Plotted From A Prison Cot, Wrongly Accused Man Whips Smoothie Dream Into Reality
For 27 years, Mark Schand lay in his prison cot in Massachusetts and plotted out the retail empire he'd been envisioning since well before his arrest.
"I would lay in bed, my eyes wide open, looking at the ceiling, just thinking of a color scheme, and picture the uniform," said Schand.
Now, five years after a judge vacated his murder conviction, and two years after a hard-fought settlement from the state, Schand can finally call himself a businessman. You can find him behind the counter at his smoothie shop, Sweetwater, in New Britain, Conn. Some days, he gets an assist from his 5-year-old granddaughter.
"Say 'thank you!" he reminds her, as she brings a smoothie to a customer.
At 54, Schand is heavily tattooed, lean and muscular — a devotee to fitness and nutrition after three decades of prison slop. ("The food in there is atrocious," he said. "Everything is dehydrated.")
This business is meant to reboot a career Schand says was stolen from him at the age of 19. In the months before he was arrested, he'd been preparing to open his first clothing store.
I plan on never working again for another person, if I can help it.
"I signed a lease, I got my LLC," he said. "Had I not been locked up, where would I be now?'
Schand always insisted he was nowhere near the 1986 nightclub shooting in Springfield, Mass., that killed a 25-year-old bystander. For decades, his lawyers argued that witnesses were coerced. In 2013, new evidence convinced a judge to let him go.
Like many exonerees around the country, Schand did not qualify for job training, tuition help or other re-entry services offered to people on parole. He was able to get monetary compensation from the state to fuel his smoothie business but only after a long fight.
So he had to take jobs in manual labor at UPS and a gun manufacturer. The work was hard on his back and he got tired of the long hours dictated by a boss. It wasn't exactly the same as prison, but it wasn't different enough.
"I plan on never working again for another person, if I can help it," he said.
But to start his own business, Schand needed money, and he said no bank would give him a loan. He filed a civil lawsuit against the cities of Springfield and Hartford, but that could take years.
In Massachusetts, Schand didn't get re-entry services but did have recourse in a statute that, at the time, allowed up to $500,000 in compensation to those wrongfully convicted.
At first, Schand thought the state would right its wrong without a fuss. But instead, according to his lawyer John Thompson, the attorney general's office chose to litigate the claim – and litigate hard. "They made it as much work and trouble as they could," Thompson said.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said she could understand the frustration but her office is bound by an adversarial law.
"Some might look and say, 'well if the court decided to release this person, then why don't you just write the check?'" Healey said. "But the statute only permits recovery if that person has established — has proved — actual innocence."
As is common in many states, exonerees have to go back to court to prove they didn't get out on a technicality, a process that takes time and resources.
"We found the law wasn't working the way we expected it to," said Massachusetts State Sen. Patricia Jehlen, who co-wrote the state's compensation law in 2004. So last year – partly because of Schand's case — she helped rewrite it.
Now the wrongfully convicted in Massachusetts can get up to $1 million in restitution, plus job training, health care, and other re-entry services. Their claims are put on a legal fast-track, and the state pays attorneys' fees.
Massachusetts is one of nine states that have recently expanded or created new compensation laws, according to the New York-based Innocence Project.
But across the country, compensation packages vary widely. Among the most generous is Texas, which offers $80,000 for every year spent behind bars, plus a yearly payment going forward. At the other end of the spectrum, New Hampshire caps total compensation at $20,000, no matter how long a person was incarcerated. Montana offers educational aid but no money. Seventeen states still have no restitution law at all.
"Pushing for monetary compensation for a very small constituency is politically very difficult," said Rebecca Brown, policy director for the Innocence Project. "We're competing with other budget items like pensions and roadwork."
When people come out of prison, they have nothing.
Brown's organization recommends a "gold standard" of $64,000 in compensation per year of incarceration, with more for people wrongfully held on death row.
At the very least, Brown would like every state to offer some cash and re-entry services as soon as an inmate's sentence is overturned, as well as a less onerous process to get full compensation.
"When people come out of prison, they have nothing," Brown said. "So they're really in this no man's land in limbo waiting for just the most basic subsistence."
Mark Schand didn't see a penny of restitution for three years. When his case finally settled in 2017, he ended up, after lawyer's fees, with $300,000 — or about $11,000 for every year spent in prison. While that covered start-up costs on his smoothie business, Schand doesn't look at compensation as a "start-over" grant. He considers it a moral debt.
"They should be compensating because they wronged you," Schand said. "And they can't give you your years back. So the fact that they yanked me and incarcerated me for [almost] 30 years, the money they gave me means nothing."
Schand relies on his business acumen to make a living. Sweetwater has done well enough that Schand opened a second location last year, and he's planning on a third.
Meanwhile, he says his prison backstory hasn't hurt the business, and it may even help. His bestselling smoothie – with pineapple, ginger and lemon — is called "The Linda and John Thompson," after the lawyers who helped get him out of prison. (Another favorite is the "Centurion Freedom" – mango, raspberry, and almond milk – in honor of the nonprofit that advocated for his release.)
Eventually he'd like to hire ex-inmates who are just coming out of prison — both the innocent and the guilty — as long as they can make good smoothies.
Copyright 2021 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.