The state can’t isolate the imagination: Vernon T. Bateman and the struggle to free them all

Editor’s note: This article was initially published by the Hampton Institute on May 13, 2024 under the title, “The state can’t isolate the imagination: Vernon T. Bateman and the struggle to free them all.” It is reprinted here with permission.


U.S. prisons are universally known for their exceptional brutality and terror, with even corporate media covering their routine barbarity. What is less widely acknowledged, however, is the ongoing history of resistance against the mass incarceration system that is organized behind, across, and outside of prison bars. This political resistance is visible in the heroic hunger strikes and uprisings of our people behind enemy lines; it is also evident in the hope and creativity that not only survive, but actually foster in such isolating and despairing conditions.

There is perhaps no better example of this resistance that defies the state’s repressive apparatus than Vernon T. Bateman who, in 1998, was falsely charged and convicted of rape, criminal deviant conduct, and confinement in Gary, Indiana. The state had no evidence connecting him to the crime. Even worse, what physical evidence existed never materialized in court. As detailed below, Bateman was convicted based entirely on prosecutorial misconduct and false testimonies that were later recanted, yet he wasn’t released from prison until 2023, and he continues to live in a social prison under severe parole conditions. Although Bateman has maintained his innocence and fought for his freedom since 1998, the organized battle for his full exoneration is just beginning.

Imagination flourishes under isolating conditions

Most people don’t know Bateman’s history of wrongful incarceration. He is, however, widely known for his art, something his grandfather–a poet, framer, and painter–introduced him to as a child. Vernon could draw years before he could read or write, skills he only learned once incarcerated. He did more than learn common literacy, however: he combined writing and drawing with his burgeoning artistic imagination, and he realized that creative capacity under the most repressive conditions.

Bateman explains one of his paintings on sale at The Frame Shop in Indianapolis. Credit: Indianapolis Liberation Center.

Bateman’s art continues to expand, as does the people’s desire for it. At the end of March 2024, he unveiled his “Eclipse Murals” at The District Theatre in downtown Indianapolis to a crowd of artists, faith leaders, community organizers, friends, family, and passersby. If you watch Bateman discuss the murals, you can hear, see, and feel his dedication to community, creativity, and  justice. Originally created as gifts for the public, he eventually gave into the venue owner’s insistence on remuneration.

How the state sent another innocent Black man to prison

Maintaining his innocence, Bateman refused to accept any plea deals. Within a few years of his sentencing, the disturbing systemic injustices and significant irregularities in the state’s case against Bateman started surfacing, ones that do more than establish reasonable doubt; they establish his innocence. Nonetheless, Bateman spent 25 years in prison, over half of his life so far. Although he was released from prison in 2023, he continues to be subjected to conditions that amount to house arrest, including ankle monitoring and curfews, the inability to attend therapy or take driving classes to get his license, and more. He hasn’t even been able to meet his own grandson yet.

Fortunately, a growing community of support is working to exonerate Bateman, a fight you can aid by signing a petition demanding his full and immediate exoneration. A new documentary provides a glimpse into the humility, kindness, optimism, and commitment to justice Bateman and his artistic work and community projects, like Baby22 Gun Safety LLC, exemplify.

A corrupt detective, false testimony, and a lying “eyewitness”

When the trial started on September 14, 1998, Angela Truitt, the complaining witness, failed to appear causing the judge to issue a bench warrant; however, the next day, the same judge granted the State a continuance until September 22, 1998, rather than dismissing the charges against Bateman. That Bateman’s public defender did not object or ask for a dismissal evidenced the ineffective assistance he received at trial. Truitt’s absence is notable, especially when accompanied by the self-revelation that she did not come to court because she had “reasonable doubt” that Bateman was even involved in the crime at all.

In 2004, the alleged victim, Angela Truitt, testified under oath that chief investigator Detective Mary Banks told her to identify Bateman as one of her assailants. After confirming this, Attorney Ray L. Szarmach asked if it “was, in fact, Vernon Bateman at the rape, or was Vernon Bateman in that rape?” In her sworn testimony, Truitt said “I’m not sure. I told you they told me that’s who it was. I didn’t know who none of them guys were. The police told me he was a suspect.” When asked why Truitt recanted her testimony and if she wanted him to be free, she responded “Yes.”

The other testimony used by the state was delivered by Det. Banks, who said she got Bateman’s name “from the other suspect [Sa’ron Foley] that was in custody.” Foley was a co-defendant tried separately for the same crime. He never appeared on the stand during Bateman’s trial, depriving Bateman of his constitutional right to cross-examination. Banks delivered his testimony, which he later admitted was fabricated. Since at least 2005, Foley has adamantly worked to atone for his lie. In a 2009 affidavit, Foley stated that he “made falsified statements against Vernon Bateman on 1-23-98 to Det. M. Banks,” and that he had contacted Bateman’s attorney about five years prior to relay his willingness to testify on Bateman’s behalf. He never heard back.

Nine years later, in a handwritten letter addressed to FOX59 and reporter Angela Ganote and signed by a Notary Public, Foley wrote he had “been silent for too long” and “this evidence should have been brought to the court’s attention 20 yrs ago… Vernon Bateman was never [at the scene of the alleged crime]… That was made up by me & Det. Mary Banks.”

That same year, Foley even dedicated an entire hearing before the parole board, which only happens once a year, to advocate for Bateman’s freedom rather than his own. Foley lied because of a grudge he held against Bateman, but, as Ganote reported, “he has been trying to make things right for decades. He has written attorneys, a judge, the governor and me. He says no one will listen.” The state’s continued refusal to listen is the answer to Foley’s question.

A “missing” rape kit

What is perhaps most perplexing–or rather, convincing–is that the sexual assault forensic exam performed on Truitt, the very thing that could exonerate Bateman, was never entered into evidence. Bateman’s motions requesting the results of the examination and to submit his own DNA into evidence were denied.

A physician at Methodist Northlake Hospital examined the alleged victim, Angela Truitt, and released the sexual assault kit to Det. Banks. However, the state neither tested nor introduced the rape kit as evidence during Bateman’s trial. When asked if the examination results came back during cross-examination, Banks said “I don’t know.” In 2019, when Ganote tried to track it down, the hospital referred her to the Gary police, who referred her to the city’s attorneys, who “told me they didn’t have it.”

To this day, the kit hasn’t been recovered. The prison authorities later explicitly denied Ganote from visiting Bateman while he remained behind bars.

Throughout this period, various legal petitions and appeals were filed, including petitions to challenge Bateman’s conviction and justify his release. These efforts were met with resistance and legal hurdles, further prolonging Bateman’s unjust imprisonment. Notably, a petition to vacate highlighted violations of Bateman’s constitutional right to cross-examine his accuser, including the loss of crucial evidence such as the rape kit and ineffective assistance of counsel, were denied.

Join Bateman’s struggle and free them all!

Bateman says he doesn’t have any ill feelings towards Truitt. “You got to understand, people like me aren’t mad at the alleged victims, but at the system. In my case, my accuser was a victim of the system, too,” he said in an April 2024 interview with the Indianapolis Liberation Center.

Bateman, his family, and even his former enemy have been fighting for his freedom for decades. The state remains unwilling to acknowledge the abundant judicial misconduct, recanted testimonies, and police corruption that kept an innocent man in prison for over half of his life and to this day keep him locked in a social prison. They can only do so as long as his story remains hidden.

What will it take to exonerate yet another innocent man held captive by the state of Indiana? An organized struggle that forces the truth into the open and makes it impossible for the state to continue avoiding accountability. This struggle, which is only possible because of Bateman’s enduring belief that justice will prevail in the end, is one that needs your support, whoever and wherever you are.

Bateman’s story demonstrates that, despite all of its repressive powers, the state remains impotent when confronted by the imagination, creativity, and resilience of humanity. That is the most powerful lesson–the one often neglected in the doomsday pieces about the racist and capitalist U.S. mass incarceration system–that Bateman’s words, works, and very being teach us every day. It’s up to us to learn and act on that lesson to win freedom not only for Bateman, but for all wrongly convicted, political, and social prisoners in the United States.

Sign the petition!

Featured photo: Vernon T. Bateman speaks at a Liberation Forum in May 2024. Credit: Indianapolis Liberation Center.