Georgia man spent 21 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit

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Colin and Antoinette Warner, shown with their daughter Nehanda, moved to Georgia after Colin's conviction was overturned. Photo: Jennifer Brett

Read up on Colin Warner’s case, listen to the podcast about it and watch “Crown Heights,” the newly released feature film by IFC Films and Amazon Studios.

After all of that, if you get a chance to interview Warner, you’ll have so many questions, and they’ll all feel small and stupid.

There aren’t words big enough to describe the injustice rained down upon Warner, who spent more than two decades in prison after being convicted on the flimsiest of evidence for a murder he didn’t commit. The mere act of taking yet more of his time to talk about it feels like adding to his plight.

“The movie itself brought up a lot of feelings I’d rather not feel right now,” Warner said during our recent interview. “The community the crime happened in knew the wrong person was arrested for this murder, but they remained silent. To me that is an act of condoning a situation that you know is wrong. The police work in my case was so mediocre.”

His wife Antoinette was at his side during the interview, just as she was for much of his outrageous incarceration. They married while he was still in prison and she never gave up believing in him or for the justice that would someday, at long last, come.

“I got the strength from my ancestors,” she said. “As a mother, as a woman of African descent, it hurts. For too long our fathers, our sons, our brothers have been walking this path.”

She and Colin have made many media appearances recently. In some cases, publicity surrounding the movie was the first time people she’s known have come to learn their story.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Antoinette, I never knew.’ If he had gotten all this attention, just a decimal percentage of this, maybe that would have helped,” she said. “In all honesty, we wanted the story out there, to be told, so no one would have to go through what Colin did. We’ll take that risk if it helps somebody not have to go through what Colin did.”

RELATED: “Breakdown: Murder Below the Gnat Line,” explores a 1998 killing. DNA testing on a mask police say was used in the crime doesn’t match the man who’s serving a life sentence. Is the wrong man in prison for the crime? See myajc.com/voices/breakdown for this and previous seasons, hosted by AJC courts reporter Bill Rankin.

 

Lakeith Stanfield and Natalie Paul portray Colin and Antoinette Warner in “Crown Heights.” Photo: IFC/Amazon

 

Warner was 18 when on April 10, 1980, a teen was shot to death in Brooklyn. Cops arrested Warner after talking to a notoriously unreliable witness, who plucked Warner’s photo out at random after hours of interrogation and testified at trial only after himself being arrested on a robbery charge. Warner’s first trial ended in mistrial, but he was convicted the second time around and sentenced to 15 years to life. His co-defendant, a juvenile at the time of the shooting, served seven years and was paroled, after which he signed an affidavit claiming sole culpability for the crime.

Yet Warner remained behind bars, denied parole, until a new investigation (perhaps spurred by media attention) resulted in both prosecutors and the defense agreeing that the conviction should be overturned. He settled a suit with the New York Court of Claims for $2 million, and the Warners moved to Georgia.

“My mantra for 21 years was, ‘let this not be a cell,’” he said.

Here’s the trailer:

 

Warner owes much to Carl King, his boyhood friend from their native Trinidad, who never stopped trying to prove Warner’s innocence, going so far as to become a process server as a way of meeting attorneys who might be able to help. King, who later founded a nonprofit, Success to Freedom, to help other wrongfully convicted inmates, is portrayed in the film by Nnamdi Asomugha.

Warner is portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Darius in the F/X series “Atlanta” and appeared as Logan, the first character to portend doom in “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s extraordinary horror film where racism is the monster.

MORE: Our interview with Jordan Peele about “Get Out”

To call “Crown Heights” a mere movie feels diminishing.

“This movie is a history course,” Warner said. “My life was a series of roads I didn’t want to go down. My life was taken away from me. It changed how I viewed the world.”

As painful as it is to relive the awful years stolen from them, the Warners hope that “Crown Heights” (which drew up on a Feb. 11, 2005 episode of “This American Life” titled DIY) will inspire others to seek change.

“We fought a state and judicial system,” Warner said. “It took 21 years in human years, but in the eyes of God, it might just be an eye blink.”

Today, the Warners live a quiet life. They enjoy spending time in their garden and devote their time to a ministry serving homeless people.

“We don’t meet anybody by mistake,” Antoinette Warner said. “As human beings, if we want the world to be better we have to make a difference. We are here to help each other – it’s just humanity. On your way up, just take somebody with you.”