ven after 30 years, Reverend Nathaniel T. Grady Sr. can still feel the handcuffs ratcheting around his wrists as the judge pronounced him guilty of unspeakable crimes against children. He can still recall the muddled, slow-motion swirl of faces and sounds and cries and sighs as he was led out of the courtroom, now a convicted child molester. He can still remember the surreal, almost out-of-body experience of being sentenced to 45 years in prison for a series of crimes he’s always maintained he did not commit. He can even recollect the hollowness in the pit of his stomach as he watched Yankee Stadium fade from view on his prison-bus ride to Fishkill Correctional Facility to begin serving his sentence.
“I was devastated,” says the 78-year-old Methodist minister, a onetime Yonkers Police Department chaplain, of his indictment on 42 counts of child sexual abuse in 1984 and his conviction on 19 of those counts—including two counts of first-degree rape—on January 20, 1986. “I couldn’t believe it. They led me away in handcuffs and put me on suicide watch.”
Nearly two decades after his conviction was overturned in 1997, Grady still sounds incredulous when he talks about his ordeal. “I just sat there in disbelief for the entire 13 weeks of the trial,” he recalls. “And then the verdict came in right after Martin Luther King’s birthday. Martin. Luther. King’s. Birthday.” He pauses as if struck anew by that awful irony.
After all, at the time of his arrest in 1984, Grady, then a 46-year-old married father of two, had been a well-known, well-liked, and well-respected member of the community. Ordained in 1957, he had always been active in civil-rights issues, led youth groups, even served as a trustee on the board of St. Joseph’s Medical Center. From 1967 until 1983, Grady served as pastor at the Church of Our Saviour in Yonkers. He’d recently been appointed to serve as pastor of the Westchester United Methodist Church in the Bronx when his life was turned upside down.
Grady’s office was located in the church building, which also housed the Westchester Tremont Day Care Center. Not long after his appointment as pastor, a 3-year-old who attended the city-funded daycare center allegedly told his mother that a “robber” in black clothes had been doing bad things to him at naptime.
The child’s parents notified the FBI and, soon, says Grady, “The Bronx District Attorney’s Office was involved, too. They set up a task force and set up a camera concealed in an air conditioner” at the center. They also hid cameras in the gym and in the bathroom, and secretly recorded the goings-on—or lack thereof: During the course of 640 hours of tape, Grady appeared only three times. And in those instances, he says, “I was not interacting with the children.”
The daycare teachers assured officials that the children were supervised by an adult at all times and that Grady was never left alone with the kids. There was no physical evidence linking Grady to the alleged crimes, either, yet the prosecutor persisted.
But the Bronx DA was not just any prosecutor. He was the bold, brash Mario Merola, the no-nonsense, limelight-loving badass who’d successfully prosecuted “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz. He was not about to let a child molester walk free—not on his watch.
It would be 10 long years before Reverend Grady would see the light of day.
To understand Grady’s plight, one must place his case in the context of its time. So intense was the child-abuse hysteria of the 1980s—ushered in in 1982 and 1983 by the notorious Kern County child-abuse cases and the McMartin preschool case in California—and so fervent was the hunt for perpetrators, that the almost rabid pursuit of indictments and convictions across the country has been the subject of numerous articles, books, sociological studies, and documentaries.
At Grady’s trial, 26 witnesses—including a judge, a bishop, and a Yonkers police commissioner—testified on his behalf. And none of their testimony corroborated any of the statements allegedly made by the 3- and 4-year-olds who were relentlessly interviewed—according to The National Registry of Exonerations, a 1994 “CBS investigation showed that each of the children had been questioned more than 80 times before trial.” The children were rewarded with trips to the park, candy, and other goodies for giving the “correct” answers, and none of the them could identify Reverend Grady as the man who had hurt them. In fact, says Grady’s first appellate attorney, Michael H. Sussman, a Harvard-educated lawyer who had gotten to know Grady when he worked on (and won) the Yonkers school and housing desegregation case, “The entire trial was unconscionable.” When asked to identify the abuser in court, Sussman recalls, “the kid points to the judge, then to the DA. Then [prosecutor] Eric Warner, takes the kid to a park, he comes back and the kid points to Reverend Grady.” It was later revealed that there were no notes or video of the interviews with the children. Still, Grady was convicted.
“I always believed I would win the appeal,” Grady says, “because I knew I was innocent. But we were in court 21 times and, at first, the appellate court wouldn’t hear it.”
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While working in the law library at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York (he was sent there after Fishkill), Grady read about a law that might help his appeal. It maintained, Grady says, that “there was no such thing as a continuing course of conduct, meaning you can’t say you raped a person a thousand times—you have to name the date, place, and time. I told Sussman there had been convictions reversed on this. One of the cases I’d read about was attorney Joel Rudin’s case.” Sussman, says Grady, “told me that it didn’t apply to my case because of the ages of the kids.” Sussman says, “Our strategies related to the absolutely absurd suggestiveness that characterized the trial, young children who didn’t have testimonial capacity—so how could those children relate how they were abused, when it happened, and how many times?” Sussman still believes he raised all the arguments that should have been raised, “but they didn’t work.” Joel Rudin took over as appellate counsel. It was then that Grady really began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“He’d heard about my successful representation of other innocent men convicted of sexual abuse at daycare centers in the Bronx and contacted me from prison,” recalls Rudin. “After I read the trial transcript, and based upon what I knew about his and similar daycare center sex-abuse cases in the Bronx, I was totally convinced of his absolute innocence.” The children, Rudin says, “were coerced to accuse him, even though they had no idea what they were saying.”
Rudin believes that Grady’s conviction was a result of “the national hysteria, as well as an ambitious district attorney who saw this as a ticket to being mayor, and FBI agents who were under pressure to justify the tens of millions of federal dollars that had been allocated for such investigations.”
Rudin succeeded in showing that Michael Sussman “had been negligent in failing to complain on appeal that the indictment was so vague as to time and place that it gave no notice of any specific criminal acts for Reverend Grady to defend against.” Sussman says he supported Rudin because everyone’s goal was to free Grady, “and I absolutely believe he was innocent.”
After several years of fighting for his client in state court, “we finally won in federal court on a writ of habeas corpus arguing ineffective assistance of appellate counsel,” says Rudin. “Reverend Grady was released after spending 10 years in prison. We then pursued a new state appeal and won. The whole case had been ridiculous from the start.”
Grady credits God, the Church (which voted not to revoke his ordination), his mother and his family, and Joel Rudin with giving him a new lease on life. “I’m thankful that my mother had the opportunity to see me back in the pulpit before she passed,” he says. “I had also been elected to the board of trustees of my seminary while she was alive. I can’t begin to tell you what that meant to me.”
Today, Grady, who has lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, since 2012, serves as circuit elder in the Arkansas Conference United Methodist Church, where he mentors and works with six churches. He still has a residence in New Rochelle, which he visits several times a year. Despite his decade behind bars, Grady says, “I never, ever said ‘Why me,’ because the Church has given me so many opportunities. From when I was a boy, I always wanted to be a preacher.” Upon his release, Grady recalls, “The first thing I did when I walked out of prison was to go into the visitors’ restroom and put on my clerical collar. Then I called my mother and said, ‘I’m on my way.’”