Angelica M Casas recently made a video for BBC, How US police line-ups jail the innocent, which highlights Uriah Courtney’s story, a classic case of mistaken identification. The video details problems and solutions regarding the ways line-ups are conducted. Only two weeks ago, Uriah and California State Senator Scott Wiener, who also appears in the video, testified at the state capital about mistaken eyewitness identification.
Uriah and I worked together for more than three years to craft Exoneree, the story of his wrongful conviction and over eight years of incarceration before new DNA testing led to his eventual exoneration. The book shows how mistaken identity contributed to his wrongful conviction.
My collaborative memoir with Uriah Courtney about his wrongful conviction, incarceration, and subsequent exoneration is now available. Such a thrill to finally hold the physical copy of the book in my hand this week!
What if America’s judicial system, designed to protect the innocent, convicts the wrong man and sends him to prison? Uriah Courtney was incarcerated over eight years–for a crime he did not commit. But God set him free–spiritually and physically–to a new life inside his heart and outside razor wire.
Exoneree relates how badly the judicial system can go wrong, but how intensely a dedicated few seek justice. It depicts God’s protection amid the horrors of incarceration. And while it shows dark depravity, it shines with divine transformation.
A sensitive man who loved the outdoors and his family, Uriah viewed life imprisonment as a death sentence. Yet God worked through this trauma to bring him new life. Uriah’s transparent narrative transcends most jailhouse conversion accounts, as he confesses how becoming a Christian helped him cope in some ways but didn’t solve every problem.
Even after his release and exoneration through God’s providence and the efforts of the California Innocence Project, Uriah faced unexpected challenges. In his warm and personable voice, Uriah describes how focusing on Christ helps him to continue overcoming the bitterness and anger often associated with trauma.
And that’s a story everyone needs to read.
Exoneree can be purchased directly from the publisher, Wipf and Stock, on their website. Amazon offers paperback and Kindle versions.
In 2005, Uriah Courtney was convicted for a crime he did not commit and sentenced to life in prison. He was released and exonerated in 2013 after new DNA testing proved his innocence.
Because he was accused of a sexual assault on a minor, he was not permitted to see his son for the entire eight years he was wrongfully incarcerated, from the time the boy was two until he was ten.
If anyone has an excuse to be bitter, Uriah does. But he chooses not to harbor bitterness and anger. This is not easy, but he trusts that God was in control of even those eight years in prison, and he sees how God used that time to turn him from running toward destruction to walking with the Spirit.
Uriah says, “What I went through was not a good thing, but it was used for good. Knowing that has helped me overcome bitterness. I have been given a new life and I don’t want to waste it by spending all my time being angry and bitter about something I can’t change. But I confess this is not an easy task. I must always be looking at Christ and Him crucified in order to keep from dwelling too long on all that I’ve lost. It’s godliness with contentment that’s great gain.”
Uriah’s response echoes Scripture because he spends time in God’s Word. When he entered prison, he found a Bible and read it for hours each day, trying to make sense of what had happened to him. Even though he wasn’t guilty of the crime of which he’d been convicted, the Spirit revealed to him that he was a sinner and his sins had been an offense against a holy God.
“As painful as it was to admit to myself,” he says, “it became very evident to me by my reading of the Scriptures the reason for which I was in jail—so I could repent and be saved. God saved me from self-destructing and spending an eternity in hell. I was close to death’s door from the large quantities of drugs I was using and utterly depraved, but God’s great grace swallowed me up and He caused me to be born again.”
When asked about his conversion, Uriah says, “The best and most accurate answer for when I became a Christian, I believe, is when Christ died on the cross for my sins 2000 years ago; for God chose us in Him before the foundation of the world. That being said, I became aware that I had been born again in August 2005, in county jail. Some might say I’m a jail house convert.”
Although Uriah’s mind was still clouded from drugs he’d been using and he’d always hated reading, he felt inexplicably drawn to reading Scripture.
“It just seemed like I was supposed to read that Bible,” he says. “I didn’t understand why, but I knew I had to. And read I did, every day, two or three times a day. I began reading it like you would any other book, from the beginning. I thought this was the most logical and sensible place to start because Genesis 1:1 starts, ‘In the beginning, God.’”
Initially Uriah had no idea about the impending charges. “I was completely unaware of the trial and tribulations I was soon to face. But God surely knew and He was no doubt preparing me to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
A few weeks later, he was extradited from the county jail in Texas to San Diego, where he was charged with kidnapping and rape. He says, “I was completely bewildered and utterly devastated by such horrible accusations. I had never experienced such fear in my life. This panic, fear and confusion led me deeper into the Word.”
Psalms especially resonated with him. “My greatest comfort came from the Psalms. There was just so much material there that I could relate to. It was from them I learned that it was okay to pour out your anger and frustration and fears to God without offending or sinning against Him. King David’s prayers became my prayers and I bent the Lord’s ears with them constantly.”
Uriah was transferred to another county jail in San Diego and began attending chapel services, where he prayed the customary sinner’s prayer, asking the Lord to forgive him and inviting him into his heart. “And so began an extremely long and painful process of sanctification,” he says. “But the truth is He was already there.”
After being moved back to the previous jail, Uriah became very close to the chaplain and his wife. “They were a great encouragement to me before, during and after my trial. I spent two and a half years in county jail, 18 months of that the Lord blessed me with the steadfast love and friendship of the Budloves.”
In June of 2007, Uriah was sent to the state prison to begin serving his life term. Still deeply reading the Bible, he developed a budding interest in theology but material was sparse and shallow. Yet he read whatever he could find.
“In 2009, I was moved to another yard at the prison where I was being warehoused and wound up with celly who was Reformed,” he says. “Up‘til that point, I don’t think I had ever heard of the Reformed faith, let alone any of the Reformers.”
His new cellmate had a number of volumes on Reformed theology, and Uriah became familiar with authors such as R.C. Sproul, John Calvin, and his favorite: Jonathan Edwards.
“It took no time at all for me to develop a deep love and affection for the Reformed faith,” he explains. “So much of the confusion and lingering questions on passages of Scripture and certain doctrines finally made sense to me. My passion for God’s Word was set aflame all over again. This was, as it were, my second great awakening.”
A couple of months after Uriah’s introduction to the Reformed faith, he learned of a Reformed Bible study and was permitted to enroll and attend.
He says, “Glory be to God for this Bible study!”
The study was led by Alex Ferrat, who was then a deacon at Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. From the start, he emphasized that the study should not take the place of attending regular worship services, encouraging the men to fellowship with believers and share their faith with others.
“But I confess that I really did consider this Bible study ‘church’,” Uriah admits. “It was the only service available where one could actually hear the gospel, maybe not preached, but certainly exposited, and that with reverence and awe.”
Alex’s devotion and dedication were apparent to Uriah, who appreciated the teaching as well as the many resources Alex made available to the men. Alex often mentioned Christ URC and Pastor Michael Brown, or related something from a sermon, or described the church’s worship.
“I yearned to be part of such a congregation and vowed that if I ever got out of prison I was going to go to Christ URC,” Uriah says. “I developed much brotherly love and affection for Alex during that time and was devastated when we were no longer allowed to have our Bible study due to some lame security issue.”
Uriah grew even more despondent about a year later, when the White Horse Inn no longer broadcast over a local radio station. He and his new cellmate, Jonathan (who was a devoted Lutheran) had loved listening to that program, followed by Sproul’s Renewing Your Mind. Uriah wrote to Dr. Michael Horton, expressing his sorrow and explaining that those programs had been the only resource for prisoners seeking to deepen their biblical understanding. Dr. Horton responded by sending Uriah a copy of his The Christian Faith.
“I must add here that celly, Jonathan, is one of the kindest, gentlest, faithful children of God I know,” Uriah says. “He had a Masters degree in Divinity and much training in righteousness and godliness. We were cellmates for over three years, and it was certainly by our great God’s providence that he and I were brought together. I learned a lot from that brother.”
God had plucked Uriah like a burning reed from the fire of self-destruction, and breathed the Holy Spirit into his heart. He had provided cellmates and Bible study that opened Uriah’s mind to the Reformed faith. Uriah’s life had been changed, yet he often despaired.
“At times, fear and loneliness were my closest companions and tormented me day and night,” he says. “I really had no way of knowing for sure that I would ever go home because the Bible didn’t explicitly say, ‘Uriah, you will surely be exonerated and your liberty restored.’ I understood that God didn’t owe me anything just because I had repented and become a believer. He already did enough by sacrificing His Son to pay the penalty for my sins. But through my diligent study of the Scriptures, I was strengthened and encouraged.”
In 2009, Uriah’s parents contacted the California Innocence Project (CIP), which pursues only the most hopeful of the many requests it receives. Even when the CIP accepts a case, numerous other events must fall into place before a rare exoneration occurs. Only about one in 1,000 Innocence Project cases results in exoneration. Uriah’s case was that rare exception due to a series of circumstances: his case garnered CIP attention, the original evidence had been retained, the District Attorney’s office cooperated well with CIP, and eventually a new method of DNA testing proved his innocence. The DNA matched a known sexual offender, similar in physical appearance to Uriah, who had been living within three miles of the scene at the time of the crime.
After being wrongfully incarcerated for eight years, Uriah was released from prison in May of 2013. With the full approval of the DA’s office, a Superior Court judge dropped all charges against him in June of 2013. Uriah Courtney was exonerated.
Uriah gives God all the glory. “God was the ultimate cause for me getting released from prison, being fully exonerated and my name cleared,” he says. “But God works through means and that means was the California Innocence Project.”
After Uriah’s release, he began attending Christ URC, where the congregation welcomed his warmly. He says, “They embraced me with such love that it felt as if I were being embraced by Christ himself.”
Uriah was baptized and publically professed his faith on November 10, 2013. “That was one of the best days of my life,” he says. “I had finally become a member of the visible body of Christ. I won’t recount here what Pastor Brown said to the congregation before he baptized me, but there were many eyes with tears in them, and many hearts giving glory and praise to God.”
Adjusting to life on the outside can be difficult. Many things had changed in the past eight years. And Uriah feels uncomfortable at social functions. But he relates how the hardest thing is having missed watching his son grow up. “This pains my heart deeper than anyone can possibly understand. I’m a stranger to my own son. He knows who I am, but he doesn’t know me.”
Still Uriah thanks God for the blessings in his life, especially his work as an apprentice pipefitter and his home with godly parents. “I get to hug my mom once again each night before I go to bed and greet my stepdad very early each morning before I go to work. My parents have given me so much and I just thank and praise God for them.”
He’s also becoming occupied with the Innocence Project. He recently spoke for the Irish branch, and he participated in the national Innocence Network conference. He also recently testified before the state legislature.
“On May 6, I had the opportunity to give my testimony to about 50 baseball players from San Diego Christian College,” he says. “May 6 was my one-year anniversary of freedom. One of the elders from Christ URC is a coach at the College and set things up. It was a wonderful day and I thank God for it.”
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 20-22 of the June 25, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.