Fifty-years ago Sam Sommer was ‘kidnapped.’ At least that’s how he puts it today. Sommer was standing outside a Dunkin’ Donut store on Long Island when he claims, he was beaten, arrested and convicted of the 1968 murder of his wife’s uncle and business partner — Irving Silver.
Sommer spent two-decades in prison. During those years — and the years afterward, he has consistently alleged he was framed by police and prosecutors.
Wrongful conviction claims are not unusual. Sommer’s does stand out for longevity and tenaciousness. Sommer has been fighting his conviction in the courts for decades and is hoping for exoneration before dying. During his struggle, he has gained the support of judges and pro bono lawyers — but he has never found his success in the courtrooms of New York City.
Sommer may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Following the filing of a freedom of information act, Sommer was given access to his files and located documents he believes invalidates his conviction.
Initially, prosecutors said Silver died from blunt force trauma to the head. The police labeled Silver’s demise the result of a hit-and-run. Silver, prosecutors said, was a ‘marked man’ because of entanglements with the mob.
Sommer’s conviction came when Suffolk County was filled with charges of police brutality and coerced confessions. The courts were mismanaged, and no one could seem to find a way out of the quagmire.
When Sommer was arrested outside the Dunkin’ Donut, he was 31. His business was thriving, and he lacked a criminal record. Sommer claimed he was taken to a station house, questioned and beaten.
A judge ordered pretrial hearings to investigate Sommer’s claims, and the defendant was given a $5,000 settlement according to court records. Sommer was offered, and rejected, a plea deal which would have freed him. “I believed in the justice system,” Sommer says today.
Sommer would spend the next twenty-years to life in prison for the first-degree murder conviction.
“I want to clear my name at trial,” Sommer said recently. “If they [law enforcement] want to settle, the only way I’ll accept money is if they write the reason on the front of the check.”
Merriam Webster says the definition of ‘exonerate’ is to clear from accusation or blame.
Helping former inmates find exoneration has been the goal and purpose of “The Innocence Project” since it’s founding in New York in 1992 by Barry Scheck.
Nationally over 351 persons, wrongfully convicted, have been cleared by the agency’s work. Twenty of those spent time on death row.
The success of the project has fueled America’s opposition to the death penalty and has been cited by Brian Rosenthal writing in “Death Penalty Moratoria” as a factor in some U.S. states placing a moratorium on executions.
About 3,000 prisoners write to the Innocence Project each year. At any moment the Innocence Project evaluates between 6,000 and 8,000 potential cases.