Seventeen years after being arrested as the Tifft Farm rapist, Vincent H. Jenkins suddenly has found himself a free man, released from prison after a DNA test showed he didn't do it.
He's awestruck at seeing his first cellular telephone. He walks wide-eyed through a suburban shopping mall.
After spending 45 of his 60 years in prison, Warith Habib Abdal, as he is known now, has no idea what to do with his freedom.
"I have no possessions. I go from one friend's house to another, wherever someone is kind enough to give me a place to have a meal and take a shower," Abdal said in an interview last week.
"In prison, everything was provided for me -- medical care, food, toothpaste. When they let me out, they gave me $40 and an old pair of dungarees with a broken zipper. They told me, 'Get out of here. You're a free man.' "
Abdal, a New York City native now staying with friends in Lackawanna, is believed to be the first person in Western New York to be released from prison because of DNA evidence from an old crime. A federal judge ruled Aug. 30 that Abdal was wrongly convicted of the May 1982 rape of a young woman in what was then the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve.
His lawyers, led by Eleanor Jackson Piel of New York City, said Buffalo police and the Erie County district attorney's office used tainted evidence and questionable law enforcement tactics to convict Abdal. Few people believed Mrs. Piel until last April, when a DNA analysis showed, virtually beyond doubt, that Abdal could not have been the rapist.
"I told the detectives from the beginning that they had the wrong man," Abdal said. "To this day, I have never been to Tifft Farm. I have never sexually assaulted anyone. It's not in my makeup."
Deputy District Attorney Christopher J. Belling, the lead prosecutor in the case, said investigators at the time believed they had good cause to arrest Abdal. Abdal also was considered a suspect in six other unsolved rapes, Belling said, but authorities came up with enough evidence to charge him only in the Tifft Farm case.
"We felt we had a strong case and a very sincere and believable crime victim. A jury heard the evidence and voted to convict," Belling said last week. "There was nothing malicious about it. This was not a case of police trying to pin a crime on an innocent man just to clear a case.
"We did not have the luxury of DNA testing that is used in rape investigations today," he added. "If we did, we would have tested his DNA in the Tifft Farm case, plus the other cases we were looking at."
How did Abdal endure 17 years behind bars for a crime that someone else committed?
"Prayer," answered the devout Muslim. "Some people live from day to day. I live from prayer to prayer. I pray five times every day."
A tall, easily agitated man who carries a cane and walks with a pronounced limp, Abdal struggled to control his anger during a two-hour interview in the Friendship House community center.
Angry, but no grudge
At the start of the interview, he insisted he did not want to make waves. He said he wants to stay out of trouble, to find a place in society where he can fit in. He said he harbors no grudge toward police, prosecutors or anyone else.
"They were just doing their jobs. I'm not bitter. . . . I'm a free man. I'm as happy as a lark," he said with a smile.
But minutes later, his voice rose in anger as he spoke about those in the criminal justice system who arrested, convicted and sentenced him.
"I have reason to believe the prosecutor, the police department, parole officers and the news media conspired to put me in the penitentiary for the rest of my life," Abdal said. "All those years, I kept wondering, 'Why are they doing this? Whose toes did I step on?'
"Why did they do it? Only God knows what was in their minds," he added.
He said his lawyers are planning a lawsuit against those who put him behind bars.
After getting his freedom, Abdal was not welcomed by family members in New York City, so he traveled to Lackawanna to look up old friends.
The family of George W. Halsey III, development manager of the Food Bank of Western New York, has been helping out in recent days. Adjusting to life in the free world is not easy for Abdal, Halsey said.
"He'll never have a family. He'll never be able to adapt to all the developments that occurred in society while he was in prison," Halsey said.
"I showed him a cell phone the other day. He was totally amazed. I took him to shop for clothes at McKinley Mall -- he was overwhelmed. Just being able to eat a meal when he wants, and to eat what he wants, he can't get used to it."
Abdal said he spends most of his free time in the Lackawanna Mosque on Wilkes-Barre Street.
Health problems in prison
During the time he spent in prison for the Tifft Farm rape, he suffered from cancer, underwent a hip replacement and was unable to attend the funerals of a number of close relatives, including his father and a brother.
"Those years I lost are gone with the wind. Right now, I'm just trying to put myself back in society, in a way I can be accepted," Abdal said. "If I can't do that, I would prefer to go back to prison."
To be sure, Abdal was no stranger to the criminal justice system when Buffalo and Lackawanna police began to suspect him in a series of rapes in 1982.
At 43, he already had spent 28 years in jails and prisons. Growing up in violent East Harlem, he served his first adult prison term at age 19. Abdal served time for burglaries, assaults and robberies, including an attack in which he beat a man over the head with a brick and stole his wallet.
Drugs, prostitution and violence were all around him in his youth, Abdal recalled.
"As bad as you can imagine life in East Harlem, that's how bad it was. There came a time in my life when I came to realize I was nothing more than a gangster for the devil," Abdal said.
His most serious conviction was a manslaughter count in the 1969 shooting death of a woman in Harlem. Abdal claimed he acted in self-defense after the woman, accompanied by two "thugs," tried to rob him of money he earned as a numbers runner.
In 1977, Abdal was released on parole in Buffalo. He already had several scrapes with the law here before police began to suspect him in a number of unsolved rape cases.
The rape in Tifft Farm
The 264-acre area, which has since become the Tifft Nature Preserve, provides a place where for area residents to go for hiking, nature-watching and quiet reflection. Buffalo was in an uproar in 1982 after a rapist terrorized three women there.
On the evening of May 18, a 23-year-old Kensington-area woman was walking back to her car to read, while her husband was bird-watching elsewhere on the preserve. A powerfully built black man grabbed her by the throat, blindfolded her and raped her.
"Scared you, didn't I?" the attacker said as he first grabbed his victim.
After brutalizing the woman, the attacker asked: "Do you think God will forgive me?"
He then walked away, telling the woman he had to catch a bus.
Police believe the same man raped a second woman -- a schoolteacher from Depew who was scouting the preserve June 12 for a possible class field trip -- and another woman who was attacked Sept. 24 by a man who blindfolded her and tied her to a tree.
Police also suspected the same man was responsible for four rapes in Lackawanna's 1st Ward -- less than a mile from the preserve -- in late 1981.
Numerous efforts were made to catch the rapist. Plainclothes officers, posed as hikers. A police officer who was a karate expert, dressed as a woman, walking the Lackawanna streets where attacks had occurred.
In September 1982, a frustrated Police Commissioner James B. Cunningham assigned one of his toughest officers, hard-nosed Mike McCarthy of the Street Crime Unit, to find the rapist.
"Mike McCarthy was a man you sent out when you needed a job done," one law enforcement official recalled. "He was a very, very tough guy."
McCarthy quickly found Vincent Jenkins.
Trial and conviction
Abdal's attorneys contend police grabbed him illegally off the street and then used unlawful tactics to persuade the victim of the May 18 rape to identify him.
"They took him to the Seneca Street Police Garage, where they allowed the rape victim to look at him through one-way glass," Ms. Piel said. "The victim said she could not identify him. Then, they showed her some old pictures of (Abdal). Finally, she said, 'OK, I guess that's him.' They really pushed her into making the ID."
State Supreme Court Judge Frederick M. Marshall threw out the woman's identification of Abdal, but allowed the arrest to stand. He also allowed the woman to identify Abdal in court, based on her "braille type" recollection from running her fingers over her face during the rape.
The trial was held in May and June of 1983. Abdal insisted he was praying or sleeping in a Lackawanna mosque at the time of the rape. A friend who worked a construction job with Abdal testified that he saw Abdal walking toward the mosque at about 6 p.m., roughly two hours before the rape.
Abdal's testimony hurt his own case, Belling said.
"He spent much of the time giving sermons to the jury, and I don't think it went over well with the jury at all," Belling said. "At the same time, we had a very sympathetic crime victim saying that (Abdal) was the man who raped her. I think the jury found her testimony very believable."
On Nov. 4, 1983, Marshall sentenced Abdal to 20 years to life. He called Abdal an "assaultive and dangerous individual."
Freed by DNA evidence
In the ensuing years, Abdal never wavered from insisting that he had been framed. Franklin Pratcher of Buffalo, his trial attorney, believed him.
"I've represented hundreds of people in criminal cases. This is one I always felt had been wrongly convicted, and I don't say it very often," Pratcher said. "I had a private investigator working with me on that case. This guy told me he worked on hundreds of cases, but only two cases where he thought the person was really innocent. This was one of the two."
Ms. Piel, who had represented Abdal in New York City years earlier, also believed he was innocent.
"He had criminal convictions before, but nothing like this. No sexual assaults, no rapes. This didn't make sense," Ms. Piel said.
In 1991, Ms. Piel decided to try using DNA evidence from the old rape case to prove that Abdal was innocent. She enlisted the help of Barry C. Scheck and the Innocence Project at New York City's Benjamin Cardozo Law School.
Scheck, a key member of the O.J. Simpson criminal defense team, and other lawyers in the Innocence Project have used DNA evidence to clear dozens of convicted killers and rapists all over the country.
In Abdal's case, they checked his DNA against DNA swabbed from the woman raped at the Tifft Park. The first DNA analysis, conducted at a Boston laboratory in 1994, was inconclusive.
The second analysis, done last April at a lab in Richmond, Calif., showed -- virtually beyond doubt -- that Abdal was not the rapist. That analysis led U.S. Senior District Judge John T. Elfvin to free Abdal earlier this month.
So far, Elfvin has only filed a one-paragraph order -- known as a habeas corpus ruling -- stating that Abdal was wrongly convicted. The judge said he will file a longer order detailing his reasons for doing so.
"Depending on what Judge Elfvin's ruling says, it could become a landmark ruling, a very important ruling," Scheck said in a phone interview from New York City.
"It could be the first case in America where a federal judge bases a habeas corpus ruling on the fact that the person is actually innocent. Usually, the order is based on some constitutional issue -- ineffective assistance of counsel, for example."
Convicts freed by DNA
According to Scheck, Abdal is the 65th convict to be exonerated of a crime by DNA evidence since the advent of DNA testing in 1989.
"Eventually, I believe there are hundreds and hundreds of people sitting in prisons all over the country who will be exonerated because of DNA," Scheck said. "Prosecutors use it to put people in prison. We can use it to help innocent people out of prison."
McCarthy, the arresting officer, retired in 1994. He currently is on an overseas law enforcement assignment for the federal government, and could not be reached to comment.
Belling and Marshall are not 100 percent convinced that Abdal is innocent.
The original physical evidence from the Tifft Farm rape case was lost by Federal Express after the 1994 analysis that was done in Boston, Belling said. So the second round of testing, in California, was done with "extracts" taken from the Boston lab.
"Legally, there is no doubt he has been cleared, but I'd feel a lot more comfortable about the situation if we had the original rape kit evidence," Belling said.
If prosecutors were using those same extracts, rather than the original evidence, to convict Abdal, his defense lawyers would be "screaming" that the chain of evidence had been broken, Belling said.
Similar comments came from Marshall, who retired from the bench eight years ago.
"I was a judge from 1962 to 1991. I made a lot of tough calls, in this case and hundreds of others," Marshall said. "The system is not perfect, but I do not agree that we have hundreds and hundreds of innocent people sitting in prisons. The burden of proof is so strong, I think the instances of that happening are rare."
Marshall was asked what he would tell Abdal if he had a chance to sit down with him.
The retired judge, usually a man of strong opinions, thought a long time before answering -- but not really answering -- the question.
"I don't know what I would tell him," Marshall said.