Exoneree Runs Smoothie Chain, Making Up For 27 Years Of Lost Entrepreneurship
From his prison cot, for 27 years, Mark Schand plotted out a retail empire he’d been envisioning since well before his arrest.
“I would lay in bed, my eyes wide open, looking at the ceiling, and just thinking of a color scheme, and picture the uniform,” said Schand.
He’d also imagine eating – and serving – something other than prison slop.
“The food in there is atrocious,” he said. “I mean, everything is dehydrated. I’d just try to stay away from the processed stuff they sell in the commissary.”
That may explain why today, five years after a Massachusetts judge vacated his murder conviction, Schand is a devotee to fitness and nutrition. It also explains why his new chain of smoothie bars, called Sweetwater, advertises only fresh ingredients.
“I often brag we got no oil, sugar, or butter,” he said, sitting at a small table sipping a pineapple and coconut drink. “We don't cook with it. We don't have any here."
Schand, 54, opened his first café in New Britain, Connecticut, a year ago. The mayor cut the ribbon.
At first, Schand said, customers visited out of curiosity about his backstory. But now, they come to the café for the healthy shakes.
“How you doing, sir?" Schand greeted a regular, who responded with a high five. “I lost five pounds, thanks to you guys!”
This business is meant to reboot a career Schand says was stolen from him at the age of 19. In the months before he was arrested, he’d been preparing to open his first clothing store.
“I signed a lease, I got my LLC,” he said. “Had I not been locked up, where would I be now?'
Schand always insisted he was nowhere near the 1986 nightclub shooting in Springfield, Massachusetts, that killed a 25-year-old bystander. In 2013, new evidence convinced a judge to let him go.
But as an exoneree, Schand did not qualify for job training, tuition help, or other re-entry services offered to people on parole. So he had to take jobs in manual labor at UPS and a gun manufacturer. And he got tired of the long hours dictated by a boss.
It wasn’t exactly the same as prison, but it wasn’t different enough.
“I plan on never working again for another person, if I can help it,” he said.
But to start his own business, Schand needed money, and he said no bank would give him a loan. He's filed a civil lawsuit against the cities of Springfield and Hartford, but that could take years.
That left his only recourse in a state statute that allows compensation to those wrongfully convicted. When Schand was released, the maximum was $500,000.
“They made it as much work and trouble as they could,” said Schand’s longtime lawyer, John Thompson, of Springfield.
After Schand got out, Thompson thought the state would right its wrong without a fuss. But he said the Massachusetts attorney general's office, which oversees compensation claims, fought against the payout from the get-go.
“The attorney general's office has been litigating these and forcing people to go two, three, four years out of prison before they can get anything,” Thompson said.
But Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy said the legal process takes a long time because it's designed to be adversarial. She said her office has no choice but to defend the state against the exoneree.
“Some might look and say, well, if the court decided to release this person, then, Commonwealth, why don't you just write the check?” Healy said. “But the statute only permits recovery if that person has established – has proved – actual innocence.”
"They should be compensating [you] because they wronged you. They can't give you your years back."
This is common in many states. On the one hand, legislators agree that courts make mistakes. But they don't want to pay people who only got out on a technicality, so exonerees have to go back to court for compensation.
Healy said she would like the Massachusetts legislature to create a whole different system for wrongful convictions, one set up as a simple claim process, not a legal fight.
“I am sure that Mr. Schand would have liked to have seen recovery sooner. I can't imagine what it's like to have lost 27 years of my life,” Healy said. “But we have to follow what the current process is under the law.”
Since Schand's case – and partly because of it – future exonerees will have it somewhat better.
"We found the law wasn't working the way we expected it to,” said State Senator Patricia Jehlen, who helped write the compensation law in 2004.
So in 2018, Jehlen helped rewrite the law as part of the Massachusetts criminal justice overhaul.
Under the new statute, the wrongfully-convicted still have to prove their innocence, but the cap on restitution was doubled to $1 million. Plus they get job training, health care, and other services. Their claims are supposed to be fast-tracked in the court system, and the state pays attorneys’ fees.
"It will be more likely that attorneys would be willing to accept a case that might require a lot of work,” Jehlen said, “if they're going to get attorneys’ fees separate from the compensation they get for their client.”
The changes came too late for Mark Schand. When his case finally settled in 2017, he accepted $50,000 less than the maximum. After he paid his lawyer, he got $300,000 – which comes to about $11,000 per year of incarceration.
Still, that was enough for him to buy a rental property, and to pay start-up costs for his smoothie business, including equipment, supplies and license fees.
When I told Schand he strikes me as good example of why states have these compensation statutes – to give someone the means to start over after years behind bars – he expressed a rare moment of bitterness.
“No, no, no, no, 100 percent no. I disagree with that,” he said.
Frankly, Schand added, it's no one's business what exonerees do with their money. This is not a start-over grant; it's a moral debt.
“They should be compensating [you] because they wronged you,” he said. “And they can't give you your years back. So the fact that they yanked me and incarcerated me for 30 years, the money they gave me means nothing.”
Today, Schand is relying on his own business acumen more than any state assistance.
Last September, he opened a second smoothie location in Hartford, tucked in the corner of a noisy deli. On opening day, his grandchildren were giving out free samples, and his youngest son Quentin was on hand.
Quentin was in utero when Schand went to prison. Now at 31, he was passing out flyers to advertise the shop.
"I've passed out maybe 200 or 300 of them to individuals,” Quentin Schand said, grabbing a few extra flyers before heading back out to the street. “Hopefully, they'll come."
If all goes well, Mark Schand hopes to open a third smoothie location. Eventually, he'd like to hire ex-inmates – the innocent and the guilty. But the first men he tried to help just didn’t make good enough smoothies.
“You’ve got to make sure the product is right, or the customer base will be gone,” he said. “The smoothie people – they’re finicky. If the smoothie’s not right, they’re out of there, and I’ve got to protect the business.”
When a new customer came in for the opening, Schand offered to make his favorite smoothie. It’s called “The Linda and John Thompson” in honor of the lawyers who helped get him out of prison.
“It's the freshest thing — pineapple, green apple, ginger,” Schand said, as he put ice and fruit in the blender.
After a minute, he poured the thick liquid in a large plastic cup and let it almost overflow beyond the dome lid. He handed it to his 5-year-old granddaughter, who was waiting to help.
“Wait a minute, use two hands,” Schand cautioned her. “Say, ‘Here you go!’ Say, ‘You’re welcome!’"
And with that, Mark Schand swung open the piece of plywood that led out of the kitchen nook and apologized for rushing off. He was late to meet a realtor for what could be his next business venture: a downtown sports bar.