The first ting that Phumlani Sam asked warders for when he stepped into the West Bank Maximum Prison to begin his 15 year jail sentence for business robbery was to be put in a cell with churchgoers.
Sam had heard horror stories about how hardened criminals welcomed new inmates by assaulting them with padlocks and stabbing them with sharpened toothbrushes.
Fortunately warders listened to his plea and he was locked up with a group of reformed inmates for four months. It was July 13 last year and he had moments earlier been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail for a crime he never committed. In November last year after new evidence emerged Sam was granted bail.
Last week his ordeal came to an end when Grahamstown High Court Judge Yusuf Ebrahim set aside the conviction and sentencing following an appeal.
Sam described his case as a travesty of justice and thanks his wife, Ntomboxolo, his attorney Andre Schoombee and private investigator Christian Botha for the freedom he enjoys today.
Recalling the day his life changed, Sam said he was arrested in July 2009 outside his house in Southernwood. An Organised Crime Unit police detective accosted him while he was on his way home from a shop in St. Peters Road.
The policeman had pulled out a firearm and ordered Sam to lie down.
It was alleged he had been involved in a business robbery that took place at an upmarket store in Cambridge. The police, he said, had based their investigation on footage taken from surveillance cameras in the store.
Sam said one of the three suspects caught on camera walked with a limp, as does he. During an identity parade that afternoon witnesses pointed him out as the main suspect.
That day I felt the sun had set on my life, he said.
He was charged with armed robbery by Cambridge police. During his trial Sam maintained his innocence until the end. But after two years he was found guilty of the crime, denied leave to appeal and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“Can you imagine stepping into a maximum security prison for the first time, when all your life you have never seen the inside of a police station,” he said.
“When I got to jail that day, I begged the warders to place me in a cell where there were no incidents of violence, where people passed time by praying.
“Every day I prayed for the nightmare to end. My wife was outside pressuring the authorities to rehear my case,” he said, adding that he had contracted Botha to investigate the case.
Botha said it had been clear from the start that Sam was innocent.
“My informants told me the police had the wrong man,” he said. Botha then roped in the help of facial recognition experts from Johannesburg and Sam’s face was compared to that of the suspect caught on camera.
“Although there were similarities between the two like the limp and their height, by using facial recognition technology, experts were able to prove it was not him,” said Botha. He added that same also had an alibi from his wife and domestic servant that he had been at home at the time of the robbery.
Schoombee said he had to petition the Grahamstown High Court to allow the defence to lodge an appeal.
Police spokesman Lieutenant Nkosikho Mzuku confirmed that police had arrested Sam for the robbery, but was not aware that he had since been released.