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Her fiance has been in prison for 49 years. She's trying to free him before it's too late

Wissahickon Valley Park is pictured on Dec. 2, 2020, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum / Associated Press) Wissahickon Valley Park is pictured on Dec. 2, 2020, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

She was lying in bed on a Thursday morning, thinking about the man she loved, hoping to win his freedom before time ran out.

“Alexa,” she said, “play Christine and Ezra’s Playlist.”

The sounds of Motown filled her bedroom, in a condo near Philadelphia, as Christine Roess took a rest from a long and excruciating battle. Smokey Robinson gave way to Van Morrison, who sang the first lines of “Crazy Love.”

I can hear her heartbeat

From a thousand miles

Ezra Bozeman was about 230 miles away, across the mountains toward Pittsburgh, imprisoned as he’d been for the vast majority of his 68 years. Dozens of friends and at least seven state lawmakers had joined a frantic effort to set him free. Given his fragile condition, they worried he could die any day.

When he and Christine first fell in love, she visited him and got up close and whisper-sang into his ear a few lines from “Crazy Love.” Later he said a guard told him, “Watching the way she looks at you makes the hair stand up on my arms.”

The playlist went on. Now it was “Wild Thing,” by The Troggs, which hit No. 1 on the charts when Ezra was 10 years old.

He was 19 on January 3, 1975, the day someone tried to rob a dry-cleaning establishment in Pittsburgh and shot co-owner Morris Weitz to death. Another young man, Thomas Durrett, was charged with the murder. But authorities dropped the charges against Durrett, who then testified that Ezra had committed the robbery and had made a tacit admission to the murder in a conversation later that day. According to a trial transcript, two friends of Durrett also testified they’d heard Ezra make similar statements.

Ezra said he was innocent. The authorities presented no physical evidence linking him to the crime. At the trial, no one inside the dry-cleaning shop identified the shooter. Durrett didn’t implicate Ezra until months after the crime — and after he, Durrett, had been charged with the murder. Nevertheless, Durrett went free. A prosecutor told a judge there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Durrett and wrote in a court document that “the sole witness against him” at the coroner’s inquest had “failed to implicate him under direct examination.” Durrett died in 2018.

Ezra was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He tried for decades to reverse the conviction, arguing that the authorities had not followed legal procedure and that his trial attorney had been ineffective. When a Pennsylvania court denied his appeal in 2019, the opinion noted that it was Ezra Bozeman’s eighth petition for post-conviction relief.

He learned to love himself, and others

“Alexa, next,” Christine Roess said, as a reporter listened by phone to her playlist and her stories. Through the bedroom window she could see new leaves on the trees. Christine is 78-years-old, the retired founder of a leadership-development firm that worked with Fortune 500 companies. She has one daughter and has never been married. And although she has been “madly in love” before, Christine said she’d never felt such pure love as she does with Ezra.

Alexa played the next song on Christine and Ezra’s Playlist: a cover version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold.”

“Alexa, pause,” Christine said, choking back tears, as memories washed over her like waves.

Ezra told her how he’d changed in prison. He spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. The men found ingenious ways to feel less alone. They rigged up pulley systems from torn-up sheets and passed books from cell to cell. Sometimes they talked to each other, if they could get away with it.

One hot summer day, according to an essay that Ezra wrote and Christine shared with CNN, Ezra overheard a conversation between an old head and a young buck. The older man was talking about his daughter, and the younger man wanted to write her a love letter. But the older man said the younger man couldn’t love her because he didn’t even love himself.

These words were not meant for Ezra, but they cut him deeply. He realized that he didn’t love himself, and that he needed to start doing so, and then he could give others the same love. He could be love, a kind of love that demanded nothing in return. He would give love, and that would be satisfaction enough. This, he later wrote, was his “key to freedom.” It was “a love that transcends walls and circumstances, a love that knows no bounds.”

Years after leaving solitary confinement, he became a certified peer specialist. This allowed him to visit and comfort others who were in solitary confinement. He felt special compassion for the ones who couldn’t read, because without books it was much harder to pass the time. If someone was in a crisis, refusing to take their medicine, Ezra was a voice of love and reason.

One day he met a social worker named Dana Kelly, and she said he radiated so much love that he became one of her best friends. Sometimes he’d call her when she was with other people, and he’d talk to whoever else was in the room, including a real-estate agent, and his presence transcended those prison walls. One by one, her friends talked to Ezra. And one by one, Kelly said in an interview, they “fell in love with him.”

Her friend Christine Roess saw Ezra on a Zoom call in 2021 and they started talking. She came to believe he was innocent, and began working to get him exonerated. As they kept talking, kept visiting, they really fell in love. They began making plans together. She bought herself an engagement ring.

She’s hoping for a day when they can truly be together

“Fields of Gold” is a wistful song, a remembrance of love and beauty. Christine heard it and thought of her early days with Ezra, when she touched his leg and felt the muscle. He was so strong then. But something wasn’t right. His neck hurt, and he walked with a cane. Even then, she heard a whisper in her mind, a voice telling her these were the golden times. They were not walking together in fields of barley, but these were the times she would fondly remember.

“Alexa, next,” she said.

These were some of Ezra’s favorite songs: Teddy Pendergrass with “When Somebody Loves You Back.” The O’Jays performing “Forever Mine.” The Edwin Hawkins Singers belting out “Oh Happy Day,” which got Christine singing along for a moment.

“Alexa, next,” she said, prompting an acoustic guitar that danced around bursts from a synthesizer, which led into a high male vocal about a picture painting a thousand words.

“You know “If,” by Bread?” she said, and then she was choking up again, because the song said,

If a man could be two places at one time

I’d be with you

Tomorrow and today

Beside you all the way

He was beside her in the visiting room on her birthday in January. When she held his hands, she felt that familiar strength. But his neck injury was getting worse. He had spinal surgery in February, and later that month he fainted and fell. The injuries compounded. Ezra had become paralyzed from the chest down.

When she visited him at Laurel Highlands state prison on April 15th, he was in a bed on wheels. His collarbones stuck out, and his muscles were withering. Looking at him wrapped up in linens, Christine thought he looked almost like a swaddled baby.

Ezra had a severe bedsore on his tailbone because he couldn’t turn himself over. He told her he had to beg the nurses for a drink of water. But he didn’t want anger in his body, so he focused on being love instead. He said the nurses were overworked and unacknowledged.

A few days later he told Christine about another man who needed her help. And when a staff member approached him about working again as a peer specialist for the other sick or disabled inmates at Laurel Highlands, he said something like, “Yeah, I’ve got a whole new skill set now, being a quadriplegic.”

People in Ezra’s condition can easily die of sepsis, or blood clots, or pneumonia. Christine and a few dozen others with Team Free Ezra — a collection of friends, advocates, attorneys, and fellow inmates — are trying to get him out of prison before that happens.

They could persuade the Board of Pardons to commute his sentence. They are working on a motion to persuade a judge to give him compassionate release. And they are asking Gov. Josh Shapiro to give him a reprieve. Christine wrote to the governor this month, pleading for help. Seven Pennsylvania lawmakers signed a letter dated March 14 asking the acting secretary of the Department of Corrections for his release.

“Alexa, next,” Christine said, and there was “Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden, the piano chords forceful and familiar, the words one bold declaration after another.

I’ll be your dream, I’ll be your wish, I’ll be your fantasy

I’ll be your hope, I’ll be your love—

“Be everything that you need,” Christine sang, and she imagined Ezra, by her side in the greenery of Wissahickon Valley Park, and she pictured herself in white, or maybe pink, and there were so many friends, dancing and celebrating, and Ezra’s friend Yusef was giving the bride away to the man they all loved. A man who once sat alone in a cell and overheard the truth. A man who found something that prison walls couldn’t hold. Top Stories

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