Betty Tyson, who served 25 years in prison before being acquitted for the 1973 murder of a businessman visiting Rochester, died Thursday at age 75.
When she was released in May 1998, Mrs. Tyson was the longest incarcerated woman in New York, having served 25 years. She had maintained her innocence for many years and in prison became a popular figure among fellow inmate women and prison officials at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Even despite her wrongful conviction, she maintained an attitude that the playwright and author V, formerly known as Eve Ensler, described as “exuberant.”
“She was a very compassionate and very caring person,” said V, who visited Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where Ms. Tyson was incarcerated, to teach writing classes. “She had the ability to transform any situation, to turn poison into medicine, to turn pain into celebration, to find a way in any system to outsmart it and not be defeated by it.
“Her whole story is just so unbelievable, that she was incarcerated for 25 years for a crime she didn’t commit,” V said of Ms Tyson. “And she still had such a great spirit of love, joy, generosity. … She was just a deeply alive person. She loved on a different spiritual level.”
(Ensler, the creator of “The Vagina Monologues, changed her name to V after writing a memoir about her father’s childhood abuse. She changed her name to the mononym V to separate herself from her family legacy.)
Ms. Tyson recently suffered a serious heart attack and had been on a ventilator at Strong Memorial Hospital for weeks.
Ms. Tyson’s exoneration made national news, with coverage in major newspapers and television shows, including a segment on ABC’s “20-20”.
Within the walls of Bedford Hills, the state’s only maximum security women’s prison, Mrs. Tyson was known for helping newly incarcerated women learn how to survive the trials of the prison.
“She was honest and kind and she cared about people who knew a lot less how to handle it and I was one of those people who knew how to handle Jack in prison.” said Karen Thomas, who was imprisoned in Bedford Hills with Mrs. Tyson. “I was up to my ears in how to deal with it.
“She was smart and she was kind enough to share that. I would have known a lot less about how to get by. There was something about her that made me trust her, and what she told me wasn’t selfish.”
Elaine Lord, who was Superintendent of Bedford Hills when Mrs Tyson was released, befriended some of the detained women, including Mrs Tyson. “She was endearing and also wise,” she said of Ms. Tyson.
“She had a knack for dealing with women with mental health issues,” Lord said. “She could calm them down, or intervene in something going on in the housing unit.”
Ms. Tyson created a popular prison training program – she was nicknamed “Jane Fonda of Bedford Hills” – and also cared for inmates stricken with AIDS, some of whom died in her arms.
“There was something honest about her,” Lord said. “She wasn’t the perfect prisoner. She wasn’t the person without any disciplinary action. She was authentic.”
Mrs. Tyson’s sister, Delorise Thomas, confirmed the death. Information on Ms. Tyson’s other survivors was not immediately available Thursday.
Trek to freedom
Ms Tyson’s road to freedom began in 1997 when a witness who testified at Ms Tyson’s trial that he had seen her with murder victim Timothy Haworth admitted in a statement that he had lied and never seen them together. The witness, a young teenager in 1973, was imprisoned for months as a material witness to the trial of Mrs. Tyson. According to the affidavit he gave in 1997, he was coerced and threatened by police to give and abide by the lie that he had seen Mrs. Tyson.
Haworth was a Philadelphia businessman who founded Eastman Kodak Co. visited for consultancy work. He was beaten and strangled and left in an alley in downtown Rochester.
Mrs. Tyson was a heroin addict at the time, who was, as she described herself, “a trick turner.”
“I feel that because I was black, uneducated, naive, and a woman, I was very vulnerable,” Ms. Tyson said in a 2004 interview with LaVerne McQuiller Williams, who is now the associate provost for faculty affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology. “I was uneducated so why don’t I get this bitch off the street and that’s what the police did. I was on the street doing drugs and selling my body and I had a criminal record.”
A series of 1998 stories by Democrat and Chronicle included the witness’s recantation and interviews with two former prison counselors who reported in 1973 that they had seen Mrs. Tyson in prison with severe bruises after her arrest. Mrs Tyson had claimed she was beaten into signing a false confession; a written complaint from the two advisers to law enforcement was ignored.
William Mahoney, the detective who led the investigation into Haworth’s murder, had a slew of civil rights charges for allegedly brutal interrogations and was also convicted of fabricating evidence against the local mob.
Local attorney Donald Thompson first planned to represent Mrs. Tyson in 1998 in an attempt to overturn her conviction, but due to conflict, he turned the case over to another attorney, Jon Getz. Getz then gathered new evidence pointing to Ms. Tyson’s innocence and filed motions to have her conviction overturned.
During a archival investigation, prosecutors found a police report that was apparently never given by the police to the district attorney in 1973. That report was a statement from a second teenage witness who was also held as a material witness and said he had seen Mrs. Tyson and Haworth together the night of the murder. In his first questioning with the police – the statement the police withheld – the witness had said the opposite, insisting that he had not seen them together.
Based on that evidence, and the likelihood that it would have strengthened Ms Tyson’s 1973 proof of innocence, the district attorney decided in 1998 that the conviction should be dismissed, the original murder charge dismissed, and Ms Tyson should not be prosecuted. tried again.
“It was a moment I can’t forget, knowing that after all these years there was some justice,” Getz said of Ms Tyson’s release from prison in 1998. “I hope people remember her because in the end she was really a nice person.”
There was no physical evidence linking Mrs. Tyson to the crime; the evidence was largely her confession and the statements of the two witnesses. In fact, a lone piece of physical evidence – fresh tire tracks in the alley where Haworth’s corpse was found – turned out to be mismatched with Mrs Tyson’s car.
Ms. Tyson was arrested along with the late John Duval, who also signed a confession stating that he and Ms. Tyson had killed Haworth together. He also claimed that he was beaten for agreeing to the confession. Duval was also released from prison, but the prosecutor decided to try him again because he told the parole board that he was guilty.
Duval later said he thought he would not be released unless he said he was guilty of the crime at the parole hearing. At a retrial in 2000, Duval was found not guilty. Free from prison, Duval died in 2006 at the age of 53.
Struggle after release
Ms. Tyson received a $1.25 million settlement from the City of Rochester after securing her freedom, but she also faced many of the challenges faced by people who have spent much of their lives in prison. She couldn’t sleep with her back to a door, and she struggled to recognize who was trustworthy and who wasn’t – especially when news spread about her settling in the city.
“She was a strong person and also a very vulnerable person,” Getz said. “There were a lot of good people around her and unfortunately there were some people who attacked her financially and emotionally.”
Mrs. Tyson lost a home to foreclosure while in financial trouble, loaning people money and taking on financial responsibility for a number of family and friends. According to Getz, Mrs. Tyson once remarked, “It’s funny how many relatives I had when I came out. I know who my real family was. They were the ones who called me and came to see me when I was inside.”
Her post-release life became ever so troubled, and her uncertainty about her place in it so heavy, that in 2011 she was arrested on petty larceny charges, after stealing a pair of scissors and a knife – goods valued at $32.50 – from a Greek supermarket. In a post-violation conversation, Ms. Tyson admitted that she had acted erratically, prompted by the question of whether she might have been better off in prison.
Telling her story behind bars
As many inmates confirm, within the prison walls there are many who claim to be innocent. Most of them are not innocent, but some are.
Lord remembered how Mrs Tyson told her the story of her wrongful conviction and how she had doubts at first. However, when she examined Tyson’s file and learned the facts of the criminal case, she became a believer.
Lord once told Mrs Tyson that she felt bad about her incarceration.
“She said, ‘If I had been outside I would probably be dead from an overdose by now, so don’t feel bad. The life I had here was okay.’ “
“That was a very brave thing to say,” Lord said. Mrs. Tyson’s imprisonment “wasn’t fun, it wasn’t good, but she was alive.”
Mrs. Tyson regularly wore a military-style green jacket in prison. It got worn and worn over the years. Mrs. Tyson once said to Lord, “Superintendent, I’m going to wear this coat until I leave.”
When she was acquitted, Mrs. Tyson gave the coat to Lord.
“I still have the jacket and I’ve been retired for almost 20 years,” said Lord. “It’s just a piece of her.”
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Betty Tyson Dies at 75. She wrongfully served 25 years in prison