Chaneya Kelly is on a mission: she wants the world to know about a horrible lie she says she told almost 16 years ago – a lie that cost a man his freedom.
“I'm 24 years old and I made this mistake when I was nine years old,” Chaneya told NBC News, “but it's never too late to try and right your wrong.“
Chaneya says that in 1997, she falsely accused a man of raping her. That man – who has always maintained his innocence -- is Daryl Kelly, Chaneya’s father.
“All I think is, ‘One day the truth will set me free,’” said Kelly, from Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York. “All I have to do is hold on.”
In October 1997, Daryl Kelly was living with his wife, Charade, and their five children in Newburgh, N.Y., 90 miles north of New York City. Chaneya, their oldest child, was two months shy of her ninth birthday.
At the time, Daryl -- a Navy veteran who owned a local electronics repair shop -- says he was trying to kick a drug habit to take care of his kids. But Charade was at rock bottom, even turning to prostitution to feed her addiction.
Chaneya remembers being downstairs with her father one morning before school when she had to use the bathroom. When she was done, she went upstairs, and that’s when Chaneya says her mother asked her a question that came out of the blue.
“She repeatedly asked me, has my dad touched me,” recalled Chaneya. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, did he touch me?’ And she was like, ‘Did he touch you in your no-no spot?’ And I would repeatedly say no.”
Chaneya says the more she denied any abuse, the more irate her mother became – and even threatened her with a belt. According to Chaneya, her mother said, “If you don’t tell me the answer that I want to hear, I’m going to beat you.” To avoid a beating, says Chaneya, she told her mother that her father molested her even though it wasn't true.
On the morning of October 29, 1997 Newburgh police took Kelly downtown for questioning. They found some of his answers suspicious.
For example, when they asked him why his semen and fingerprints were found on his daughter, Daryl scrambled for an explanation. According to a police report, he said, “My wife is doing drugs and alcohol. Maybe she’s setting me up.’“
He didn’t know until later that no semen or fingerprints had been found.
In fact, there was no definitive forensic evidence that Chaneya had been raped. While a doctor's report did conclude that there was "possible sexual abuse" because of some redness, Chaneya’s hymen was intact even though she claimed her father had penetrated her.
But with both Chaneya and her mom telling police the same story, it was enough for police. Daryl Kelly was charged with multiple counts of rape and sodomy.
Kelly -- who had never before been convicted of a felony -- refused a plea deal that would have made him eligible for parole in six years, and within a year he faced a jury. Based on Chaneya’s graphic testimony, it took them just hours to find her father guilty, and he was sentenced to 20 to 40 years and barred from having any contact with his children.
After her father’s conviction, authorities removed Chaneya from her mother's custody, citing Charade’s drug abuse, and she was sent to live with her grandmother, Pat Thomas, a Pentecostal minister. It was there – six months after her father’s conviction -- that Chaneya told her grandmother that she was never raped, and that the story had been born out of fear of her mother.
Grandmother Pat took Chaneya to Daryl’s appellate attorney, who videotaped her recantation, in which she says she learned words like “penis” and “vagina” from the prosecution team, and the mechanics of sex from pornography stashed under her parents’ bed. On the tape, she looks uncomfortable, mumbling short, hesitant answers like, “No,” and “I think so.”
Her mother, Charade, also submitted an affidavit to the court, swearing she threatened to beat Chaneya unless she said her father raped her.
The prosecutor argued that the recantation looked coerced, and the same judge who oversaw his original trial a year earlier agreed. He refused to vacate Kelly's conviction.
As the years went by, Daryl began studying the law in prison, and began the long slog of filing appeals -- all of which have been denied.
Meanwhile, Chaneya never gave up on her father. When she was 15, she convinced the courts to allow her to once again have contact with him – and that’s when she went to visit him in prison.
“The first thing my dad did was that he hugged me and he told me that he loved me and … that he doesn’t blame me for anything,” Chaneya recalled. “It was priceless to me.”
Today, Chaneya’s mom Charade says she’s been drug-free for many years. In a recent interview with NBC News, Charade confirmed that she threatened her daughter with a beating, and said she can’t remember why she was so determined to make Chaneya say she had been molested. She blames the incident on a drug binge. “I [had been] gone for three days. And I was really deep in the grip of my addiction.” When asked why she would threaten her daughter if she didn’t lie, Charade said, “I have no idea, I really don’t.”
From behind prison walls, Daryl Kelly has written to anyone who will listen to his story. Last year, one of those letters landed on the desk of Thomas Schellhammer, the head of the newly formed Conviction Review Bureau at the N.Y. Attorney General's office. Schellhammer contacted Orange County District Attorney Frank Phillips, the county’s elected chief prosecutor for almost 30 years, who was in charge when Daryl Kelly stood trial.
In an interview with NBC News, Phillips strongly defended the integrity of the original prosecution, saying he trained his prosecutors “that truth is the most important thing,” and stressing that a jury had found Kelly guilty.
“The system says he’s not innocent, that the credibility of Chaneya was tested, that the issues surrounding her testimony back in 1998 were addressed,” said Phillips.
Phillips also said it was “not unique” for the victim of a crime like rape or molestation to want to protect the abuser by withdrawing an accusation. “It’s part of a dynamic that we deal with. Whether it’s sex crimes or crimes of domestic violence, that is not unusual.”
After hearing from Schellhammer, Phillips recused himself from reexamining the Kelly case and referred it to a committee of the state association of county district attorneys for review. Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick is currently leading a re-investigation; his office told NBC News it declined comment while the review is underway. Detective Thomas Mancinelli, who led the original police investigation in Newburgh, also declined to comment on the case.
Is it possible that Chaneya is simply repressing a horrible memory, that her father really did rape her, and she feels guilty about putting him behind bars?
She says no, that she’d have no problem with her father remaining in prison if he were guilty. “I wouldn’t be here having this conversation.“
As for Daryl, he says he won’t truly be free until he’s vindicated. “This fight will never end,” he said. “I will continue to fight for this. This is my reputation. This is my decree. This is the truth. It's not just for me. It's for my daughter as well.”