He spent 13 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Now he helps exonerate other innocent Black Americans.
Christopher Scott's life changed in 1997. Now he's trying to reform the criminal justice system, one case at a time.
That afternoon’s General Hospital ended on a cliffhanger: to be continued tomorrow. In the meantime, Christopher Scott had to get back to work.
In the kitchen, he carefully plants dozens of orders of hamburgers and french fries under a container, concealing them before placing a tray of coffee above the container. Nobody checks under a container when it’s 110 degrees, Scott says. Once in the clear, he sells them to make an extra buck. He needs to be careful not to be caught or risk being reprimanded in a place that isn’t designed to make a living: prison.
Like Sonny Corinthos, the coffee importer heartthrob on the soap opera, Scott learned how to use a front to get by while his back was against the wall. But there was one glaring difference between Corinthos and Scott—Corinthos is a criminal, and Scott was serving time in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
The night Scott didn’t come home
Scott loves the Dallas Cowboys. He grew up in Oak Cliff, near Dallas, Texas, playing football with his friends. Since each street was named after another state, like Alabama or Colorado, kids on the same block teamed up. They went all out when it came to the Super Bowl, organizing a tournament where the winners earned a barbecue.
So naturally, on that Sunday in 1997, between doing laundry and taking his kids to the park, 26-year-old Scott caught the Cowboys game.
Afterwards, Scott snuggled up on the couch with his then-girlfriend, Brandy, and his two young children. The Wonderful World of Disney was playing on the television.
But the movie was interrupted by a series of phone calls from Claude Simmons Jr., a friend of Scott’s who’d gotten into drugs and fallen on hard times. Something told Scott this was a cry for help. He told Brandy and his kids he would be right back.
"Be careful," Brandy told him. "The police may mess with you."
Her warning was like a jinx. Scott never came back.
Scott and Simmons sat in his car in front of a 7-11 for quite some time, Scott encouraging his friend to get back on his feet. Afterwards, Scott started to drive Simmons home, but noticed a lot of police cars were out that night. There was also something peculiarly bright in the air. It was an FBI helicopter, and its lights were flashing down on Scott’s car. Before long, a police cruiser was making a U-turn, following Scott in his forest-green and gold Lexus.
Scott turned off the road somewhere along the route, parking his car in another friend’s driveway. That was Scott’s way of telling the police to mind their own business. He figured he would just go inside for a little while until the heavy police presence in the area died down.
Armed officers surrounded the house, calling on everyone inside to come out. They stayed for more than 20 minutes before Scott finally opened the door, realizing they weren’t leaving and wanting to get the mix-up over with.
The police didn’t give him that chance. Everyone who was in the house was detained, including Scott. From across the street, the real criminal—Alonzo Hardy, who lived four blocks away—watched as police picked up Scott, tossing him into the back of the police car. He wouldn’t confess to the police for more than a decade.
Eyewitness error contributing cause in wrongfully accused cases: report
The crime in question focused on the April 1997 murder of drug dealer Alfonzo Aguilar and sexual assault of Celia Escobedo, his wife.
The next day, when Escobedo was at the police station looking at photographs of suspects, she pointed to a photo of a then 27-year-old Scott.
It was a case of mistaken identity, common in eyewitness identification and testimony, according to Innocence at Stake: The Need for Continued Vigilance to Prevent Wrongful Convictions in Canada:
“The U.S. Innocence Project estimates that eyewitness error was a contributing cause in 70 percent of the 356 wrongfully convicted accused who have been exonerated by DNA evidence in that country. The American Psychological Association estimates that one in three eyewitnesses make an erroneous identification.”
A six-minute deliberation changes Scott’s life forever
Scott found himself in chains, looking out the window at the Texas landscape. The sound of raindrops against the roof of the bus distracted Scott from realizing he would be 67 years old before he’d be eligible for parole.
"Hearing the raindrops on the bus makes me realize that my freedom is gone. These raindrops hitting this van are letting me know from the man up above that your freedom is gone," Scott said, describing the prison as a big cemetery where people go in and never come out.
"I’m already shackled like a slave, and as I exit the big bus, raindrops hit my face and I look up at the sky. I’m asking God, ‘Why? Why did this happen to me?’"
Looking up at the sky, raindrops concealing his tears, Scott’s final glimpse of the outside world were guards on gun towers pointing AR-15s and AK-47s directly at him. His freedom was gone.
“That whole seven months, I prepared myself to die,” Scott said of his time waiting for the trial.
The prosecution had a flimsy case, propped up primarily by Escobedo’s false eyewitness identification. Further in Scott’s favour, defense attorneys had evidence of the true perpetrators, noting that one of them was none other than Hardy.
“I was the only thing of color in this courtroom,” Scott recalled, “aside from the furniture.” The judge, the jury, the prosecutor, and even Scott’s appointed defense attorney were all white. There would be no jury of his peers. “There was no way I was going to have a fair trial,” he added.
The judge wouldn’t allow the jury to hear the evidence about Hardy, evidence that certainly could have compromised the ability to find Scott guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Scott wanted to take a polygraph test to prove his innocence. His appointed defense attorney advised against it.
Ultimately, the jury returned after just six minutes of deliberation, sending an innocent man to prison with a life sentence.
Hardy would finally confess to the crime in 2008. He’d been in prison since 1999, serving a 30-year sentence for an unrelated robbery. The confession may never have come if it hadn’t been for a group of students at the University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network, who began studying Scott’s case. It was those students, in conjunction with the Austin Actual Innocence Clinic, who discovered Hardy confessed to an old girlfriend that he and another man were responsible for the Aguillar murder and Escobedo assault.
Exoneration Podcast and the House of Renewed Hope
Scott was released from prison in Oct. 2009. Since then, he has opened his own clothing store and started a non-profit organization. With two partners and a combined 60 years of time served for false convictions between them, the House of Renewed Hope helps innocent people appeal false convictions.
One of their clients, Isaiah Hill (pictured above), spent more than 40 years in prison after being accused of robbing a hotel’s front desk. While the team wasn’t able to exonerate Hill, they spent four years securing his release on parole, by helping him secure the identification and housing needed to become eligible.
“It made me feel good to be able to give a person life’s back to them, because if we hadn’t done it, Isaiah probably would still be in prison right now,” Scott said.
Outside of his criminal justice work, Scott has hosted and produced a nine-episode podcast titled Exoneration Podcast, which is expected to launch on major digital platforms in a few weeks. The podcast features Scott interviewing former judges, attorneys, and formerly incarcerated Black Americans. He also filmed a six-episode documentary series set to air on PBS in 2023.
Scott managed to meet Hardy, the man who stole 13 years of his life, during a visit to Eastham Prison in March 2014. He wrote about his experience for the Texas Observer:
When Alonzo sat down, I looked him in the eye for the first time. He stared back, unblinking. Before he could say anything, I told him I wasn’t mad. I told him that I forgave him but I could never forget what he did … I told him about the years I spent away from my kids. I cried at that point and was glad he got to see that. And I told him I would never recover from what he did to me. Alonzo just responded each time, “I understand.” He never apologized.
Now, almost eight years later, Scott believes meeting Hardy helped give him a sense of closure.
“I think I got the closure that I needed, because I was looking into the eyes of a coward. I told him, ‘You took my life for me, but at the same time you gave it back to me.’”