Arguing Innocence

“I should never have been in prison,” says Dove, who spent forty years
incarcerated and still asserts his innocence.
Dennis “Dove” Tremblay’s life changed in the summer of 1976. He was
spending a sun-drenched afternoon in a friend’s back yard when he placed a call to
his girlfriend Lisa Daniels. To his recollection, Lisa sounded shaken over the phone.
“Do you want me to come over?” Dennis had asked.
“Uh…if you want to,” Lisa replied, wavering.
After hanging up, Dennis – who was 24 years old at the time – went outside
to his friend and said, “I have to go. Something’s going on.”
About an hour later, he was knocking on Lisa’s door. When there was no
response, he meandered to the back of the house. On the patio, there were two
glasses of lemonade or iced tea, half full. Her French doors were open, the curtains
billowing. Dennis poked his head inside and called Lisa’s name. Again, no response.
The scene started to feel unusual – the silence, deadening.
“Lisa?” Dennis called again. He made his way through the living room and
through the foyer, then the kitchen. Nothing seemed out of place.
When he saw Lisa on the floor, he thought it was a prank. “Lisa, get up!” he
And then the realization set in. She wasn’t moving. He rushed over to her and
held her. She had been stabbed through the heart.
After he called the police, he was taken into custody and interrogated for
eighteen hours. He told them his order of events and was released after a lie
detector test. However, the ordeal was far from over. Months after Lisa’s death, the
police brought him in to match his handprint on a towel found at the crime scene,
and his print did not match.
Still, Dennis was eventually charged with murder in the second degree. The
prosecution portrayed Dennis as a violent, aggressive man. They even used his
history as a hockey player as evidence of violent tendencies. He was found guilty
and sentenced to life in prison.
Here is another way to view Dennis, whose popular nickname is “Dove.” He
lives a life of good-natured simplicity, eating from a can just as he did in prison, even
though he is studying at culinary school. Talking to Dove can feel like ambling down
a fruit grove when you have all the time in the world; he might go on tangents,
stopping to relish the smells and sights and sounds around him, but no matter what
he is saying, he presents his point of view in a controlled fashion, inserting
humorous and fruitful idioms that add color to every story he tells. He distances
himself from negativity as much as possible, and when it’s around him, he tries to
change it. In his mild-mannered way, he spells out swear words instead of saying
“Wow, you got me talking – this is not cool,” Dove cuts himself off mid-amble
to remark. “My god, I’m almost looking for my Bounty-the-quicker-picker-upper, but
I can’t find it, so I’m not going to let any tears run down my cheeks.”
Others would describe him as a man who brings peace wherever he goes. He
does not raise his voice or have arguments.
“What kind of foundation does one need to get into an argument?” Dove asks
rhetorically. “I don’t even know how to have an argument.”
While this essay is not an investigative piece on Dove’s innocence – nor do
we have the resources to present this as a case study – I want to challenge you,
readers, to put yourself in Dove’s position: here is a man who firmly insists on his
innocence. Now imagine that even with such certainty permeating every fiber of
your being, the state has labeled you as “guilty,” and now you must spend forty years
in confinement, yearning not just for freedom but for justice and resolution. What
can possibly carry a person through nearly 15,000 days behind bars under those
“Innocence,” Dennis says. “Innocence kept me alive, kept me sane…Even the
judge asked me at the end, he says, ‘And what do you have to say?’ I said, ‘Well, I the
innocent will soon be walking amongst the guilty, but the guilty are still walking
among the innocent.’”
One has to imagine it takes a unique brand of patience and fortitude to live
out a sentence when you have insisted to the world that you are innocent.
“For months and months, I would stay up late at night asking the question,
What did I do to deserve this?” Dove says.
The first one and a half years of prison were the most difficult part of his
sentence. In the 70s, prisons were demographically different but segregated in their
own way. “In prison, there was Italian and there was Irish, and all of a sudden, here
comes Dove.” He felt wildly out of place, and not just as an innocent man in an
institution intended for the guilty.
Dove recounts that in the early days of his sentence, the Italian crew sent a
guy to attack him in order to see how Dove stood up for himself. They wanted to test
whether he was “a rat or a standup.” This is a tale many formerly incarcerated
people may tell: in their first days, they feel pressure to prove themselves and earn a
reputation that puts them in safe standing with other inmates. When Dove clocked
the man to the ground, he earned the respect of other inmates, as well as the
privilege to go where he pleased in the prison yard.
Even after forty years behind bars, Dennis is not a bitter man. He explains:
“Was I happy with it? No. But did I have to handle it? Yes. Because why? I was there.
And there is not much you can do when you’re there. What are you going to do, go to
the front door and say, ‘Hello, let me go home’? I don’t think so.”
Throughout the decades, he has continued to fight for his freedom and
exoneration, and the Innocence Project eventually accepted his case. Unfortunately,
after Dove’s lawyer went back and forth with the police department that
investigated the murder, he eventually discovered there was an issue obtaining the
evidence. According to Dove, this discovery tied up the capacity of the Innocence
Project to help, since they mainly exonerate using DNA testing and need crime scene
materials to perform such analysis. On a more positive note, the Innocence Project
was “instrumental” in getting him out of prison, Dove explains.
The news of his release came wonderfully yet unexpectedly. Dove, who used
to delight in the mere view of treetops peeking over the prison walls, who could not
so much as see society through a television until the prison allowed him his first
black-and-white set in 2005, had only a few weeks to prepare for his release.
As Dove recalls, “The parole board told me: You know something? When you
first came to prison, you were wearing bellbottoms. When you get out, you’re going
to be wearing bellbottoms.”
In actuality, on May 5, 2015, Dove wore tan pants and a white shirt, and he
had one bag slung over his shoulder that contained all the property he’d had for
forty years. He stepped out of the state’s custody and as he tells it: “I put my A-S-S on
the door to make sure I was touching freedom, and I’m looking at a parking lot, and
I’m looking at my brother waving at me.”
The brothers embraced before loading into a truck. Dove’s brother got right
to business, asking, “What’s your first concern?”
Dove replied, “My first concern is…I want French Fries.”
For the first time in his life, Dove learned how to put a seatbelt on. They
didn’t fidget with the radio, as Dove was content. “Just hearing the wind and the
road and the things that were happening outside were so beautiful,” Dove
remembers. “It was like, this is fantastic.”
Dove is free—with exceptions. He has not been exonerated, though clearing
his name is a primary goal for him. He is still subject to the restrictions of parole,
too. He fortunately has housing through Peaceprints Prison Ministries, but finding a
job with his record has been profoundly difficult. He also had to fight for acceptance
at Erie Community College. After a denial from culinary school based on his record,
he filed an appeal with the Vice President of Administration. After that, he received
three apology letters and an acceptance.
Today, he is on the cusp of a 4.0 average, belongs to three honors societies,
and is the secretary of the board of directors for his church.
Dove’s decision to pursue cooking school was influenced by his experiences
in prison. “I was a connoisseur of a can and a can opener and peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches,” he says. Of course, his culinary skillset has vastly expanded since then.
In retrospect, Dove sees that he was able to influence the prison setting in a
positive way. He made the most of his sentence by bringing peace to his
surroundings. He has concluded, “I [am] so, so, so grateful for all that I was allowed
to do in prison and also grateful for all I’m able to do right now.”