Gaylord Salters Comes Home (2022)

Gaylord Salters Comes Home (1)

In his new office, Gaylord Salters has arranged the stacks of court papers to echo the way they sat amonth ago — in his eight-by-twelve prisoncell.

He likes them that way. The files remind him of adecades-long fight that isn’t yet over, even though Salters is free: afight to clear his record of a1996 shooting he maintains he nevercommitted.

Salters reunited with his family in June after twenty years of brief phone calls and supervised visits in prison. Throughout his time incarcerated, Salters asserted his innocence. He’s far from alone. Nine New Haven men convicted of violent crimes in the 1990s and early 2000s have been exonerated due to findings of official misconduct by prosecutors or police — more than in any other county in the state. One of those men was Salters’ brother Johnny, who was exonerated in 2013 after sixteen years of incarceration. Still others arrested in that era maintain that they were been wrongfully convicted, sometimes facing pushback from the State’s Attorney’soffice.

Now, in between joyful moments with his partner and four kids, Salters is hard at work — not only advocating to overturn his own and others’ convictions, but also growing the writing and publishing career he started with his oldest daughter, Gabrielle (whom he calls the boss”), when he was stillincarcerated.

After saving up prison paychecks, Salters channeled his love of writing into acompany of his own, Go Get It Publishing, which he founded along with his daughter. Go Get It has published his own novels thus far, and he hopes it will expand to new authors soon. Pride fills Salters’ smile when he speaks of his writing, and especially of his daughter’s role in bringing his work to thepublic.

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Salters wrote his first novel, Money, Murder, and Drug Flow, in 2006, illustrating life in the drug trade. His second novel, Momma Bear, centers around awoman inspired by his own mother, Gloria Johnson. When it came out in 2017, Salters sent it to his mother as an early Christmas present. The book is a love letter” to her, he said. As Johnson unpeeled three layers of wrapping paper, Salters listened from prison on the phone. I know how hard it is for you and millions of mothers like you,” he told her. You’re the best mother you could ever wish tohave.”

On Friday, Salters released arevised version of the book on Amazon. The cover art features abroken-up photograph of Johnson interspersed with images of Salters and his brother Johnnie as young children, along with icons associated with the justice system. After his exoneration, Johnnie passed away — before Salters won his freedom, before the whole family could be reunited on the other side of the prisonwalls.

In an early version of the novel as released on the Go Get It website, Salters describes his mother’s character Glenda’s joy in anticipating the Christmas holiday spent with her two sons together. From one angle, the passage speaks to alost possibility. From another, it reads like aprophecy:

The empty feeling caused by the absence of aloved one during the holidays was an excruciating feeling. It was avoid sometimes heartbreaking enough to make her not want to celebrate at all. But not this year. The food would be plentiful, friends would be invited for dinner, good stories would be told, and even better, great memories would be created and etched in stone for thefuture.

Twenty Years In Prison

Gaylord Salters Comes Home (2)

Salters’ life irrevocably changed on Nov. 4, 1996, when gunshots injured two people and led to acar crash. Police concluded that the shooting was perpetrated by members of the Island Brothers against members of arival gang.

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The incident was investigated by New Haven police detective Daryle Breland and prosecuted by Assistant State’s Attorney James Clark. The state honed in on Salters, who was 21 at the time, as asuspect.

The prosecution’s sole witness against Salters was one of the shooting’s survivors, Kendall Turner, whose testimony pinning Salters as the shooter led to Salters’ conviction of first-degree assault and conspiracy to commit assault. Ajudge imposed a40-year sentence on Salters in 2003, asentence that would be suspended (allowing his release on probation) after 24years.

For the next two decades, Salters asserted his innocence behind bars. Over time, the prosecution’s original case against Salters fell apart. In 2018, Turner signed an affidavit recanting his original testimony against Salters: I gave police afalse statement implicating Gaylord Salters in the shooting because the detective who Igave the statement to promised to help keep me out of jail for the illegal gun Iwas carrying,” hewrote.

Then came apivotal law change. Connecticut began permitting judges to modify long-term prison sentences without the agreement of the State’s Attorney in 2021. That shift provided an opening for Salters and his attorneys to apply for a sentence reduction — and succeed. On June 14, Superior Court Judge Jon Alander issued anew sentence of 40years suspended after 18years — meaning that Salters could immediately leave onprobation.

Salters was 47yearsold.

Salters’ professed innocence did not impact the decision. His legal team had obtained sworn statements from both victims of the shooting supporting ashortened sentence. The lawyers cited alack of disciplinary violations within the past decade implicating Salters; Salters’ work and educational accomplishments in prison, including as apublished author and an A‑student in Goodwin University’s business course; and his ongoing relationships with his family members, including his fourchildren.

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Through the many short phone calls and visits, he has still managed to read stories at bedtime and tries to help with homework as much as he can,” said the mother of Salters’ youngest daughter, who’s now 19. He has fostered an amazing bond with our daughter regardless of the distance and physical separation this incarceration hasimposed.”

I miss my son so much and my only desire would be to spend my remaining years on this earth with him,” wrote Salters’ mother, Gloria Johnson, in aletter to the judge. Twenty years of alife taken is an awful longtime.”

The day of the judge’s decision, Salters hugged his family beneath avibrant bluesky.

Not Done Fighting

Gaylord Salters Comes Home (3)

The group drove to La Isla, the Spanish restaurant that Salters’ childhood best friend, Darcus Henry, had recently co-founded in Hamden. Salters sat in awhite booth surrounded by his kids and granddaughter. Inside the restaurant, the walls of which bloomed with greenery in keeping with the restaurant’s island theme, Salters ordered his first post-prison meal: baked chicken with yellowrice.

I know the feeling,” Henry said amonth later. Henry is one of the New Haveners to have been exonerated due to revelations of official misconduct. He was also prosecuted by James Clark. After 13years of being incarcerated for murder, Henry walked free with his name cleared. (Read more about that here.)

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Salters is still fighting for an exoneration, which would eliminate the assault convictions from hisrecord.

Exoneration is everything,” he said; if his name were cleared, he would be free of his suspended sentence. He wants to be able to travel out of state on his own accord. While he was incarcerated Salters he tried to obtain ahabeas trial, where ajudge would have weighed whether new evidence in his case merited anew criminal trial, but his petition failed. He submitted several Freedom of Information Act requests from prison, asking the New Haven Police Department for documents related to police interactions with the witness who later recanted. No one has responded, he said. It’s like pullingteeth.”

Now the state’s attorney’s office is reexamining his case. At arecent community forum hosted by First Calvary Baptist Church, Salters confronted New Haven’s new state’s attorney, John Doyle: I want you to have an understanding that there are plenty of wrongfully convicted people from New Haven,” he said. He told bits of his own story, and then asked about the people he knows who are still in prison for crimes they say they did not commit. Moving forward, how are you going to deal with people who are wrongfullyconvicted?”

If there’s something, we will look into those cases,” Doyleresponded.

Salters said he knows wrongfully convicted people who can’t speak up about their stories because they have civil actions pending” against the state. He has no such lawsuit in the works, he said, which means he can advocate for the innocent people still in prison, and for the anti-corruption changes he hopes to see in the policedepartment.

I am against good cops and good prosecutors turning ablind eye to the corrupt cops and prosecutors,” he said, terming aculture among New Haven police and prosecutors of institutionalprotectionism.”

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New Haven has more than half of the state’s known wrongful convictions and exonerations,” said Alex Taubes, one of Salters’ attorneys. The extent of corruption behind cases like Salters’, Taubes said, continues to be shielded from publicview.”

I do not trust state prosecutors investigating state prosecutors,” Salters said, but he wants to let the State’s Attorney’s review unfold before jumping to conclusions about its outcome. Doyle’s office did not respond to arequest for comment before the publication of this article. New Haven Police Chief Karl Jacobson said he needed more time to review Salters’ case beforecommenting.

For now, Salters is between houses,” staying with various family members in the area. He set up an office in afriend’s apartment with boxes of yellow folders related to his case. The files, positioned as they were in his cell, are aconstant reminder of purpose. I know that if Iget lost in enjoying my freedom, which there’s nothing wrong with, Iwill get lost in fighting the fight,” hesaid.

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