regrets his cross-examination of Jean, when he skewered Jean for watching a pornographic movie with a girlfriend.
"That was very prejudicial," Vatcher said. "I think about it at night; I was responsible for this guy serving nine years."
Once out, Jean asked for a pardon. Gov. Jim Martin said no. Jean moved in with his stepmother in New York, held a series of jobs and married. After his initial thrill with freedom, Jean's life began slipping.
He drank too much. He tried crack cocaine.
"I tried to kill myself," Jean said. "Not with a gun, not running in front of a train, but indirectly, drinking and drugging."
Six years after prison, after his dishonorable discharge was upgraded to an honorable discharge, Jean finally went for help. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2001, a DNA test exonerated Jean. Gov. Mike Easley pardoned him, and the state paid him $90,000 under the terms of a 1997 law that gives $10,000 a year to those who have been wrongly convicted.
In January of this year, Jean slipped as he was running down the stairs of a Bronx rooming house. He ruptured an artery in his thigh. The blood pooled in his leg, and Jean fell into a coma for two months. He's now at a public rehabilitation hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
Surgery left Jean's right thigh looking like a split loaf of bread. His left leg functions, but touching his right foot to the ground is excruciating, so he uses a wheelchair.
Jean, 43, has no family to turn to. His mother and sister are dead. His father is near death. He is estranged from his brother and his wife. Open and gregarious by nature, Jean struggles to keep his spirits up or keep his faith in God.
"I haven't accomplished much in my life,'' he said. "I don't know how I am going to make it."