The scene first came to him in the late 1980s, when he was playing minor league baseball. Between seasons, he enrolled in his first college classes, imagining the day when he’d walk across a stage, flip his tassel, and take home a degree in business management.
That dream was deferred in 1989, when Gardner was arrested for a brutal crime he didn’t commit. The legal wranglings were complex but the gist was simple: While he didn’t actually look like the suspect, he fit the vague description of a tall black male.
Gardner spent the next 27 years in the West Virginia prison system fighting for his freedom. But he also continued taking classes, with professors from nearby colleges teaching a room full of inmates everything from computers to heating and air conditioning repair to culinary arts.
“Every opportunity I had to take a class or learn a vocation, I took advantage of it,” Gardner said.
Today, Gardner is getting ready to celebrate his fifth anniversary of being released from prison and cleared of all charges. He’s married to a high-profile woman who’s become his biggest supporter. And the 54-year-old is on track to earn his bachelors degree with honors this fall from Chapman University.
Gardner plans to use his communications degree to continue sharing his story, shedding light on other wrongful conviction cases and inspiring people to keep fighting for justice.
“I never gave up,” Gardner said. “Now I want to bring awareness and keep individuals informed on how you should react in these situations and how you survive to see another day.”
Gardner hopes the coronavirus pandemic will subside enough by the fall that he’ll get to walk across a stage rather than accept his diploma in a virtual ceremony. But if the last few decades have taught him anything it’s that, while life too often isn’t fair and dreams do in fact explode, they also can sometimes be put together again.
The wrong guy
Gardner was one of eight kids born in Georgia to a dad who built houses and a mom who worked for a sewing thread manufacturer. He grew up in Tampa, Fl., where he earned good grades and was a standout on his high school baseball team.
The Chicago Cubs drafted Gardner straight out of high school in 1984 for their affiliated minor league teams. He played professionally for the next four years, working part-time jobs, taking college classes between seasons and getting to know his newborn daughter.
Gardner was 20 years old, pitching for the Charleston Wheelers in West Virginia in 1987. It was a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On May 16, 1987, a man described as around 6 feet tall with light black skin broke into an 82-year-old Charleston woman’s home. He beat her, raped her 60-year-old daughter, then stole $90 and a cassette player.
A couple months later, another Charleston woman was assaulted in her home by a man with a similar description. Police believed the two crimes were linked, so they questioned more than 100 tall black men in the area.
Gardner is several inches taller than the attacker, at 6 foot 3 inches, and points to his dark complexion. He was questioned, fingerprinted and released.
Gardner had put the incident behind him and was back in Florida two years later, attending college for business management, when police arrested him. They said his fingerprint matched one found on a vase in the first victim’s home. While that claim was later disputed, they charged him with both assaults.
None of the victims identified him as their attacker. One victim chose another suspect in the lineup.
But West Virginia’s chief blood analyst at the time, Fred Zain, said evidence from both sexual assaults suggested Gardner couldn’t be ruled out as a suspect. Then Zain claimed the man identified by one of the victims couldn’t have been her attacker.
Gardner later learned that lab results actually showed the attacker had Type O blood, while he had Type A blood. Also, genetic markers did not in fact rule out the other suspect. But that information wasn’t shared with Gardner’s defense team or presented to the jury during his trial.
On Feb. 1, 1990, a jury acquitted Gardner on charges of attacking the second victim, but convicted him of assaulting and robbing the first two women. At 23 years old, he was sentenced to up to 110 years in prison.
Fighting for himself
Three years later, in 1993, West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals received complaints about Zain falsifying evidence. A judge determined that Zain’s “pattern and practice of misconduct completely undermined the validity and reliability of any forensic work he performed or reported.”
Zain’s testimony was used to convict an estimated 136 people in the 1970s and ’80s, Gardner later learned. His team insists the state of West Virginia knew as early as 1985 that Zain wasn’t qualified as a DNA or bodily fluids expert but still let the man testify in his 1990 trial, which hinged on exactly such evidence.
Zain was fired in 1993 and indicted for fraud, according to the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan. He died while awaiting trial.
Given the revelations about Zain’s testimony, Gardner first filed for the West Virginia courts to review his conviction in 1993. A state judge denied his petition.
“I went through 13 attorneys that were on my case,” he said. “My case lingered throughout the system for 23 years without me getting the opportunity to get a review in court.”
During that time, Gardner had been studying the law. In 2012, he filed his own petition for relief in federal court, knowing full well that it would likely be denied since he technically hadn’t exhausted his options in state court.
“I kept telling individuals, I’m doing to fight until the day I die. Just because the courts aren’t hearing me, I’m not going to stop.”
The federal judge denied Gardner’s initial petition but assigned him a federal defender and agreed to let them present his case in court. On March 25, 2016, the judge ruled in his favor.
“The judge said I had been held in legal purgatory for 23 years in state court and it was a complete miscarriage of justice,” Gardner recalled.
The judge released him April 1, 2016 on a $10,000 bond. He was 49 years old when he returned home and started getting to know his daughter, who was then 31 years old.
But while the federal judge had vacated his convictions, West Virginia opted to retry Gardner on all charges. His team spent the next five months preparing. On Sept. 7, 2016, West Virginia prosecutors took the uncommon step of dismissing all charges against Gardner with prejudice, meaning they can’t ever be filed again.
Out of the 136 cases convicted on Zain’s testimony, Gardner said he was only the sixth person who successfully challenged his sentence.
“All of those other 100-plus cases, they’ve either died off or been brushed under the rug,” he said.
Gardner is still fighting in court today, trying to get compensation from West Virginia for the years he was wrongfully imprisoned.
While he was in prison, Gardner started hatching a plan to become a motivational speaker. He vowed to God that if he ever got out, he’d speak for free for one year.
From October 2016 to October 2017, with support from family and advocates, he volunteered to share his story and to advocate for social justice reform everywhere he could.
“I speak about resiliency, determination, never giving up, staying positive and being thankful for the opportunities you have,” he said.
After his year of service ended, Gardner started a for-profit company called J.C. Gardner Speaks. He also formed the nonprofit Gardner House to help get people out of prison and transition back into society. And he’s involved in multiple criminal justice reform efforts, including a seat on the board of the Georgia Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted prisoners.
It was through this work that he met his wife, Leslie Abrams Gardner, who became the first Black woman appointed as a federal judge in Georgia in 2014 and is sister to voting rights activist Stacey Abrams.
The two met at an event for the Georgia’s Black Women Lawyers Association. He started sharing his story, with no idea the woman he was speaking to was a federal judge.
“It’s funny because I was explaining to her how the law worked in my case,” Gardner says.
Instead of getting offended, Gardner said Leslie Abrams told him, “Wow, you could actually be an attorney.” She hesitated to tell him her job, he said, fearing his experience with the justice system would put him off. But Gardner was impressed with her accomplishments — and more than a bit smitten.
The pair got married in November 2018, and he said, “It’s just been wonderful ever since.
“She challenges me from a great position and I challenge her from a good position,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to have two minds come together and be able to share opinions and just really get to know each other.”
Diploma in sight
It was Leslie Abrams Gardner who introduced her husband to Chapman University. In January, 2020, he sat in the audience as his wife gave the keynote speech during the Fowler School of Law’s annual Law Review Symposium.
Six months later, as university President Daniele Struppa committed to new diversity initiatives aimed at better supporting students of color on campus in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Gardner was invited to share his experience during a virtual town hall.
By the fall, he had transferred dozens of hours of credits he’d accumulated over the years and was enrolled at Chapman as a senior on a full-ride Presidential Scholarship.
While he’s been completing his courses remotely from Georgia due to the pandemic, Gardner hopes to move to Orange County to attend his last semester in person. It will mean a long distance relationship with his wife for a few months, though he suspects she’ll visit often.
Gardner said he has heard about Chapman’s struggles to attract and support Black students. But he’s been impressed with the concrete steps the university is taking to improve its diversity and said he wants to support those efforts.
“I don’t want to discount anyone else’s experience,” he said. “But I’ve had a pleasant experience and I look forward to attracting more individuals that look like me to come to Chapman.”
Once he graduates, Gardner hopes he might get a talk show or podcast that will help him bring his message to a bigger audience.
And he plans to keep fighting for others who are still sitting in prison cells, nursing their own deferred dreams.