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Amid calls for better prison conditions, a plea by abolitionists to free Stillwater inmate who says he’s innocent

A new effort to get Philip Vance released is backed by a Facebook group of supporters, a college criminal justice class, and Jason Sole, an abolitionist and Hamline University criminal justice professor who founded the Humanize My Hoodie movement.

man stands with books
Philip Vance is serving a life sentence for a 2002 murder in South St. Paul.
Free Philip Vance Facebook page

In December of 2002, store clerk Khaled Al-Bakri was shot and killed during an apparent robbery in South St. Paul. The man who has spent 20 years in state prison at Stillwater for the murder, Philip Vance, has declared his innocence ever since he was investigated by the controversial (and later disbanded) Minnesota Gang Strike Force.

Vance was arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned in 2004. At trial, prosecutors presented witness testimony and evidence from law enforcement showing Vance had admitted to others he had committed the murder. After a jury found Vance guilty and received a life sentence, he appealed his case, citing errors by his attorneys and some recanted witness testimony, but he was unsuccessful. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that any of the errors or questions about witness testimony Vance had raised wouldn’t have changed the case’s outcome.

Nevertheless, there’s a new effort to get Vance released, backed by a Facebook group of Vance supporters, a college criminal justice class, and Jason Sole, an abolitionist and Hamline University criminal justice professor who founded the Humanize My Hoodie movement. Vance was part of a Labor Day weekend protest inside Stillwater prison over living conditions that led to a lockdown and solitary confinement for some of those involved. Sole said Vance told him later that he was among them.

Sole is a formerly incarcerated person who spent time in solitary confinement himself, and he was especially emotional recently during an interview about his friend Vance, who goes by the nicknames “Florida” and “Florida Boy.”

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“There is no further fall from grace a human being can experience than solitary confinement,” said Sole, who went on to explain that he’d spoken to Vance who said the protesters were peaceful and trying to get access to showers and ice during an extreme heat wave. Sole also recounted Vance telling him that the walls in solitary confinement were so hot that they would sweat. “Anybody would have been assaulted, traumatized.”

That thought has spurred Sole and others to ratchet up the urgency of their efforts to bring Vance justice — and home. Thus far Vance’s supporters have been careful not to rile the powers that be behind the slow-moving wheels of justice and have been biding their time in trying to share his story. But the Stillwater situation inspired “gloves-off time,” according to Sole, who has started contacting media and law enforcement professionals to talk about Vance.

“Free Philip Vance” flyer
David R. Weiss’s blog “Philip Vance—Freedom Is Calling”
“Free Philip Vance” flyer

“Labor Day weekend was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Sole said. “He or you or I would protest those living conditions, and Florida is the most solid person, well-liked, a mentor; ask anybody in that prison and they’ll tell you. For an innocent person to end up in the lowest part of a prison, that’s why I need to speak out about him today. He’s been in it 20 years, he is a leader, mentor, educator, artist. He’s a lot of light. A lot of light. When he comes home, I know what he’s gonna do. He’s an amazing father, a beautiful man, a lot of people love him. I’ve known him for the last five years. He wrote a letter from prison, and most of those letters come to me through the mayor’s office, because I can empathize and understand how to be able to help. Like, we got to lift up Philip Vance.”

Sole has contacted the Great North Innocence Project, which deals with cases like Vance’s, to no avail, and frustratingly so, he said. Likewise, Sole has nothing good to say about the Minnesota penal system or the politicians who’ve thus far ignored or dismissed Vance’s case, which supporters say was built on coerced confessions from paid-off jailhouse informants and spurious dealings by the state and the Minnesota (later Metro) Gang Task Force, which was disbanded in 2009 after its scandal-ridden actions were deemed “criminal.”

“It’s political. It’s a lot of things,” said Sole. “They have to be tough on crime for some reason. I’ll put it that way. But the evidence is there, and enough to bring him home. He’s innocent. I have our presentation material. All the mechanisms we have here that we say are used to bring people home are there. That’s why they have hearings every six months. But I’ve been arguing with the CRU (Conviction Review Unit) for two and a half years.”

Sole said he’s been told more evidence is needed to move the case forward. Meanwhile, Vance is losing hope.

“Florida says, ‘I’m tired of this process, Jason. It’s been two years. If I have to [do the remaining time on the sentence], I will.’ He said, ‘I was naive. A kid.’ He said, ‘When they was asking me questions, I never thought I could get convicted for something I didn’t do.’ He said, ‘That was why I was just really chilling and not stressing.’ He said, ‘I was feeling pretty blessed, and I never thought that I could really go to jail for something I really didn’t do.’”

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Theologian and blogger David R. Weiss has also taken up Vance’s case, writing in a piece this summer that “Philip has asserted his innocence vigorously from Day One … and for the next 7400+ days since then. Unwaveringly. He was so much innocent that he actively cooperated when police initially questioned him. Why wouldn’t he? He had nothing to hide. … He was so much innocent that he refused to accept any plea deal. Why would he plead to a lesser charge? That would be to acknowledge even a lesser guilt that was never his — at all.”

For his part, Sole will continue lifting up Vance — via media interviews, rallies, and protests.

“It’ll help to hold some people’s feet to the fire,” he said. “This usually happens where you got nobody to be a voice for Florida, but I’m like, ‘I got you even if it is another five, six years, whatever.’ We’re gonna give them hell for five or six years if that’s what it takes. We’re not gonna stop saying, ‘Y’all could do better.’

Professor Jason Sole
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Humanize My Hoodie founder and Hamline University criminal justice professor Jason Sole: “We’ve got to lift up Philip Vance.”

“So as time goes on, he sits in the hole, and all they do is escalate everything, so we’re gonna be doing a lot of protests, and contacting people we may not have contacted yet. This takes me away from my family, I’m teaching at Hamline, I got all this stuff going on with Humanize My Hoodie. I went to Canada, that’s the end of the Underground Railroad, and I’m not even supposed to go to Canada because I got felon [status]. Twice in 30 days.

“So I got stories to tell, but I can’t even focus on the joy and the beauty of our work right now when I know I got somebody who shouldn’t be in there. (Prison) was the lowest point of my life, as low as you can go, as low as anyone can go. So sometime I actually want to celebrate all the stuff, but I’m still trying to do my part and say to all these [review boards]: Just do the right thing. I’ll celebrate sometime, but right now my heart is with this. My energy is with Florida.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify who was speaking in a quote about hot conditions in prison.