Betty Tyson, who spent 25 years in prison for wrongful conviction, dies at age 75

Betty Tyson, who served 25 years in prison before her exoneration for the 1973 murder of a businessman visiting Rochester, died Thursday at the age of 75.

When freed in May 1998 Ms. Tyson was the longest imprisoned woman in New York, having served 25 years. She had maintained her innocence for years, and, in prison, became a popular figure among fellow incarcerated women and prison officials at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Even in the face of her wrongful conviction she maintained an attitude that the playwright and author V, formerly known as Eve Ensler, described as “ebullient.”

“She was a very compassionate and a very caring person,” said V, who visited Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where Ms. Tyson was imprisoned, to teach writing classes. “She had an 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 beaten down by it.

“Her whole story is just so unbelievable, that she was in for 25 years for a crime she didn’t commit,” V said of Ms. Tyson. “And she still had such an amazing spirit of love, joy, generosity. … She was just a profoundly alive person. She loved on a different spiritual level.”

Betty Tyson raises an arm is celebration as she is released from prison, surrounded by family, friends ands well-wishers in 1998.

Betty Tyson raises an arm is celebration as she is released from prison, surrounded by family, friends ands well-wishers in 1998.

(Ensler, the creator of “The Vagina Monologues, changed her name to V after writing a memoir of her childhood abuse by her father. She changed her name to the mononym V to separate herself from her family legacy.)

Ms. Tyson recently suffered a severe heart attack, and had been on life support for weeks at Strong Memorial Hospital.

Ms. Tyson’s exoneration sparked national news, with coverage from major newspapers and television shows, including a segment on ABC’s “20-20.”

Within the walls of Bedford Hills, the state’s lone maximum-security prison for women, Ms. Tyson was known to help newly incarcerated women discover how to survive the trials of prison.

“She was honest and kind and she cared about people who knew a lot less about how to cope and I was one of those people who knew jack about how to cope in prison.” said Karen Thomas, who was imprisoned at Bedford Hills with Ms. Tyson. “I was way over my head in how to cope.

Betty Tyson holds the hands of her attorney, Jon Getz, as she heads down the back stairs of the Hall of Justice just after she was released from prison in 1998.

Betty Tyson holds the hands of her attorney, Jon Getz, as she heads down the back stairs of the Hall of Justice just after she was released from prison in 1998.

“She was savvy 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 I trusted her, and what she was telling me was not self-serving.”

Elaine Lord, who was Bedford Hills superintendent when Ms. Tyson was freed, befriended some of the incarcerated women, including Ms. Tyson. “She was engaging and also wise,” she said of Ms. Tyson.

“She had a knack for dealing with women with mental health problems,” Lord said. “She could calm them down, or intercede with something going on in the housing unit.”

Ms. Tyson created a popular workout program at the prison — she was nicknamed the “Jane Fonda of Bedford Hills” — and also cared for inmates stricken with AIDS, some who died in her arms.

“There was something honest about her,” Lord said. “She wasn’t the perfect inmate. She wasn’t the person without  any disciplinary (actions). She was authentic.”

Ms. 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 started in 1997: Then a witness who’d testified at Ms. Tyson’s trial that he’d seen her with murder victim Timothy Haworth admitted in a statement that he had lied and had never seen them together. A young teenager in 1973, the witness was jailed for months as a material witness for Ms. Tyson’s trial. According to the affidavit he gave in 1997, he was coerced and threated by police to provide and adhere to the lie that he’d seen Ms. Tyson.

Haworth was a Philadelphia businessman visiting Eastman Kodak Co. for consulting work. He was beaten and strangled and left in an alley in downtown Rochester.

Ms. Tyson at the time was a heroin addict, who was, as she described herself “a trick turner.”

“I feel that because I was Black, uneducated, naïve, 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 the Rochester Institute of Technology. “I was uneducated so why not take this bitch off the street and that’s what the police did. I was on the streets using drugs and selling my body and I had a criminal record.”

A 1998 Democrat and Chronicle series of stories included the witness’ recantation and interviews with two former jail counselors who in 1973 reported that they’d seen Ms. Tyson with severe bruises in the jail after her arrest. Ms. Tyson had alleged that she’d been beaten into signing a false confession; a written complaint from the two counselors to law enforcement officials was ignored.

William Mahoney, the detective who led the investigation into the murder of Haworth, had a slew of civil rights complaints alleging brutal interrogations and was also convicted for fabricating evidence against the local mob.

Local lawyer Donald Thompson first planned to represent Ms. Tyson in 1998 in a bid to overturn her conviction, but, because of a conflict, handed the case to another lawyer, Jon Getz. Getz then gathered new evidence pointing to Ms. Tyson’s innocence and filed motions seeking the reversal of her conviction.

During a records search, prosecutors found a police report that apparently in 1973 was never given by police to the District Attorney’s Office. That report was a statement from a second teenage witness who also was held as a material witness and said he saw Ms. Tyson and Haworth together the night of the murder. In his initial interview with 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 it would have strengthened Ms. Tyson’s proof of innocence in 1973, the District Attorney’s Office decided in 1998 that the conviction should be tossed out, the original murder indictment dismissed, and that Ms. Tyson should not be retried.

“It was a moment that I can’t forget, just knowing that after all those years there was some justice,” Getz said about Ms. Tyson’s release from prison in 1998. “What I hope people remember her for is, ultimately, she was a truly kind human being.”

There was no physical evidence linking Ms. Tyson to the crime; the evidence was largely her confession and the statements of the two witnesses. In fact, a lone bit of physical evidence — fresh tire tracks in the alleyway where Haworth’s corpse was found — was found not to match Ms. Tyson’s car.

Ms. Tyson was arrested with the late John Duval, who also signed a confession saying he and Ms. Tyson had together killed Haworth. He, too, alleged he was beaten into agreeing to the confession. Duval also was released from prison, but the District Attorney’s Office decided to retry him because he had told the Parole Board he was guilty.

Duval later said he thought he would not be released unless he said at the parole hearing that he was guilty of the crime. At a 2000 retrial, Duval was found not guilty. Free from prison, Duval died in 2006 at the age of 53.

Struggles after release

Ms. Tyson received a settlement from the City of Rochester for $1.25 million after securing her freedom, but she also faced many of the challenges confronted by people who have spent much of their lives incarcerated. She could not sleep with her back to a door, and she struggled with recognizing who was trustworthy and who not — especially once news circulated of her settlement with the city.

“She was a strong person and also a very vulnerable person,” said Getz. “There were a lot of good people around her and unfortunately there were some people that did target her financially and emotionally.”

Ms. Tyson lost a home in foreclosure while mired in financial problems, having loaned people money and taken financial responsibility for some family and friends. According to Getz, Ms. Tyson once remarked: “Its funny how many family members I had when I came out. I know who my real family was. They were the ones who called me and came and saw me when I was inside.”

Her post-release life once grew so troubled, and her uncertainty about her place in it so burdensome, that she was arrested in 2011 on a petit larceny charge, having stolen a pair of scissors and a utility knife — goods valued at $32.50 — from a Greece supermarket. In a conversation after the offense, Ms. Tyson admitted that she’d acted erratically, motivated by questions of whether she might be better off in prison.

Telling her story behind bars

Within prison walls, as many incarcerated people attest, there are many who claim innocence. Most of them are not innocent, but some are.

Lord recalled how Ms. Tyson told her the story of her wrongful conviction, and how she was at first doubtful. However, as she researched Tyson’s record and learned of the facts of the criminal case, she became a believer.

Lord once told Ms. Tyson that she felt badly about her incarceration.

“She said, ‘If I was on the outside I probably would be dead now of an overdose, so don’t feel bad. The life I had in here was okay.’ “

“That was a very gutsy thing to say,” Lord said. Ms. Tyson’s imprisonment “wasn’t fun, it wasn’t good, but she was alive.”

Ms. Tyson regularly wore a green military-style jacket at the prison. It became threadbare and worn through the years. Ms. Tyson once told Lord, “Superintendent, I’m going to wear this jacket until I leave.”

When exonerated, Ms. Tyson gave the jacket to Lord.

“I still have the jacket and I’ve been retired almost 20 years,” Lord said. “It’s just a piece of her.”

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Betty Tyson dies at 75. She wrongfully spent 25 years in prison

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