When she was 8 years old, Chaneya Kelly lived in a pale-yellow house on Washington Street in Newburgh, New York. She was the oldest of five kids, with two brothers and two sisters, ages 2 to 7. Some nights, her father, Daryl, would cook dinner, and while Chaneya and her siblings were seated at the kitchen table, they’d see their mother, Charade, bolt toward the front door.
“Where are you going?” their father would ask.
“I’ll be back in a couple hours,” she’d say.
But everybody knew that a “couple hours” never meant just a couple of hours. The routine was always the same—her father would try to persuade her mom to stay, her mom would open the front door, and Chaneya or one of her siblings would start to cry.
It was the fall of 1997, and Chaneya didn’t know why her mother was leaving so often. She didn’t know that she had begun smoking crack, or that she was paying for her habit by working as a prostitute. Her father had a drug problem, too, though Chaneya didn’t know that, either.
All she knew was that the fun things they used to do together as a family—go to the movies, visit the park, toss bread to the ducks—never seemed to happen anymore. Her parents fought constantly, and her mother sometimes behaved so strangely that it scared her.
Like the time when her parents got into yet another argument, her dad stomped out of the house, and her mother began pacing, muttering, making no sense. She came into the bedroom that Chaneya shared with her sisters and, without explanation, wrestled their huge mirror off the dresser and heaved it through a window. The sound of smashing glass split the air.
“Fuck!” her mother yelled, nursing a cut on her hand as she walked out. Chaneya held her sisters back and carefully cleared away the shards.
On a Friday morning in October, Chaneya persuaded her mother to let her stay home sick from the fourth grade. She stretched out on a sofa in the living room and watched her father work; he was an electronics repairman, and the living room doubled as his workshop, with TVs and VCRs climbing the walls.
After a while, she recalls, she went up the stairs to the second floor and disappeared into her bedroom. She could never predict what sort of mood her mother would be in, and now when her mother came into her room, Chaneya thought she seemed agitated.
“Where have you been?” she asked, appearing more erratic than usual.
“In the living room,” Chaneya said.
Her mother didn’t believe her. “Are you sure you weren’t in the bathroom with your father?” She stared straight at her: “Did your father touch you? Did your father put his hands on you?”
Surprised and confused, Chaneya simply answered, “No.”
Her mother picked up a belt. “Did your father touch you? Tell me the truth!”
“No, no,” Chaneya kept saying. But after a few moments, seeing that her mother wasn’t appeased, Chaneya finally chose a different answer: “Yes.”
Twelve days later, on a Wednesday morning, Daryl woke up early, drove to his electronics shop downtown, dropped off all the equipment he’d fixed, then drove home, picking up a couple of beers on the way. By 10 a.m., he had returned to bed, having decided to give himself the day off. Around 11:30, Charade opened the front door and let three men into the house.
Daryl opened his eyes to find a large white man staring back at him. “Who are you?” he asked, his eyes darting up and down the stranger. “And what are you doing in my house?”
The man explained that he was a police detective and had come to take him in for questioning.
“Get dressed, and we’ll tell you when we get to the police station.”
It was a short drive to the station, and soon Daryl was seated inside an interview room across from Detective Thomas Mancinelli. He informed Daryl that his daughter had said he’d sexually assaulted her.
Daryl couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “C’mon, stop playing,” he said. “You’ve got to be joking.”
That day when Chaneya had stayed home from school, Charade had ap-proached him, claiming that their daughter said he’d touched her inappropriately. But at the time, his wife was drunk or high, and he thought she was just trying to antagonize him. “What are you talking about?” he’d said. “Tell Chaneya to come downstairs!” Charade had backed off: “Oh, no, no, that’s all right.”
He didn’t know that his wife had threatened Chaneya with a belt, and that a week later, she’d taken Chaneya for a late-night walk to the liquor store, asked her if her father had touched her again, and got another yes. And he knew nothing of the events that followed: His wife and her mother had brought Chaneya to a medical clinic; Chaneya told a nurse-practitioner her father had sexually assaulted her; the clinic notified child-welfare officials; they dialed the police.
Now, for more than an hour, Detective Mancinelli grilled Daryl. “Mr. Kelly, if you didn’t do anything wrong, how did your fingerprints get on her thighs and buttocks?”
He scrambled for an explanation. “Maybe while I was sleeping,” he said, “my wife took my hands and put them there?”
“How did your semen get inside your daughter’s mouth?”
Daryl tried to make sense of what he was hearing, offering a couple of explanations before saying, “Maybe while I was sleeping my wife had sex with me and then took the semen and put it on her?”
That Mancinelli was lying to him to coax a confession, a common police tactic, never crossed his mind. Daryl continued to deny he’d done anything wrong, and since he believed he was innocent, it didn’t occur to him to stop talking and ask for a lawyer. At 38, he had no felony record. He assumed the detective would let him go as soon as they were finished. Instead, Mancinelli filed complaints for three felonies: rape, sodomy, and sexual abuse.
Daryl was taken to jail, where he stayed until his parents, both in their eighties, could get a ride from their home in Jamaica, Queens, to bail him out. As soon as he was set free, he went straight back to his house, and his wife opened the door. As he recalls, she began crying and talking at the same time. “She was constantly repeating the fact that she lied, and she didn’t know why,” he says. “I couldn’t make sense out of what she was saying. It was just gibberish.” He grabbed some of his belongings and got back in the car with his parents.
After staying in Queens for a week, Daryl returned to Newburgh. He tried not to dwell on his criminal case too much; he figured he’d let the justice system run its course and everything would be sorted out. After a family-court judge awarded temporary custody of the children to his mother-in-law, he found himself alone in the house with his wife. He soon moved into an apartment of his own.
Prosecutors offered him a six-to-twelve-year prison sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. He turned them down, and on the morning of June 16, 1998, he sat at a table before Judge Nicholas DeRosa at the Orange County courthouse, wearing a white shirt and a blue tie, awaiting his trial. Surveying the benches in the back, he saw they were virtually empty. Not a single friend or relative or customer or fellow church member had shown up.
Since his arrest, Daryl had not been permitted to speak to Chaneya, but he felt confident that as soon as she took the witness stand, this whole misunderstanding would be cleared up. He didn’t have to wait long: Chaneya, now 9 years old, was the first to testify.
The prosecutor Karen DiValentino started with a few benign questions but quickly got to the point: “Do you know why you’re here today?”
“Yes,” Chaneya said. “Abuse.”
“Do you know where that happened?”
“In the bathroom …”
“When you were laying on the floor, what, if anything, did your father do?”
“He, um, stuck his penis in my vagina.”
“And were you laying on your stomach or your back when that happened?”
“And did he do anything else to you?”
“He took his finger.”
“And where did he put his finger?”
“In my vagina.”
Daryl could feel tears collecting in his eyes. Chaneya answered questions for about 45 minutes, and when describing what her father had allegedly done to her, she sounded almost like an adult, using words like “penis” and “vagina.” (Eight months earlier, when she’d testified before a grand jury, she’d said, “He stuck his pee-pee into my pee-pee.”)
The next person on the witness stand was Charade, who’d recently been arrested for prostitution and was now brought into the courtroom from the county jail. Charade had already told the prosecutor that she no longer thought Daryl was guilty. But the prosecutor had fought to keep this information from the jury, arguing it was irrelevant—and the judge agreed. On the witness stand, Charade repeated the allegations she’d earlier told the police and never got to tell the jurors that she now didn’t believe they were true.
The trial lasted a week. There were no eyewitnesses; there was no DNA evidence. The medical exam had found that Chaneya’s hymen was intact and there was no definitive proof of sexual abuse (just skin irritation that could have had other causes). To help bolster her case, the prosecutor zeroed in on what Daryl had said during his police interrogation, calling his seemingly outlandish tales about his wife setting him up “the words of a guilty man.”
Unlike many defendants who would not risk testifying in their own defense, Daryl was eager to take the witness stand. He told the jury he had been born in Brooklyn, abandoned at the hospital, adopted, raised in Queens, and had served six years in the Navy. And he insisted he was innocent of all the charges:
“There are no true statements in any of the allegations.”
“No way, no how; I would never do that.”
“I haven’t touched my daughter since the time I pulled her out of the womb.”
“It never happened.”
But not everything he said helped his cause. While describing his military service, he mentioned the “Vietnam era” (implying he’d served in Vietnam, though he was too young for that) and said he had a Purple Heart (though he does not). Later, when his sister heard what he’d said, she chalked it up to desperation: “I think he was just trying to save himself, and he was making it up as he went along.”
It took only about four hours for the jurors to come to their decision: guilty.
Nearly three months later, on August 27, 1998, Daryl was brought back before Judge DeRosa to be sentenced. He pleaded with DeRosa to spare him prison and keep his family intact, but the judge was unmoved. He called Daryl a “pathological liar” and chastised him for embellishing his military record. “I find that personally insulting, as a Vietnam veteran,” he said, “and I find that incredibly insulting to the 58,000 of my brothers in arms who never made it back here.”
Then Judge DeRosa announced his punishment: 20 to 40 years in prison.
Chaneya and her younger siblings were now living with their maternal grandmother, Patricia Thomas. When Thomas had first heard about her granddaughter’s accusations of sexual abuse, she had been inclined to believe them. She knew firsthand what it was like to be molested by an older relative, since it had happened to her when she was 6. In the months leading up to the trial, she never talked to Chaneya about what her father had or had not done to her. But one day in the spring of 1999, she asked her if the allegations were true. “No,” Chaneya told her.
Soon after that admission, Chaneya, now 10, found herself in the office of Gary Greenwald, her father’s appeals lawyer, facing a video camera. In the footage, a female lawyer asks the young girl questions, while Brownie, Greenwald’s cocker spaniel, sits on Chaneya’s lap.
“Do you remember what you said in court that day?” she asks.
“No … ,” Chaneya says.
“Do you remember making some statements about your father?”
“Do you know why you testified in court?”
Chaneya stares off to the side, vigorously petting Brownie with one hand, saying nothing for 30 seconds.
Eventually Greenwald takes over, telling Chaneya, “You must tell us what the truth is. … Did your father lie you down on the bathroom floor, do different things to you, and the next day do essentially the same thing? Did that occur or did it not occur?”
Chaneya, stroking the dog, stares at him. “No,” she says.
“Why then did you say that in court?”
“Because before, I was home sick and my mother—my mother asked me if he did it, and I said no, and I guess …” She speaks so softly her words nearly disappear.
The lawyer’s phone buzzes. He stops his questions, tells his secretary not to bother him with any calls, then turns back to Chaneya. “I’m sorry. I apologize … Say it again?”
“She got the belt, and she was about to beat me.”
When he asks Chaneya why she told officials at the medical clinic that her father had sexually assaulted her, she gives the same answer three times: “I don’t know.”
When he asks what she’d say to the judge if he interrogated her about why she lied, she doesn’t quite answer the question, instead saying, “I want my father to come back home.”
The interview ends after 25 minutes, but then her grandmother asks one final question: Where did the story that she told on the witness stand come from?
“I just made it up,” she says.
The story had been so convincing, with so many graphic sexual details that a typical 9-year-old would not know, that it had to have come from somewhere. But when her grandmother presses her—“You’ve got to come clean”—Chaneya doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t mention that her mother used to have frank, adult conversations with her about sex or that she used to sneak into her parents’ bedroom and watch their X-rated videos. Instead, Chaneya begins sobbing loudly, doubling over and hiding her face in her palms, putting an end to her interrogation.
Daryl had been taken to Sing Sing, where everyone knew him as 99-A-1265. It’s stressful enough to be locked up in a maximum-security prison with some 2,200 other men, but to be serving time for raping your own daughter? “You’re disliked by everyone who’s committed every other kind of crime,” he says. “People don’t talk to you; they talk around you.” If anyone asked him about his case, he’d tell them, “I didn’t do it.” But, of course, he says, that’s “the familiar claim for 99 percent of the prison system.”
His mother had been the one who hired Greenwald to handle his appeal, and in the spring of 1999, Daryl called the lawyer one day and learned that his daughter had just visited his office. When Daryl heard that she had recanted her testimony, he shouted—“Hallellujah!”—and the phone fell from his hand.
His lawyer submitted paperwork to vacate the judgment, and seven months later, on October 21, 1999, Daryl was brought back to Judge DeRosa’s court-room for a hearing. This time, when Chaneya sat on the witness stand, she began weeping and mumbling, saying she’d lied earlier at his trial. Her grandmother testified, too, and said she’d heard a police officer promise Chaneya a bicycle if she “told the truth.”
At the hearing, Daryl was so confident he would be exonerated that he began picturing himself walking out the courthouse door. After the hearing ended, however, he was returned to prison, where he waited more than three months for DeRosa’s decision. When it finally arrived, Daryl hurried to his cell, envelope in hand, and read the judge’s assessment of Chaneya’s new testimony: “Not credible.” About her original story, which she’d repeated multiple times—at the clinic, before the grand jury, and at trial—he wrote, “To believe that it was all made up, rehearsed as a result of a threat of a beating by her mother, is just not plausible.” And he suggested that Chaneya’s mother had pressured her to recant her story because she wanted Daryl back home.
For months, Daryl had been clinging to the same fantasy: Any moment he would get called down to the warden’s office and be set free. But now that dream evaporated. Instead, he spent his days rereading the 1,239-page transcript of his trial and sentencing, searching for some detail that everyone else had overlooked, any fact that might provide tangible proof of his innocence. If he couldn’t find any answers, he knew he’d be stuck in prison until at least 2018, when he’d be eligible for parole. Even then there was no guarantee he’d get out; to win parole, a prisoner typically has to admit his guilt and express remorse.
By now his father had died. The only family he had left—aside from his mother, his wife, and his sister in Brooklyn—were his five children. He wasn’t permitted any contact with them, but he filed a motion in family court, and in the fall of 2001, four years after his arrest, a family-court judge granted him permission to write and call.
Whenever he had money for stamps, he sent an envelope to his mother-in-law with five separate letters enclosed, one for each child. Their responses poured in.
“Dear Daddy, I miss you a lot. Matter of fact we all miss and love you.”
“We was wondering if you was coming home this year. Mommy said you probably would.”
“You said you will be home soon. Isn’t the word ‘soon’ suppose to be in a few days. I can’t be waiting so long. Can’t you be home this year.”
“Come home please!”
“Are you still going to take us to Disneyland when you get out of jail?”
In the summer of 2002, he opened an envelope to find a letter from 13-year-old Chaneya, handwritten on lined notebook paper in bubbly print:
“Dear Daddy … I do feel bad about telling a lie. All I want to do is put it all behind. You want the truth I’ll tell you the truth … I guess Mommy was drunk or something, Mommy came in with the belt asking me ‘what did your father do to you?, what did he do?’ I said ‘nothing.’ She said ‘Tell me or I’ll beat you.’ So I didn’t want to get beat so I made up a lie that I’d take back any day … I feel guilty when I talk about it. I feel that I should be in prison instead of you. I Love You daddy and the love I have for you can never be changed. Everytime that I talk about it I think you and god both hate me …”
After her new testimony at her father’s hearing failed to persuade the judge to let him out of prison, Chaneya gave up on the idea of seeing him freed. What was the point? She’d spoken up and nobody believed her. Nothing had changed. Meanwhile, her grandmother’s home was so chaotic that there was no time to worry about the past. As Chaneya recalls, the mind-set was: “Okay, your dad is in prison; we’re not going to talk about it; go to school!”
She didn’t tell any of her friends about what had happened. Not because she was worried about what they would think if they knew her father was locked up—that was a common-enough situation for kids growing up in Newburgh—but because she didn’t want to explain, or even think about, her role in sending him away.
But there were days when his name would pop up, like when she and her siblings rode past the muffler shop where he’d once had a job, and her brother Daryl Jr. would shout, “That’s where my daddy works!” Or moments when she’d come across a certain scent, a perfumed oil that smelled like a cologne her father used to wear, and she’d think of him. And when her father’s letters started arriving, all those feelings she had tried to avoid—the guilt, the shame—began to surface, and despite rarely speaking of him, Chaneya allowed herself to wonder, with greater frequency, how he was doing and whether he was angry with her.
By 2003, her mother had kicked her addictions and won back custody of Chaneya and her siblings. One morning, she announced she was taking them to visit their father, who was now confined in Green Haven prison in Dutchess County. Waiting in line, removing her shoes, stepping through the metal detector, Chaneya could feel herself becoming more anxious, wondering how her father would react when he saw her.
She hadn’t seen him outside a courtroom in years, and as soon as she caught a glimpse of him, she began to cry. Her father hurried across the visiting room and wrapped his arms around her. “I love you,” he said. “I don’t blame you. Everything that happened to me is not your fault.”
At that moment, she says, “It was like I could breathe.”
Daryl did everything he could think of to get out of Green Haven. He studied the law and wrote his own appeals. He sent letters to everyone he thought might help: prisoners-rights groups, innocence projects, prominent defense lawyers. He recalls, “They all said either, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ Or they didn’t answer me back at all.” Part of the problem, he suspected, was the nature of his crime.
For Daryl, there was another problem, too: His wasn’t an ordinary wrongful-conviction case. There were no informants, no mistaken eyewitnesses. He couldn’t exonerate himself by finding the real culprit. The way he saw it, what made his case so unusual—and so difficult to reverse—was that he was serving time for a crime that had never occurred.
As he tried to tease out all the forces that had conspired to put him in prison, he felt like he was staring at a puzzle with multiple missing pieces. Why, exactly, had his wife been so convinced that he had molested their daughter? Yes, she’d been under the influence at the time. But had she been sexually abused as a child—was that why she was so suspicious? Whenever he asked her, all she said was, “I was on a binge; I don’t know why I did it.” As unsatisfying as that answer was, it was the only one he’d ever get.
Slowly, Daryl began to adjust to his new reality. If he couldn’t get himself out of prison to rejoin his family, he’d embrace his only other option: be a father from a distance. He signed up for parenting courses, and he wrote his children so often that sometimes they hadn’t even opened the last letter before the next one arrived.
As the years trudged by, the tone of the letters he got back began to change. His children seemed less optimistic and a little defeated:
“are you sure you will be home for my sweet sixteen?”
“When you come home we will go to Hershey Park or Six Flags because we are all too old for disney world ok?”
“I know i shouldn’t be thinking about this yet but I just wanted to tell you that im not gonna get married until your out.”
“Yes daddy I do remember when we was all a family and we played in the snow. Sometimes I think about it and remember the GOOD times but … something in my head and my heart is telling me that it is never gonna be like that again.”
In his cell inside Green Haven, Daryl spent hours poring over his children’s letters and cards, analyzing their handwriting for clues to what they were feeling. Any time he saw their script look a little shaky, he’d say to himself, “This must be a part where they’re crying.”
As Chaneya’s siblings grew older, they began asking more questions about what exactly their father had done to end up in prison. Their grandmother would always say something like, “We’re not going to talk about this right now. Go ask your mother.” Chaneya also dodged their questions, most of which came from her sister April. A typical exchange:
April: “So, like, Neya, I’m, like, really trying to understand: What happened? Like, really, what happened?”
Chaneya: “I lied. What do you want to talk about?”
No matter how many times April tried to pry more information out of her, Chaneya wouldn’t open up. And sometimes she’d simply stand up and walk out of the room.
Chaneya was now 16. After her mother starting getting high again, Chaneya and her siblings had moved back in with their grandmother, and she sometimes found herself stuck playing the role of mini-mom. Chaneya balked at doing laundry—“I was like, Why do I have to wash their clothes, too?—and when she had to babysit, she barely took an interest. “Being in charge was real simple to me: ‘Everyone, do what you want; I’m just going to sit here and watch TV. As long as nobody’s bleeding, we’re good.’”
Even more than she despised her parenting duties, Chaneya hated watching how her father’s imprisonment affected her siblings. There were the major events where her dad’s absence felt palpable—birthday parties, school events, holidays. And then there were the quiet moments, too, when one of her siblings looked upset, and she’d know they were thinking about their father. Nobody had to say anything, and in some ways, silence was easier than the alternative. Eventually, though, the day came when one of her brothers became so enraged that he struck the lowest possible blow, hollering at her: “You’re the reason that Daddy’s not around anymore!”
Inside Green Haven, Daryl was beginning to realize that the older his children got, the less they needed him. His girls were now teenagers, busy with track practice and homework and boyfriends. Visits became less frequent, and when they did write, their letters were full of stories about boys. From Chaneya, he learned about Brandon (“He’s from New York but he lives in Georgia”); Tyrese (“He says that he loves me … but I don’t know if I’m in love with him”); and Brice (“He has a son about to be 1 and he’s 18 years old. Yes he is one of those bad boys”).
But while his older children seemed less dependent, Daryl needed them more than ever. His mother had died, and his wife stopped visiting (Charade declined to be interviewed for this story). When his children came to visit, he’d take them outside in the yard next to the visiting room and he’d walk a loop with each child, trying to connect. Sometimes, when they’d all be seated at a table, he’d talk so much that his daughters would fall asleep.
Chaneya graduated from high school in 2006, and that fall she left Newburgh for Morgan State University in Baltimore. Months would go by when Daryl wouldn’t hear from her. He couldn’t text, e-mail, or even call her; she had no landline, and the prison system doesn’t allow inmates to call cell phones.
Three days after Christmas in 2011, Daryl called his mother-in-law’s house, and he happened to reach Chaneya, who had come home for a quick visit.
“Hey, Daddy,” she said.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Something’s got to be happening ’cause I ain’t talked to you in almost two years …”
“Nah, nothing’s happening. Still in school.”
When he nudged her on why he hadn’t heard from her, she said, “If I’m in Baltimore, I’m not in New York. So it’s not like I can just come see you whenever I want … I just happened to come home because I had time and my friend, well, my boyfriend, happened to give me money to come home.”
“I see. Okay. Well, does your boyfriend have 44 cents?”
“ ’Cause that would be the next option. It’s called a stamp and an envelope.”
He explained that he was still fighting to get free, and that soon he was planning to “send some paperwork to the governor”—a clemency application. “I’m only gonna put the paperwork in, but it would be nice for you to write a letter.”
He didn’t tell her what to write to the governor, but earlier in the call he had asked, “If you had the power to correct everything that went wrong, would you do it?”
“Yes,” she said.
One might expect that in a criminal case such as this—where the victim has repeatedly said the crime never happened—events would unfold in a certain way. That if Chaneya and her father joined forces and tried hard enough, they could find a path to exoneration. And that ultimately, their story would end with the front door of Green Haven swinging open, Chaneya and her father embracing in the prison driveway, brushing tears from their eyes. But that’s not what happened.
One month after she spoke with her father on the phone, Chaneya, then 23, wrote a letter on his behalf to Governor Cuomo. His office passed her letter to the attorney general’s office, which forwarded it to Orange County district attorney Francis D. Phillips. Phillips asked the state District Attorneys Association to review her father’s case, and for nearly a year, a team of prosecutors did just that, digging through the old case files and interviewing everyone involved, including twice meeting with Chaneya.
A few weeks ago, Phillips released their 81-page report, “Re-investigation of People v. Daryl Kelly,” signed by ten prosecutors, including five upstate district attorneys. The prosecutors described Chaneya as a “poised, mature, bright, young woman.” But they did not believe her. As they put it, she “can neither explain why she falsely advanced such a horrible allegation, nor why she adhered to it for so long and repeated it to so many different people.” The report described her father as a “pathological liar” and “ego-inflated narcissist” with a “propensity to posture and blather.”
The Orange County district attorney’s conclusion: “We find that Daryl Kelly was not wrongfully convicted.”
Chaneya wasn’t surprised. During her interviews with the prosecutors, she says, she got the feeling they were more interested in protecting her father’s conviction than in listening to her. “There was a point in time in there that I just blew up,” she says. “I got really upset. I was just like: I’m tired of this. I just want you guys to listen to me … I’m telling you that nothing happened. Why is it so hard for you guys to understand that? Absolutely nothing happened.”
Daryl Kelly is now 54 years old and rarely sees his children, most of whom no longer live in New York. Chaneya lives in Baltimore with her boyfriend and their 1-year-old son, and works as an assistant manager of a retail store. Nearly a year has passed since she last visited her father. These days, the person Daryl calls most often is Peter Cross, an attorney working pro bono on his appeal.
Recently he was transferred to Fishkill, a medium-security prison, and when he got to his new bunk, he didn’t put up any photos of his family. “Prison is not my home,” he says.
Instead, he keeps his pictures of his children hidden inside a photo album. Every now and then, when he wants to feel less lonely, he’ll sit down on his bed and study snapshots from all the years he missed: the kids posing in front of their church, Chaneya in her gown at high-school graduation. When he gets to the last page, he slips the album into a plastic bag to protect it from dust, places it back inside his locker, and closes the door.