Released after years of wrongful imprisonment, most of the exonerated have very difficult times adjusting -- emotionally, financially, and work-wise. Here, in their own words, the exonerated men featured in "Burden of Innocence" talk about their personal struggles.
Am I happy now? I'm in a lot better shape than I was, but to say that I'm happy, I couldn't say that, no. ... I don't believe that I'll ever be able to regain those years. I'll turn 50; I was 34 when I went in and I missed a part of my middle adult life. But now that it's over, I can't do anything about it. I have to just go on and pick up the pieces and live by the day and not worry about my past or the future and just live in the now.
[Is it easy to do?]
No, at times I struggle. I struggle. ... Every day that I spent on the death penalty, I just prayed that I wouldn't have to wake up that next morning. And when I got out, I still had that in me. And when I would drink it would numb those feelings. And to this day even though I have been sober for over 90 days now, it's going to take a while to regain a spiritual comfort without wanting death all the time. They drilled it in so much that it makes me a lot of the time just wish that my life could be over. ...
[Why do you want to die?]
Depression. Just an inability to experience anything pleasurable. That's been going on now ever since I got out, though; it's not something new to me. I'm just laying down at night and just wishing it could be over with, you know. ... [I've considered] that I should never have been born if I was going to have to suffer like this. ... I know that it sounds different possibly to hear somebody say that, but you did come here to interview me and I don't know but what I should just shoot straight with you.
There are things I feel a whole lot better about. I don't go through anywhere near as much pain as I used to go through when I was locked up. And something possibly could change. That would be my hope: that something would register, some kind of an awakening. ...
When I was released in '96, I was basically very, very concerned about my freedom. I knew that if I didn't have a chance to get a job and save some money, there was no chance that I was going to get the DNA evidence tested. And so my biggest fear was that someone would say that they saw me somewhere doing something that I wasn't doing and I couldn't prove that it wasn't me.
So I made it a habit. ... I would chronicle where I went. I would write down what bus I got on, any distinguishing features about the driver, the time, where I got off, what was going on at that time -- all kinds of little extraneous facts. I was just making sure that I could retrace my steps almost down to the second. ... I could tell you at almost any point in time where I was and what was around me at that point. For about three years, four years, I did that almost religiously. ... Once I got the pardon, I just kind of said, "OK, I can stop doing this now." ...
I tend to be very protective about information about me with regard to where I'm going or what I'm doing so I don't leave myself vulnerable to people who may have other than friendly thoughts about me. Now, I tell people where I'm going, but I don't make it a matter of course to discuss [it]. ...
[You still have quite a bit of fear.]
Yes. It's impossible to go through an experience that is totally life-altering and then to come out on the other side and not be altered. Every aspect of your being is changed because the things that you once thought were unreasonable are now very reasonable, almost expected, and the things that you tell yourself, "Oh, I'd never do that," now they become real options. ...
I think it's more of a reasonable understanding that anything can happen. Before I just never even considered it. Now I consider it to be a reasonable option. Anything could happen. You could be picked up tomorrow and you could be arrested, you could go through the entire process, could be sentenced to some ungodly number of years, and serve a large portion of those years before anybody ever decides to actually take a look at the evidence. ... It could happen.
It's a necessary byproduct of being caged up. You're always afraid of being put back in the cage, and that will change the way you think. That will change the way you act. That will change the way you dream. ...
For the longest time I was absolutely just scared to death that a traffic ticket would result in me being sent back to prison. Since the pardon and being exonerated, I'm still fearful [but] ... I feel much better knowing that if they do stop me, they won't say, "Look at this guy. He's a sex offender; he must be up to something." ...
Up until about three months ago, everywhere I went I carried a fax copy of my pardon. I never left home without it; I didn't go to the bathroom without it, until just recently. When [my lawyer] told me that the exoneration process was complete, then I started to leave it at home. Like a security blanket almost or insurance, I just did not feel comfortable [without it]. ...
[The stigma is still there?]
The stigma is there. A lot of people are very supportive of the fact that I've gone through the experience and I'm apparently OK, but there's always that stigma of like, "Oh, you went to prison? For how long?" And it's always this air of disbelief that, "Well, there's something got to be wrong with you if you were in prison for that long."
[How much money did you get from the state under the new compensation statute?]
... The bill affords $25,000 for every year, pro rated, and I was in prison for about actually 10 years. So the amount that I received in total compensation was in the neighborhood of $250,000. Some people ask me, "That's a lot of money, isn't it?" And I kind of tell them, "I would gladly give you $250,000 and any other penny I could find if you will put me back in the same condition I was on Jan. 8, 1986, because I'd have my whole life ahead of me again."
[Do you feel free?]
No, I don't feel free. I don't feel free at all.
[In what way?]
In every way, mentally, physically, spiritually, I don't feel free at all. ... I have the power to roam. I have the power to speak and say what I want, but I still have to watch it. I still have to watch what I say and watch what I do. I get so daggone depressed at times that I'd rather drink than eat. I'd rather drink and sleep than say to heck with it and go to church. I rather drink at times than go to a movie. You know, I have all this freedom to do anything I want but I don't have the money to do some of the things I want. I don't have the freedom to work like I want. That's the biggest thing. ...
[You had more peace in prison?]
Yeah, much more peace. Even though there was nothing but foul smells of body odor ... and the hate and depression and the sadness that was in there, outside of all that, I had peace in there. I had the church that I loved in there. I had the guys in the church that I loved. ... I was in the choir with that I loved. The pastors used to come up there, the people volunteered their time. ... You know, that was peace. That was some fun. ...
In jail they knew that I was in what I was in for, but at least I could still get a job. You know, I might not have been able to get a job in the nurses' station, but at least I can get a job working in the kitchen, I can get a job emptying trash, I can get a job mopping floors. At least there I can get a job. Out here I can't even get a Burger King job or a dishwashing job, a painter's job. I can't get anything.
Although I've had people trying to help me, I still can't seem to just get by. And that's why I feel I would still be better off in jail. At least in [prison] I had some form of construction with my life. Out here the construction I have is playing video games now.
[That's what you do now?]
And doing crossword puzzles, reading a book once in a while, watching my nieces and my nephews. I mean, don't get me wrong. All of that's fun, but it's not getting me anywhere.
[What were you expecting life outside of prison to be like?]
I wasn't expecting anything. I was just happy to be out. That's all that I could think about, you know, and looking around at the things that changed. The only thing I really did expect is that me and my daughter will be close. And we're not really all that close. ... We're not the father-daughter that if I was out here for 10 years we would be. I mean, it takes time but who wants to wait? Who has patience? ... While I was in jail I had patience, but now I don't have no patience. You know, if my daughter doesn't want to be bothered with me, so be it. It hurts and I get angry about it, but so be it. If she wants to come down and see me when she can, she can. You know, I don't have the money to do anything for her like I would love to have been doing, or like I would love to do now. ...
[What would you like to be doing?]
Something different than always sitting in the house, 'cause while I was in jail I wasn't used to sitting around. I was always up and moving. ... After I got out of work from the kitchen, I was doing something. Going to the law library, doing a little bit of work in the law library, picking up a couple of books from the library to read later on. Or asking the librarian there to make me a couple of copies of crossword puzzles or something. ... Drawing; although I wasn't really good at it, I would do a little bit of coloring for guys you know who were making cards and stuff. ... Write poetry, write my short story.
[Can you write now?]
No, I don't have the motivation to even do that no more, nor the love to do it, nor the patience. I don't have the patience that I had to do the things that I'd done in jail. ... Out here I don't have the patience to do it, although I have nothing but time on my hands. ...
It's not the same. ... I'm not the Neil that I was while I was in jail and I'm not the Neil that I was before I even went to jail. ... I feel I've just forgotten a lot of things: how to cry, how to care, how to when you fall off that horse, get back up there. I've forgotten all that. ...
I try to say I'm not.
[What will you say you are?]
Frustrated. Frustrated beyond belief. Frustrated so badly that I'm just tired, I'm just weary. I'm just beyond, beyond, beyond, beyond the point of any return. I'm just beyond the point of any return at all, you know.
[What do you want, now that you're free?]
Ten years given back and to go back and bring my daughter to school her first day in kindergarten. That'll make me happy. ... To be there when my sisters and my brothers were going through rough times out here. ... Be there where they can call me up and I can come over there instead of having to wait for them to write me in a letter to tell me about it. ... Get back those little things I lost. The bank account, the daughter, the family, get back those little things. The motivation, the lust for life, all that. ...
Even though I've been out of prison going on nine or 10 years, I still go through things that I wouldn't want nobody else to go through on a day-to-day basis. People just don't know. When I first got out of prison, everybody used to say, "How can you be so happy?" I was happy because of the fact that I got out from under two life sentences and 14 years, eight months. And they used to always ask me, "Are you bitter? Are you angry?" And I used to always tell them no, not knowing full well that I was.
It's getting to the point now where I try to mask the anger. ... You can't even say [I'm angry at] a certain group of people. I can't say it's white people or anything, because all white people ain't responsible for what happened to me, just the people that were in that courtroom, the DA, the detectives. Those are the people that I hold responsible for what happened to me. ...
I'm angry for a lot of different reasons. One is that I know I hadn't done anything but I'm still made to feel like I'm the bad guy. I am not the bad guy. I'm not the bad guy. ...
[How do you deal with the anger?]
I don't know. I get frustrated real easy and I just be angry. You know, I tend to just blow up.
... I guess it's to the people who are actually closest to me, the people that I'm supposed to have the most love for, and the people supposed to have the most love for me. Those are the people that I usually lash out [at]. ...
[You said that you don't trust people now.]
Yes, yes, yes. ... [My wife and I] get in arguments about this all the time. She said, "You always say that you love me, but your reactions towards me are as though you hate me."
And I can't understand that. I can't understand that 'cause I know the difference between love and hate, or at least I think I do. But like I said, coming from a position of being heart-hardened for so many years, I can't actually say that I even know what love is anymore, 'cause ... my interpretation of it doesn't mesh with everybody else's interpretation of love. So I don't know, maybe I don't love nothing. I know I love my daughter. I know I love God. I know that. ...
The mental aspect of my ordeal is, I guess, finally taking its toll on me because now it's to the point where I can't sleep at night. I'm always depressed. I very seldom smile or anything like that. ... It's just getting too overwhelming. It's like I'm still feeling like I'm being victimized each and every day of my life, you know.
[What do you do every day?]
... That really depends. I don't know. It depends on how I wake up in the morning. When I wake up in the morning, I know the first thing I want to do is drink a beer. ... I sit out on the porch, smoke my cigarette and drink my beer. ...
[You go to therapy?]
Yes, and I think that's one of the best things that's happened to me since I've been out of prison -- being able to go through therapy and being able to talk to somebody. ... This is one of the first times in my life that I've ever trusted somebody enough to where I could talk to them and be able to let people know what's going on inside me, 'cause for a lot of years, I've hidden all this. And it's gotten to the point right now where it's just eating me from the inside out. ...
[What do you want now that you're free?]
I just want to be happy. I want to be able to say, "OK, this is Rick's house. This is Rick's car." ... [I want to be] in a position where I can go do the things for my daughter, buy her little things. I don't know if you could ever imagine going into a store and your daughter asking for something and you ain't got the money to pay for it. Just to see the look on my daughter's face when I say, "Daddy ain't got no money."
[Do you still have dreams?]
I dream all the time. If I had the resources I would move somewhere where life was so simple, [where] if you got up five, six o'clock in the afternoon wouldn't even nobody care. I'd like to go to Jamaica, Aruba someplace, just kicking on the beach. ... I might even write some reggae songs, I don't know. But I know it would be peaceful to me. ...
[Is this what you want, peace?]
Yeah, peace. Peace of mind. Peace of mind, that would do me all right. I'd be all right. I really would. ...
[What is freedom like for you?]
Freedom is good to me. But without capital-- Because see, they took 20 years out of my life. I just live off of $500 and something a month. Seem like they want me to go back to the life of crime. They want me to get caught up in a riff raff. ...
[Is freedom as glorious as you thought?]
... Freedom is glorious to the person to who want to enjoy that glory. I just live in the day. I love this here. Yes, it's glorious to me. But being broke, every day life [has] things that we have to worry about [and] it's not so glorious. ... After that little money run out, it's still going to cost me to go get a loaf of bread. ...
Freedom got a double standard. You know? I could be free in prison, with all my privileges taken away from me. I could be [free] in that state of mind, in that place, at that time. But freedom now, out here, is me free.
I could go to bars. I could go to clubs. I could go to my friend's house, set down, play cards. I could go look at TV. But in prison, I have certain amount of distance that I got to travel. But now I can travel the whole globe. I could go anywhere. That's freedom. Not shackled down. Not shackled down physically, and not shackled down spiritually. That's how I look at freedom. ...
I ain't never thought it was going to be like this. But I had an idea of what freedom is because I once was. I had my own home, my own automobile at a young age.
And now I don't have anything. Nothing but the family house. ...
[Where do you live now?]
I live out of my car, different places. ... My sister don't want me to live in the family house in peace.
Because of some of the people that I associate with. ... We all drinks, we all have a good time, we all sit around and share things. It's most like people have done time or been isolated from their family, and they [my sisters] don't seem to like them for some apparent reason. ...
Like my sister told me, "If you lie with dogs, fleas going to get on you." So I have. Fleas have got on me and I like those type of people because they're very intelligent, they're a part of God's creation so I love to be around with people who share the same point of views. ... We have a lot of things in common because we all in the bottom of the pit. ...
[You don't work anymore?]
I do things for myself. I do mechanic work for myself. I work on the house, I cut grass, I pick up cans, I do something to keep my mind occupied 24-7. ...
[When are you happy?]
I'm happy all the time. I always thank God for my blessings every day.
[I don't see you as a happy man.]
No, looks can be deceiving. It really can. But I'm happy, you know. I'm happy whenever I got a penny, and I'm happy if I got a million dollars. I'm still the same person. I'm happy. ... You can tell people I'm happy in my spirit. ...
[Are you angry at all?]
I'm not per se being angry. I'm upset because of a lot of things didn't turn out the way I wanted to turn out. But that don't stop life from going on.
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published may 1, 2003
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