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New Britain's New Smoothie Shop A Fresh Start For Falsely Convicted Man

Don Stacom - Hartford Courant

Mark Schand’s Sweetwater Juice and Deli in downtown New Britain is far more than another new business. It’s part of his return from a wrongful murder conviction that kept him imprisoned for 27 years.

“This is part of the dream. Mark is an entrepreneur, he wanted to have a business, and he talked about that in prison all those years,” Schand’s wife, Mia, said Tuesday.

Dozens of relatives, friends, downtown workers and city politicians jammed into his tiny new shop on West Main Street for the grand opening ceremony Tuesday afternoon. It was a festive day for a family that endured decades of hard times.

“When I went to prison I had two little sons and one unborn child — by the time I came out, they were 28, 29 and 30. I lost that time of being a father,” Mark Schand said. “Nothing can pay me back for that.”

On Tuesday, his sons were helping make smoothies and wraps at Sweetwater, while other relatives took orders and ran the cash register.

“To see this happening today is amazing,” said Chan Williams-Bey, Schand’s nephew. “He has a strong, strong family. The whole family knew he was innocent, and everyone believed that one day something good could happen.”

In 1986, Schand was 21, living in Hartford and hoping to open a clothing store. Everything changed that year when he was charged with murder after a young woman was shot dead outside a Springfield bar. Mia Schand and others told investigators that he was in Hartford at the time, but he was jailed until his trial in 1987, when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Mia drove to visit him nearly every week, even when he was transferred to a prison in Walpole, Mass., nearly two hours from where she lived in Windsor.

“Mark and I were meant to be together. I knew he was innocent from Day One,” she said. “We told the boys ‘your father is here for something he didn’t do.’ ”

Schand said he worked out in prison, sought out healthy foods and maintained a garden that grew as other prisoners lost interest and turned over their small plots of ground to him.

“I tried not to become an inmate. I kept the focus on life on the other side of the fence — I didn’t want to be a tougher, bitter inmate because if I did, I’d probably still be there,” he said Tuesday.

Defense attorneys John and Linda Thompson worked for years to get Schand freed, and investigators from the New Jersey-based Centurion Ministries, an organization roughly similar to the Innocence Project, began finding discrepancies in the prosecution’s evidence in 2010. A judge ordered a new trial in 2013, and prosecutors dismissed the murder charge.

Last fall, Schand got a $450,000 compensation payout from the state of Massachusetts, and is using some of the money to launch Sweetwater. He said he was visiting his dying father in New Britain when he noticed a vacant storefront downtown and the absence of healthier food shops.

“There’s fast food everywhere, but we can give people a healthier choice. This is the food I eat,” said Schand, whose wife confirmed that he begins every day with a smoothie.

The menu at Sweetwater is heavy on fruits and vegetables, with ingredients such as blueberries, pineapple juice, kale, avocado, kiwi, beets, coconut water and almond milk showing up in several offerings. Among his specialty smoothies are the Centurion Freedom and the John & Linda Thompson.

Mayor Erin Stewart, who applauded Schand’s new venture and led the ribbon-cutting ceremony, also has two smoothies named after her — the Mayor Erin II that’s heavy on fruit, and the Mayor Erin I that’s described as peanut, banana and almond milk.

“That’s the one: The peanut and banana make it,” she said.

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