A stray bullet struck Carolyn Jones’ head on Sept. 23, 1996, just as she walked out of a Bedford-Stuyvesant church.
Doctors at Kings County Hospital worked to remove bullet fragments from her brain. They told her husband, Herman, that night she may not make it until morning.
But she survived, and had to learn how to walk and speak again. Now she’s on a new mission: to free David Herion, the last of the two men convicted of the crime who is still behind bars.
Herion has served 23 years of his 45-year sentence and isn’t eligible for parole until February 2035, state Correction Department records show.
“I want him home yesterday,” Jones told THE CITY. “He needs to be with his family.”
Jones, 70, who worked as a 911 operator before the shooting, says that Herion’s freedom is the “one thing that stands in the way of complete healing.”
Now a grandmother of seven, she knows not everyone agrees with her plea for mercy — including her husband, Jones said.
Criminal justice experts say her story highlights how there’s no one-size-fits-all mold for crime victims — and how the voices of victims like her have sometimes been lost in the incarceration reform movement.
“Our goal from the start was to make sure that victims’ voices were not left out of the criminal justice process,” said Claire Ponder Selib, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA).
Victims’ rights advocates, she said, should recognize that each person’s trauma, healing and definition of justice is different.
Some victims may prefer their offenders receive alternatives to long-term incarceration such as restorative justice or rehabilitation, Ponder Selib added.
“We do have to be aware of how things are changing and how a lot of our very traditional views, which were all shaped and driven by what we thought was right, may not have been working for every victim and survivor,” she said.
‘Deep Friendship With the Victim’
Before the nighttime shooting, Jones and her husband were walking out of the Evening Star Baptist Church on Gates Avenue towards their car to drive to a party at a different church.
According to witnesses, two men jumped from a car and shot at a livery car that stopped at a red light in front of them. Cops believe the duo targeted a man who allegedly had shot their friend in the leg earlier in the day.
Cops nabbed Herion hours later and captured his co-defendant, Michael Flournoy, a few months later.
The duo, who have long maintained their innocence, were convicted of attempted murder and other charges by a jury that deliberated for about a day.
Over the past two decades, Jones “from time to time” went with Flournoy’s brother to visit him in various upstate prisons. The two became close and she advocated for his release.
“I kept in touch with Michael and his family and got to know them,” she said.
In 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo commuted Flournoy’s 25-to-50-year sentence, citing his “deep friendship with the victim and her son who now consider him a member of their family.”
But until recently Jones had no idea that Herion was still incarcerated in Sing Sing. She found out when his lawyer, Kathrina Szymborski, reached out for assistance with his clemency petition last year.
“I want him to come home to his family,” Jones said. “This is what I want to do.”
She hasn’t met Herion, but recently wrote a letter to Cuomo asking him to free the prisoner. “I ask that you please put a stop to this trauma once and for all,” she wrote.
THREAD: 24 years ago, Mrs. Jones was hit by a stray bullet while leaving church. Now she's begging Cuomo to release the man incarcerated for that shooting. She says she can't get closure while he's behind bars. @NYGovCuomo, help a victim of violent crime move on with her life. pic.twitter.com/ZwDL6IabhP— Kathrina (Kasia) Szymborski (@kasiaszymbo) January 4, 2021
“Mrs. Jones is an incredible person and I feel honored to have met her,” said Szymborski. “Her desire to see David released underscores that his incarceration serves no purpose.”
She added that new evidence suggests her client is innocent, noting he was convicted largely based on testimony from an eyewitness who has since recanted.
Herion has also long maintained he was visiting his friend in the hospital when the shooting occurred. A friend has twice sworn in affidavits that Herion was at the hospital at that time.
‘Worst of Excessive Sentencing’
Aside from Herion’s case for his innocence, one criminal justice expert says that his 45-year sentence is “excessive,” even in the United States where convicted murders sometimes get less time behind bars.
“There’s certainly no public safety purpose to a sentence like that,” said Michael Jacobson, director of CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance.
“And if the only purpose of a sentence like that is punishment, a fraction of that time is a huge amount of punishment in prison,” said Jacobson, who was city correction commissioner from 1995 to 1998 during the Giuliani administration.
The case is an example of “the worst of excessive sentencing in the buildup of the prison system,” he added.
Herion has logged no violent disciplinary infractions while embracing “opportunities for service and leadership,” according to his clemency application.
He became a facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Program, a mentor in the Youth Assistance Program and an Islamic Training Mentor.
He has also maintained a close relationship with his two daughters, TaQuira and ArMiya, who were 2 years old and an infant, respectively, when he entered prison over two decades ago, the clemency filing says.
“He was not able to watch his daughters grow up, but it is not too late for him to take an active role in raising his grandchildren,” the application says. “He dreams of making his [two] grandchildren pancakes in the morning, taking them to the park to play, and reading them books at night.”
As for Jones, her recovery has been a long road. She spent approximately 10 years in various therapies, and still has a hard time with numbers and sometimes struggles for the right word.
But her recovery will never be complete without Herion out of prison, she said, even though her husband opposed his release.
“I just can’t think of myself,” Jones said. “That family needs to have some closure also.”