Last week we shared the story of Rojai Fentress, a 40-year-old man locked up since the age of 16 for a murder he says he did not commit. Six years ago, another man actually confessed to the crime, but Virginia’s governor didn't act on a petition for pardon from Fentress until recently.
With the help of UVA’s Innocence Project, Rojai Fentress asked for a pardon in 2016. July First, the answer came when a prison guard told him to pack his things.
" He said, ‘You’re going home.," Fentress recalls. "I said, ‘What?’ Beg your pardon.’ ‘You’re going home! They want you to leave right now – immediately! You're leaving today.’"
Supporters rushed to the Augusta Correctional Center to meet Fentress in the parking lot. Five foot 10, 240 pounds, dressed in khaki prison garb, white sneakers and thick brown glasses, he walked into the sunlight and embraced his lawyers. One had come with a black labraorador retriever. Fentress knelt down to pat the dog, which, in turn began licking his face.
“My first kiss!” Fentress cried, laughing and hugging the dog.
Then it was on to a series of reunions.
" I got the opportunity to meet my beautiful niece and my nephew," Fentress says. "I got the opportunity to sleep in a bed and be surrounded by so much love – my family!
The next day, he and his brother toured the Richmond neighborhood where they grew up.
"We went to the 7/11 on Jefferson Davis and Harwood and got Slurpies," he says. "That’s the same store we used to buy candy from, penny candies -- Mary Janes and Fireballs and TuttiFruittis. "
He was disappointed to find that his favorite gum was no longer available.
"Apparently nobody likes Big Red chewing gum anymore," he concluded. "Cinnamon is hot. It’s delicious. They’ve got bubblegum that tastes like birthday cake. What do we want that for?"
He was excited to get a cell phone and took pleasure in calling his lawyers, one by one.
" I was in a shoe store, and I called Deirdre. I’m like, ‘Man, I’m in a shoe store!’"
And then, night after night, he attended parties hosted by friends and family. In Charlottesville, the legal team introduced him to fresh tuna and greens he had heard of but never actually tasted.
"I used to love watching PBS and the cooking shows," he explains. "Arugula – just make sure it’s got some arugula in it."
And for dessert, there was a bag of fresh cherries, but Fentress was baffled by a Ziploc bag.
"I was defeated by cherries!" he jokes. " I was like, ‘Damn, I’ve got a GED. I took my first class – English 111. I’m not mentally challenged. I should be able to do this,' but I couldn’t get into the cherries!’
On Monday he reported to a probation officer – something he’ll have to do regularly for the next three years. Under the terms of his conditional, he can’t drink alcohol and is not allowed to sue the state or police for wrongful arrest, conviction and imprisonment.
He’s not sure what he’ll do next. He’s a skilled barber and a gifted portrait artist, but his mission in the years to come is to take care of his mother, become fluent in Spanish and help others who were wrongfully convicted.
"I saw what it is that I have to fight for. There are a lot of injustices going on. There’s so much that we have to advocate and stand for. We’ve got a lot of work to do."
But first, one other small pleasure denied him for 24 years.
"I want to take a bath. I want to loofah. I want to sit in bath salts. I want to fizzle."
The Innocence Project says it will petition the governor for an absolute pardon. If that’s granted, Fentress would not have a felony on his record and would no longer require supervision.