Update: One day after Radio IQ reported on his case, the state announced it would free 40-year-old Rojai Fentress. He was convicted of a murder and locked up for 24 years even though another man confessed to the crime in 2014.
A pardon request sat on Governor Ralph Northam’s desk for three years before UVA’s Innocence Project launched a social media campaign and gathered more than 6,000 signatures demanding Fentress be freed.
The Innocence Project at UVA has launched a social media campaign to free a 40-year-old man who was locked up at the age of 16 for a murder it now appears he did not commit. The proof came in a surprising way.
In 1996, at the age of 15, Rojai Fentress was arrested for malicious wounding during a drug deal. As a kid, he had a few brushes with the law – once for stealing GI Joe action figures, and another time for firing a gun when he lived in rural Chesterfield County. That offense put him in juvenile detention for 21 days, but this time, Fentress says, he’d done nothing wrong.
“I didn’t know what in the world they were talking about – who they were referring to," he recalls. " I just figured everything would be over with soon.”
But his troubles were just beginning. The victim died, and prosecutors in Richmond tried Fentress for murder.
“Waiting to go to trial, they offered me 18 years, then 15 years, then 12 years, then 8 years, and then five was the final plea," Fentress says. " I told my attorney that I was innocent – that I didn’t commit the crime – so I would take none of them.”
A witness testified that Fentress was the man she saw with the victim before his death. Rojai’s mother offered an alibi.
“You know she testified that at 3 o’clock in the morning I was at home, asleep. I mean like where else would I be – 15 years old at 3 o’clock in the morning?” he asks.
There was no physical evidence connecting Fentress to the crime, but he was convicted and sentenced to 53 years behind bars. His mother has been fighting ever since to get him out – spending all her money until she was homeless.
Meanwhile, Fentress learned to cut hair. As the barber for his prison pod, he got to know other inmates including a Richmond man known as “Boss.”
“So one day Boss was talking about him shooting some white guy around Midlothian Village. I pulled him to the side and said, ‘Look, man, you know that job you were talking about? In 1996 they locked me up for shooting a white guy down in Midlothian Village.’ He said he was sorry and didn’t even know how to explain it.”
Boss – also known as DeAnthony Doane – wrote a confession to the killing, and it turned out the prosecution’s main witness had lied in court. Deirdre Enright, director of the Innocence Project at UVA’s law school, says the woman had been in a car with the victim.
“At trial she testified that she wasn’t drunk, and that she had never identified anybody before, and now – walking into court for the very first time – points at Rojai Fentress and says, ‘That’s the guy who was there that night at Midlothian Village,” says Enright.
And the main detective on the case confirmed that the witness was sober and had not been shown a line-up or photos before coming to court. But when Enright began her investigation, she came across some surprising evidence.
“Low and behold, we find an audio tape that has her admitting to the detective that she was ‘pretty well lit that night,’ and it records the detective showing her two different phone line ups, and you can hear her tapping her pencil and saying, ‘He looked like this one right here.’”
This week, the Innocence Project launched a social media campaign -- hoping to free Fentress from the Augusta Correctional Center. The governor’s office, says the matter is under review, and on July 1st a new law will make Fentress eligible for parole. Allowing him to be freed that way would spare Ralph Northam any political heat, but Enright says Fentress deserves a full pardon and an apology -- not the restrictions that come with parole.
“He shouldn’t have been where he is all these years -- 24 years -- and he shouldn’t have been sitting on the governor’s desk for over three years.”
She’s not alone. More than 4,300 people have signed a petition on Change.org to Free Rojai Fentress. I’m Sandy Hausman.
For more information: freerojai.com