Pedro Castillo, a man wrongfully convicted of murder, has just lost his appeal while serving time in prison for the crime he didn’t commit.
Pedro, the title character in Claude Solnik’s latest play, is based on the true story of Fernando Bermudez, who served 18 years in prison for a Greenwich Village killing he did not commit. Witnesses who had implicated him recanted and he was finally exonerated in 2009.
“This story is just the next step in bringing to the consciousness this problem we have in the world,” Bermudez said. Now an accomplished public speaker who has lectured at colleges across the country and internationally, he will also lead a talk with the audience on opening night, Feb. 4 at the Theater for the New City.
At the time of Bermudez’s arrest, Solnik was a reporter for The Villager newspaper, when he saw a flier taped to a telephone pole on 14th Street. The flier was part of a search effort for the actual killer, and included a phone number. Solnik ripped it down, went back to his office, and dialed.
He reached Bermudez’s family, who told him that Bermudez, 22 at the time of his arrest, was innocent. Solnik reported on the case, and eventually became an advocate for Bermudez.
“They very quickly convinced me that this guy had not done anything,” said Solnik, now a reporter for the Long Island Business News. “It didn’t take them very long, which is one of the scariest things about this.”
“Pedro Castillo is Innocent” stems from the many conversations Bermudez had with Solnik while he was incarcerated, which they often had while sharing chicken wings. After his visits, Solnik would return to the prison parking lot and scribble down notes.
Though some aspects of the play are fiction, what isn’t is the character’s innocence, and that his incarceration changed his life and the lives of his wife and their children.
“It makes you assume the guy’s innocence,” Solnik said of the play. “You look at what it’s like for him, what it’s like for his family, how the family’s cheated. You look at the life in prison, you look at the lawyers. You see a little bit what the human side is, not just the information.”
John Torres, who plays the fictional Pedro Castillo, hadn’t read or heard about the wrongful conviction, but related to the character. Like the character, Torres is Hispanic. As a father, he’s also faced parenting challenges, though never from prison. Scenes with Samantha Masone, who plays Pedro’s daughter, Kaela, explore those challenges when each visit is timed and the next is weeks away.
“Those moments, it doesn’t feel like acting, I just feel like I want to cry,” Torres said.
In the play, the family finds coping mechanisms to get through a situation that director Danielle C. N. Zappa said becomes their “new normal.” Pedro’s young daughter pretends he doesn’t exist. His wife imagines he’s at war. Pedro finds comfort in books, Zappa said.
While in prison, Bermudez received associate’s degrees in business and behavioral science. He read classic literature and taught Latin American history to other prisoners. He always kept a book in his pocket, he said. His studies also gave him tools that helped him obtain lawyers.
“I said to myself, when I’m in prison, I’m going to get a rich man’s education on a poor man’s budget,” he said.
Since his release, Bermudez, now 46, has worked to reveal the effects of wrongful convictions, knowing that his circumstances weren’t unique. He has written extensively — Solnik called him a “gifted writer” — and plans to publish a book about his experiences with the criminal justice system. A documentary about his work as an advocate and lecturer is also in the works.
“I wanted to distinguish myself as an exoneree, because after all the publicity with each exoneration, you have to find something to do with yourself aside from relishing that moment in the spotlight,” he said. “I want my story to be known, to help perform criminal justice worldwide.
Solnik hopes that his play reveals not just an individual’s story but also its implications.
“To look at each individual case makes it look like they are exceptions,” said Solnik. “They’re not. They’re results of procedures that happen over and over again that lead to putting the wrong people in jail.”
Since his exoneration, Bermudez won a $4.75 million settlement from the state of New York. His suit against the City of New York is ongoing, he said. He’s currently investing in real estate after moving from Connecticut to North Carolina, and establishing a scholarship fund in his name for winners of an essay-writing contest on combating wrongful convictions.
His speaking engagements are less frequent these days, he said, but he doesn’t mind spending time at home with his children. His 14-year-old daughter wants to be a lawyer, he said.
“When I wake up now and I look at my home, I’m like ‘Thank you God for taking me from a 6-by-9 foot cell to a 6,000-square-foot home,’” he said. “I’m just blessed.”