Lavernia: A Happy Ending

After 16 years in jail, an innocent Cuban refugee gets his green card

Lavernia: A Happy Ending

Carlos Lavernia, a Cuban refugee who spent 16 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, is now in possession of what has eluded him for two decades: a green card. A U.S. immigration judge granted Lavernia his long-awaited residency card at a Sept. 16 hearing in San Antonio.

The document represents another momentous chapter in Lavernia's life since he arrived on U.S. soil in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift from Cuba. Lavernia's attorney, Dan Kowalski, says Lavernia was the calmer of the two during last week's hearing. "I was much more affected by the event than he was ... because I know all the ways in which things can go wrong," Kowalski said. "But Carlos has been totally focused on this for 20 years. He had no question that this day would come."

Similarly, Lavernia had no question that he would eventually win his release from prison, where he ended up in 1985 after being wrongfully convicted in the 1983 sexual assault of a woman in the Barton Creek greenbelt. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison, where he languished until a DNA test in 2000 bore out his repeated claims of innocence. A judge overturned the conviction, but Lavernia's legal troubles didn't end there.

U.S. immigration authorities wanted to deport Lavernia back to Cuba because of a prior conviction of indecency with a child. Lavernia says that incident never happened, but that he pleaded guilty at the time as part of a plea agreement that would keep him out of jail. While his attorneys tried to straighten out the indecency conviction, Lavernia spent three years in the Travis Co. jail; while there, he won a judgment of more than $435,000 in a wrongful-imprisonment lawsuit against the state.

Last October, Lavernia finally walked out of jail a free man. Kowalski credits the work of other attorneys before him – Karen Crawford and Robert Swafford among them – for helping Lavernia secure his freedom and monetary damages. The Austin resident is now starting to understand this thing called the American dream. He bought a home that he's remodeling with plans to put it on the rental market; he opened an auto body shop; and he bought a couple of nice cars for himself. His mother, who still lives in Cuba, visited him in the spring; it was the first time they had seen each other in 24 years.

Two years from now, another chapter in Lavernia's story will be set into motion when he applies for citizenship. Only then will he have completed the journey he started when he climbed aboard the boat to the U.S.

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Carlos Lavernia, Karen Crawford, Robert Swafford, Dan Kowalski, Cuba, immigration, INS

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