TRIBECA, Manhattan — Imagine having everything that's happened to you in the last three decades disappear. Mark Denny doesn't have to imagine it; it's exactly what happened to him. He was wrongfully arrested and convicted of a pair of serious felonies, including a sex crime, that he did not commit.
Now, he's been making the most of the nearly 30 days he's been out of prison, after spending nearly 30 years there.
"My mind don't want to do anything but be free," Denny told PIX11 News. "It's stubborn to not grasp things I need to know."
Tuesday was Denny's 47th birthday, his first since 1987 when he was not behind bars. He celebrated at a Vietnamese restaurant with his attorney from The Innocence Project, which had worked diligently for more than eight years to secure Denny's release.
He'd been arrested in January of 1988 when he was riding in a car with three other young men, Raphael James - Denny’s cousin - Eddie Viera and Mark Smith. The three others had robbed a Brooklyn Burger King and raped a female employee three weeks before their arrest.
Denny was arrested with all three others. He insisted on going to trial to prove his innocence.
Even though the rape survivor and another eyewitness had initially said three men had committed the crimes, and even though Denny had a solid alibi, a jury convicted him of rape and robbery.
"In prison, sex offense is one of the worst positions you can be in. The only way to stay afloat of that was fighting," he said.
He was forced into the fights and the misbehavior behind bars made life harder for him.
"I would get moved to facility to facility: Attica, Clinton, Comstock, Shawunga, Greenhaven, Downstate, Upstate," he said.
Through it all, his cousin Odette stood by him, tracking him down every time he was moved to another facility.
"I always connect with him at all times," she said.
A key time of connection was last Dec. 20, when the conviction review unit of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office finished its years-long review of the evidence in Denny's case and concluded that he was not connected to the crimes.
He was immediately released. It was 30 years to the day after the crimes had taken place.
Since then, freedom has been an adjustment for Denny.
"I've never been independent before," he said. "It leaves me feeling real uncertain."
The readjustments have been significant.
"I'm still not versed into how to use the phone," Denny said, adding that he doesn't hesitate to approach strangers to seek advice on how to text and dial. "I don't mind asking for help and I've been doing that a lot lately."
Another readjustment, he found to be more surprising and challenging.
"I'm free, and I'm broke," he said.
His lawyer, Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, clarified the situation.
"He'll be eligible for compensation," Morrison, who represented Denny along with Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck, said. "But that could take months, or even years, before he sees a dime."
Meanwhile, Denny is depending on the kindness of strangers to help him get back on his feet. There are very few re-entry programs for exonerees, in contrast to the situation for newly-released convicts. They have a variety of re-entry programs provided for them by New York state.
The Fortune Society, which specializes in helping recently released inmates, helped Denny get housing. A crowdsourcing site has also been set up for him on razoo.com. All donations there go straight toward his living and educational expenses.
Denny is trying to set up a hair care business. He became a skilled barber behind bars.
Another thing he did while in various prison facilities was write a book detailing his life there. It's now on track to get published. Meanwhile, he has advice for people trying to have their stories heard. It's advice from which everyone can benefit.
"Stay strong, come what may," he said. "Something is going to intervene to make you come out right."