She didn’t tell any of her friends about what had happened. Not because she was worried about what they would think if they knew her father was locked up—that was a common-enough situation for kids growing up in Newburgh—but because she didn’t want to explain, or even think about, her role in sending him away.
But there were days when his name would pop up, like when she and her siblings rode past the muffler shop where he’d once had a job, and her brother Daryl Jr. would shout, “That’s where my daddy works!” Or moments when she’d come across a certain scent, a perfumed oil that smelled like a cologne her father used to wear, and she’d think of him. And when her father’s letters started arriving, all those feelings she had tried to avoid—the guilt, the shame—began to surface, and despite rarely speaking of him, Chaneya allowed herself to wonder, with greater frequency, how he was doing and whether he was angry with her.
By 2003, her mother had kicked her addictions and won back custody of Chaneya and her siblings. One morning, she announced she was taking them to visit their father, who was now confined in Green Haven prison in Dutchess County. Waiting in line, removing her shoes, stepping through the metal detector, Chaneya could feel herself becoming more anxious, wondering how her father would react when he saw her.
She hadn’t seen him outside a courtroom in years, and as soon as she caught a glimpse of him, she began to cry. Her father hurried across the visiting room and wrapped his arms around her. “I love you,” he said. “I don’t blame you. Everything that happened to me is not your fault.”
At that moment, she says, “It was like I could breathe.”
Daryl did everything he could think of to get out of Green Haven. He studied the law and wrote his own appeals. He sent letters to everyone he thought might help: prisoners-rights groups, innocence projects, prominent defense lawyers. He recalls, “They all said either, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ Or they didn’t answer me back at all.” Part of the problem, he suspected, was the nature of his crime.
For Daryl, there was another problem, too: His wasn’t an ordinary wrongful-conviction case. There were no informants, no mistaken eyewitnesses. He couldn’t exonerate himself by finding the real culprit. The way he saw it, what made his case so unusual—and so difficult to reverse—was that he was serving time for a crime that had never occurred.
As he tried to tease out all the forces that had conspired to put him in prison, he felt like he was staring at a puzzle with multiple missing pieces. Why, exactly, had his wife been so convinced that he had molested their daughter? Yes, she’d been under the influence at the time. But had she been sexually abused as a child—was that why she was so suspicious? Whenever he asked her, all she said was, “I was on a binge; I don’t know why I did it.” As unsatisfying as that answer was, it was the only one he’d ever get.
Slowly, Daryl began to adjust to his new reality. If he couldn’t get himself out of prison to rejoin his family, he’d embrace his only other option: be a father from a distance. He signed up for parenting courses, and he wrote his children so often that sometimes they hadn’t even opened the last letter before the next one arrived.
As the years trudged by, the tone of the letters he got back began to change. His children seemed less optimistic and a little defeated:
“are you sure you will be home for my sweet sixteen?”
“When you come home we will go to Hershey Park or Six Flags because we are all too old for disney world ok?”
“I know i shouldn’t be thinking about this yet but I just wanted to tell you that im not gonna get married until your out.”
“Yes daddy I do remember when we was all a family and we played in the snow. Sometimes I think about it and remember the GOOD times but … something in my head and my heart is telling me that it is never gonna be like that again.”
In his cell inside Green Haven, Daryl spent hours poring over his children’s letters and cards, analyzing their handwriting for clues to what they were feeling. Any time he saw their script look a little shaky, he’d say to himself, “This must be a part where they’re crying.”
As Chaneya’s siblings grew older, they began asking more questions about what exactly their father had done to end up in prison. Their grandmother would always say something like, “We’re not going to talk about this right now. Go ask your mother.” Chaneya also dodged their questions, most of which came from her sister April. A typical exchange:
April: “So, like, Neya, I’m, like, really trying to understand: What happened? Like, really, what happened?”
Chaneya: “I lied. What do you want to talk about?”
No matter how many times April tried to pry more information out of her, Chaneya wouldn’t open up. And sometimes she’d simply stand up and walk out of the room.