Willimantic, Conn – On Oct. 15, Fernando Bermudez came to Eastern Connecticut State University to discuss his life behind bars as an innocent man and how those years still traumatize him to this day.
Bermudez started off discussing what he considers to be a flawed criminal justice system in America. Because of this system, Bermudez said, “I was forced to fight for my freedom, for my life and for my sanity.” He shared his story of arrest and how he was wrongly convicted of murder. The main evidence that was used against him was eyewitness identification by a group of teenagers.
Bermudez was taken to a penal colony, a settlement that housed approximately 14,000 inmates. He was instantly shaved, and stripped not only of his clothing but also his identity. He was identified solely by his inmate number. Bermudez said he had liquid ice poured over his body: “It was like skinny dipping in the Arctic.” For months, Bermudez contemplated suicide. He felt that he was on a road that would never end.
Years down the road, witnesses stepped forward and spoke the truth, proclaiming Bermudez to be innocent. The judges disregarded this truth and Bermudez felt hopeless. He kept asking himself “How?” and “Why?”
He began to write journals as well as letters to people he knew. He received encouragement from his wife, who Bermudez said “gave me a level of love that gave me strength.” He continued to be strong for his wife, whom he married during his early incarceration years, and their children, all of whom were born during his time is prison. He used his education to barter items and then sell them to make money for his children and his wife. Bermudez said, “I helped my mind become my best friend rather than my enemy.”
Finally, in 2009, a federal judge reopened Bermudez’s case and saw numerous signs pointing to his innocence. The district attorney offered Bermudez a plea bargain—if he pled guilty to manslaughter, he could go home that week. Bermudez remembered his desperation to be home with his family, but said he knew he could not live a lie. He knew he was innocent of all charges, so he did not accept the plea bargain. Soon after, the judge who had reopened his case announced that Bermudez was innocent. Bermudez said, “I felt a punctuating sigh of relief.”
To this day, Bermudez suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I still feel like I’m in prison, like I’m being observed, like I have no rights, because I was without them for so long.” For years after his release, Bermudez fell into the habit of performing day-to-day tasks as he would have in prison, such as washing his clothes in the sink.
When he stepped out into the real world, Bermudez said it was entirely different — new technology, new fashion, new music. “Everyone is texting – all the time! I can’t hold a conversation with someone without them being on his or her phone!” Nothing seemed to be the same. He had a great deal of adjusting to do.
Bermudez lives in fear to this day. Every act he performs he does carefully. He will not spit his gum anywhere before putting it in a tissue first, for fears that his DNA will be found and he will be put back in prison for something. If he swipes a credit card and it does not go through the first time, he feels like everyone is looking at him as a villain, a thief. His struggle from day to day continues, even after being out of prison for five years. Bermudez sees a psychologist for help, but he knows his children have suffered greatly from his detachment. His daughter caught him crying in the living room early one morning and told her mom she wanted her father back.
Bermudez was heartbroken. Though he suffers from PTSD and sees a psychologist daily, he is a guest speaker for the Innocence Project, working to help ensure justice for other innocent inmates who have been wrongly convicted.