An exonerated man grapples with three stolen decades of life
A Navy veteran and father of four, Joseph Carter is still getting used to being out of prison. He talks about the wrongful conviction that put him behind bars and how he regained his freedom.
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JOSEPH CARTER: I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it, and in my heart, I just went to my knees.
ANGIE MILES: Joseph Carter describes the moment he heard the guilty verdict echo through a courtroom for a crime he knew he had not committed. His ordeal began in November of 1989 in the picturesque ocean view area of Norfolk, Virginia. There was a vicious stabbing of two men in one of the motels near the water. Carter had lived for a time in the efficiency next door, along with his young family. Within a few days, Carter was sitting in the Norfolk jail, charged with murder. That's despite conflicting witness accounts, no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and some crime scene evidence that was ignored.
JOSEPH CARTER: I was convicted on my mother's birthday. And my mom, it was just, it was too much for her.
ANGIE MILES: At the age of 31, the Navy veteran, husband and father of three with one child on the way, says he was innocent but watching his future disappear, unable to stop it.
JOSEPH CARTER: Two life sentences and 35 years.
ANGIE MILES: But even as he braced for prison, he says he knew he could never give up trying to get out, trying to get his life back, trying to prove his innocence. During Carter's incarceration, his losses multiplied. Absent from his family, they struggled financially and emotionally. He lost a brother and a son to gun violence. He endured a divorce, and his mother did not live to see him make it home.
JOSEPH CARTER: And see, I know my mother died of a broke... a broken heart.
ANGIE MILES: Carter says, all the love, the discipline, and high expectations his parents had poured into him since childhood saw him through some of his darkest days.
JOSEPH CARTER: You have to be relentless. You can't even think one second that you belong here. "Boy, you better get them grades right," my mom. You better hear my dad. I can hear him. That's what pushed me. I'm not dying in here. I'm not dying in here. So, you had to conjure up everything in you to survive it.
ANGIE MILES: He was also encouraged by other prisoners who helped him navigate the system. He became an expert on the law and prolific at helping others with their cases.
JOSEPH CARTER: I defended some of the guys that go for disciplinary actions, things of that nature, because I learned the law, an inmate advisor. So that's what I end up being.
ANGIE MILES: Carter says surviving prison meant being careful to stay out of trouble and not crossing anyone. He says the greatest lessons included always being willing to help someone else, which he says always seemed to help him, as well.
JOSEPH CARTER: I had to because I want to get out, too, so if I help him, I can get help.
ANGIE MILES: After almost three decades behind bars, this relentless, innocent man found the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia. They took his case and helped him to win parole. One of the eyewitnesses later recanted her testimony, effectively admitting that she had been pressured to identify her old neighbor as the guilty one. At the same time, the lead detective from the motel homicide was tried and convicted for corruption, including witness coercion in other cases, as well, and he served 12 years in prison. After 27 years, after Greensville, Sussex 1, Sussex 2, Nottoway, and Buckingham, Joseph Carter walked out into the light and caught a bus for home. In 2022, he got the news he'd been waiting to hear for 30 years - affirmation of his innocence took the form of a full pardon from Governor Ralph Northam.
JOSEPH CARTER: When I got my pardon, it was nothing like when I walked out of prison. My wife was out the room. I was lying in bed, and I was like, 'Baby, baby.' Big tears like... Oh, God. It was like being reborn.
ANGIE MILES: Now with his new wife, Phyllis, by his side, he's starting to rebuild his life. With a disability that he attributes directly to his imprisonment, he fights to manage his anger, and he says the justice system is in desperate need of change.
JOSEPH CARTER: Those public officials who are entrenched in the legal system, they need to be checked, and you can't have absolute immunity when you lied on the stand or you knew he was lying on the stand or you solicited a lie. You put me in prison. You took my life.