SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Leonard Cure tried to make up for the 16 years he lost imprisoned in Florida after being wrongfully convicted of armed robbery in 2004. Since being freed three years ago, he gave inspirational talks to high school students, worked a security job and, at age 53, was considering college after buying a home.
Then a Georgia sheriff’s deputy pulled Cure over Monday along Interstate 95, just north of the Florida line. Authorities say Cure had been speeding at more than 90 mph (145 kph), and faced arrest for reckless driving. Instead of going to jail, he ended up dead.
The Black man was compliant until he was told he was under arrest, according to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation statement.
Citing preliminary information, the GBI said the deputy tased Cure after he didn’t obey the officer’s commands, Cure assaulted the deputy, and the deputy then used the Taser a second time, along with a baton, before pulling out his gun and shooting him.
Video recorded by the deputy’s body camera and patrol car dash camera will be reviewed along with the officer’s statement and other evidence before the agency sends its findings to prosecutors, said Stacy Carson, the GBI agent leading the shooting investigation.
Studies show Black Americans face a disproportionate risk of being wrongfully convicted of crimes or killed by police. The anxiety for people freed after doing time for crimes they didn’t commit can be intense, said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.
Miller, who worked to help Cure win freedom, said he’s seen dozens of exonerated clients grapple with “an overarching fear that at any moment the cops are going to come” and take them back to jail or prison.
“That’s the context that people need to understand when they view any situation like this: You have a perfectly wonderful person who has a wrongful incarceration in their past and how that might contribute,” Miller said. “It is a tragedy all around.”
Cure was pulled over while driving to the home he recently bought outside Atlanta after visiting his ill mother, Miller said. Two weeks earlier, Cure had shared his story with high school students at an Innocence Project event in Georgia.
“Lenny was a good soul, cared about people,” Miller said. “He was getting his life back together.”
Equally stunned were Florida prosecutors who had stayed in touch with Cure since reviewing his case and agreeing he should go free. Cure was the first person exonerated by the Conviction Review Unit of Broward State Attorney Harold F. Pryor.
“The Leonard we knew was a smart, funny and kind person,” Pryor said in a statement. “He had been working a job in security, he was hoping to go to college and wanted to work in broadcast radio production.”
Many details of what led to the fatal shooting have not been made public. No incident report was available Tuesday, Camden County Sheriff’s Capt. Larry Bruce said. He and Carson declined to release the videos, citing the open investigation.
Bruce said Cure was reluctant to exit the vehicle — the deputy asked several times before he complied.
“When he got toward the back of the truck and he was going to be handcuffed, that’s when he turned violent,” Bruce said.
The GBI statement said Cure “assaulted” the deputy after he was shocked with a stun gun. Carson declined to give further details.
“I would say attacked him,” said Bruce. “It was a physical confrontation of violence.”
Authorities did not immediately release the name of the deputy, who was placed on administrative leave. Carson said he is a white man.
Black people in the U.S. have been nearly three times more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers than whites over the past decade, according to the Mapping Police Violence project, which tracks the killings using Justice Department statistics and crowdsourced databases.
Likewise, Black Americans face a higher risk of being imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. The Equal Justice Initiative reported last year that Black people were seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people, based on a review of 3,200 exonerations since 1989.
Cure was sentenced to life in prison for a 2003 armed robbery at a drug store in Florida’s Dania Beach. It took a second trial to convict him after the first jury deadlocked. Cure’s stiff sentence resulted in part from his prior convictions for robbery and other crimes.
In 2020, Broward’s Conviction Review Unit asked a judge to release Cure after concluding that he had solid alibis — he was miles away and traveling to work on a bus when the robbery happened — and no physical evidence or solid witnesses tied him to the crime.
Cure was released that April. A few months later, a judge vacated his conviction and sentence. Three more years passed before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a claims bill granting Cure $817,000 in compensation for his conviction and imprisonment, along with educational benefits. Miller said Cure received the money in August.
Dr. Joshua Golden, a dentist in suburban Fort Lauderdale who replaced Cure’s front teeth in 2021, said they joked about how styles and life had changed during his time in prison. He never sounded bitter, Golden said.
“He was a really upbeat guy and excited,” Golden said. “There were no signs when he came to our office of any anger or any rage. He was happy to be out.”
Another exoneree, however, said the fear of getting thrown behind bars again never goes away.
Christopher Ochoa spent 12 years in a Texas prison for a murder he didn’t commit, getting released after DNA testing and the killer’s confession cleared him. He still gets nervous when he deals with police officers, even though he has been out of prison for 21 years, graduated from law school and spent time as a criminal defense lawyer before becoming legal affairs director for an oil company.
About a year after his release, Ochoa was riding with his then-girlfriend and her two small children when they got pulled over because their car matched one used in a nearby burglary. The officers quickly cleared them, but he couldn’t stop shaking, even after they got home.
“My girlfriend couldn’t understand why I was so shook up if I hadn’t done anything. Well, the last time I didn’t do anything, and I did 12 years in prison,” Ochoa said. Even today, anytime he interacts with a police officer, he tells himself to just stay calm and “don’t talk back to the cops at all.”
“I just have to keep in mind not to say anything, not to rock the boat,” Ochoa said.
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. AP reporter Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed.