NEW BRITAIN - Amid the vibrant paintings of fresh fruit and tasteful displays of shelled nuts and grass in the café he’s about to open on West Main Street, Mark Schand explained that he isn’t angry that he spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
“It’s a wasted emotion for me,” the 53-year-old budding entrepreneur said. “I’m just happy to be home.”
His new venture, Sweetwater Juice Bar & Deli, at 60 West Main St., will have a “soft opening” - a low-key debut before the grand opening - early next week.
The business will offer smoothies, wraps, paninis and salads in an inviting atmosphere - with free WiFi.
At his new counter that bears a sign that reads “farm to table,” Schand reflected on the unexpected turn his life took when he was arrested by Springfield, Mass., police just a few months shy of his 21st birthday for a robbery, assault and murder that, decades later, was determined to have been committed by someone else.
He left behind two sons and another son on the way when he was sent to a county jail in Massachusetts to await prosecution in the death of Victoria Seymour, 25, who was hit by a stray bullet during a drug deal gone bad at a Springfield nightclub.
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
His wife, Mia, and his sons, Mark Jr., Quinton and Kiele, stood by him throughout the 27 years he battled to gain his freedom.
He had been offered a plea bargain in the case but refused to take it. “I will not plead guilty and bargain in a murder case that I didn’t commit,” he said.
Instead he used the time to loudly proclaim his innocence to anyone who would listen - including television stations, the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongly convicted people in cases in which DNA evidence was a factor, and Centurion, an organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions.
Centurion agreed to take on his case and followed up on information that he had tried to present for decades:
Springfield police made the arrest based on tips they received from Hartford police, who later acknowledged they knew fairly quickly that Schand wasn’t involved. He was in Connecticut with Mia the night of the murder and didn’t know any of the participants who were involved in the drug robbery that led to Seymour’s shooting.
He was freed in 2013 and is now suing in federal court the Springfield and Hartford police departments, along with the prosecutor who took the case to trial. He is seeking $27 million - $1 million for every year he was imprisoned.
A Windsor resident, Schand noticed that a store was vacant on West Main Street in New Britain when he came to visit his father, who lived across the street.
His father died four months ago, but Schand called the number on the “For Rent” sign to inquire about leasing the place for a smoothie bar.
Tuesday, he was finishing odds and ends before he’ll give the place a good cleaning - even though it looks remarkably pristine.
“We’re overjoyed with Mark opening the store,” said Gerry Amodio, executive director of the Downtown District. “I’ve met with him several times. Although we’ve never discussed his wrongful conviction, I found him incredibly enthusiastic, engaging and bright. He embraces every day. He will add charisma to downtown. His story will meld with many stories we have downtown. He’s a regular guy going forward with his life, making good.”
Schand speaks at universities and colleges about his wrongful imprisonment. He said the first question that everyone asks when he’s done speaking is if he’s angry.
“Anger is just another prison,” he said. “Number one: (I) can’t get back at the people who did this. Otherwise, I’d be back in prison.
“I can’t walk around angry all the time. Otherwise, I’d be called the angry ex-con.”
After he called the number on the “For Rent” sign, he obtained limited liability corporation status and did a little research on smoothies.
“I looked up where to get the equipment,” he said.”And then I thought, I’m going to give it a go.”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.