In fall of 2013, Mark Schand walked out of court in Springfield, Massachusetts, a free man – after 27 years in prison for a murder he says he did not commit. Two years later, Schand is still getting his bearings. He’s living with the wife who stood by him — and is trying to find a way forward with little help from the system that locked him up.
Mark Schand skips down the stairs of his Windsor, Connecticut, home after his night-shift at UPS. At 50, he is bald, muscular and fit – thanks to years of daily prison workouts. He’s just changed out of his work clothes, into a fresh black T-shirt with white writing. It says, ‘ I didn’t do it.’
His wife Mia – who’s 53, with long, black cornrows and bold silver jewelry – is wearing the same shirt. It was printed by Centurion Ministries, the advocacy group that helped get Schand out of prison.
“When we got out, everyone in court had one of these on,” Schand says. “They had them for the babies, for the infants, everyone.”
He’s referring to October 4th, 2013 – the day a judge vacated Schand’s 1987 murder conviction, granted a new trial and let him go. Mia can still hear the cheers of about 100 friends and relatives in the courtroom, including Schand’s three sons and two granddaughters.
“It was so overwhelming that it finally happened,” recalls Mia.
That was the day Schand first saw the house where Mia raised his youngest son. And where he ate his first non-prison food in more than a quarter century.
‘My wife said, here’s your lobster tail,” Schand says. “First thing I ate was lobster.’
Within two weeks, the Hampden County District Attorney decided to drop all charges – and Schand could start his life over.
Mia taught him to drive again. “It was like teaching a teenager,” she says.
He learned how to use an iPhone, opened a bank account.
“I was basically trying to feel my way, after being stuck in one building for 27 years,” Schand says. “It was a little surreal, being able to look at the bottom of a tree, which i hadn’t seen for a while. Being able to come and go when I please.”
Yet, Schand did not consider this a new life so much as a return to normal.
“I felt like I was yanked away from a situation where I shouldn’t have been,” he says, “so when I was released, I felt like they just put me back where I was supposed to be.”
In 1986, Mark Schand was 21, living in Hartford with Mia, who was pregnant. He had two older sons with an ex-girlfriend. He says he was weeks away from opening his first clothing store when he was arrested. According to court documents, a drug deal near the After Five nightclub in Springfield had gone bad. A man fired shots, one of which killed a 25-year-old bystander, Victoria Seymour.
A witness testified that Schand was the shooter, though Schand claimed he was nowhere near Springfield at the time. His lawyer, John Thompson, spent decades trying to prove that witnesses lied, and that police and prosecutors coerced testimony and manipulated line-ups.
‘It’s very clear Mark was not the person who committed this crime,” says Thompson. “The evidence against him was largely bogus.”
It took investigators from Centurion Ministries — a New Jersey organization devoted to freeing the innocent — to finally convince the court Schand did not get a fair trial. Schand says years of bitterness evaporated in a moment.
“Believe me, the day they released me, I couldn’t find it, the anger,” he says. “It wasn’t there. I was just happy I was out. And I figure, I just focus on that day forth.”
That has turned out a lot harder than Schand expected.
For one, he’s not eligible for any re-entry services from the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Only inmates who’ve served their sentences and are on parole get housing assistance, job training, counseling and financial advice.
“I knew there were programs for guys who did the crime; I just didn’t know there was nothing for guys who were wrongfully convicted,” Schand says. “That was a little shocking to me.”
A state spokesperson confirms this; once charges are dropped, you’re out of the system. Schand did file a legal complaint in early 2014 with the Massachusetts Attorney General, asking for restitution – the maximum is $500-thousand.
His lawyer says they hoped for a quick settlement, but now have to prove in court he was wrongfully imprisoned — a long process. In the meantime, Schand has been on his own to find work.
“I probably had a little fantasy, everybody like, ‘Oh, gosh, you were wrongfully convicted’ and there’d be like 20 jobs waiting for me,” he says. “Nobody cared.”
With help from a teenager at the local Goodwill, he went online – a concept that didn’t exist when he was arrested. He applied for dozens of jobs, from factory assembly lines to Federal Express. Schand says no one called him, and it wasn’t hard to guess why. Most applications ask if you’ve been convicted of a crime, and there’s no box for “wrongfully convicted.”
“If I was an employer, I’d go on to the next applicant,” Schand says. “If I got 300 applications on line, I’m gonna take the two that say, ‘yeah, I’ve been incarcerated before,’ I’m gonna push them aside and go to the 298 who say, ‘no, I’ve never been incarcerated.’ So I understood it, but at the same time, I needed a job.”
His wife Mia, who works as a hairdresser, tried to keep up his spirits.
“He was getting frustrated at first,” she remembers. “And I said, ‘You just have to keep trying, because it’s gonna happen.'”
His first break came, he says, when he applied in person for a job at a group home for troubled kids. A manager asked why he left the previous-employment section blank.
“And I said, ‘because I was incarcerated.’ She said, ‘Well sir, if you were incarcerated, you can’t work here.’ So I told her, I said, ‘Listen, just google my name, and you’ll see the story,'” Schand says. “Apparently she did, because this was the lady that gave me my first job.”
Schand worked there for 7 months, he says, until he was laid off. He got his job at UPS because a friend put in a good word. It’s a brutal shift — starts around 3am, emptying tractor-trailors full of heavy boxes.
“Four or five hours with a ten minute break, got my body aching,” he says. “It’s not ideal. But it’s work.”
He gets just under $11 an hour, and expects to qualify for benefits soon. But it’s not what he wants to do. When he was a teenager, his father, an entrepreneur, taught him how to run a business. Before his arrest, he’d hoped to put those skills to use at his first clothing shop.
“Who’s to say what that could have been right now?” Schand says. “That could have been a clothing empire. That could have been a chain of clothing stores.”
At this point, he’d settle for owning a fast food franchise – if he can ever build up enough credit to get a loan. Until then, the Schands try not to obsess over what could have been. But they don’t hide Mark’s story either.
He turns his forearm to show a tattoo that lists the exact amount of time he spent in prison:
“26 years, 11 months, 4 days, 20 hours, 26 minutes, and 8 seconds,” he reads.
Their basement is wallpapered with photos and news clippings from Schand’s prison years. He points at one.”That’s my kids in prison visiting me when they was little.”
In several pictures, he’s got his arms around new friends he met through Centurion Ministries — most of them fellow exonorees, as he calls them.
‘He did 15 years,” he says, pointing several men in a group photo. “He did 20 years, he did 30 years. There’s not a lot of guys with more time than me, but there’s some.”
Although Schand considers himself exonerated, he was not acquitted. Theoretically, the state could charge him again for Victoria Seymour’s murder, though his lawyer says that’s highly unlikely. Even so, whenever Schand hears about a crime on the news, “the first thing that comes to my mind is – Alibi. I want to make sure I know where I was, because I feel like I could be set up at any time again.”
While his lawyers push for restitution, Schand has filed a separate, civil rights lawsuit against the cities of Hartford and Springfield. Even if he wins a settlement, he says, “they can’t make that whole again no matter what, but I think they deserve to try.”
Representatives for Springfield and Hartford say they don’t comment on pending litigation. The lawsuit is likely to take years.