Burden of Innocence
& Directed by Ofra Bikel
DAYE: They gave me a sentence of 14 years, 8
months, plus two life sentences.
INMATE: When I went to the penitentiary, my
life was over.
ROBINSON, Sentenced to 27 Years: When the judge says that I was
sentenced to 27 years, I thought to myself, "You're dead."
WILLIAMSON, Sentenced to Death: I was on death row in Oklahoma.
ANNOUNCER: After spending years in prison for
crimes they didn't commit, they were exonerated.
ROBINSON: You've been taken out, put into this
insane world. Now that you've
survived, they take you out and they put you back out in the real world, and
they say, "OK, forget about everything that happened to you." Well, you can't.
MILLER: I'm not the Neil that I was while I was
in jail, and I'm not the Neil that I was when I even went to jail.
JOHN WILSON, Psychologist: I mean, how do you say to someone, "I
was in jail for 20 years, but you know, I really didn't do it. I'm an innocent person." How does the average person on the
street understand that or even believe it?
RITTER, Trial Attorney: Basically, the civil justice system
failed to provide them with any compensation after they fully recognized that
they'd been falsely convicted.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, the story of the
exonerated and the heavy price they've paid for their innocence.
NARRATOR: Three years ago, we met Clyde
Charles. He was serving a life
sentence in Louisiana's Angola prison for a rape he said he did not
commit. He repeatedly asked the
authorities for DNA tests but was refused.
CHARLES: Every time I ask them, and they said
no, I said, "Why? I can't believe
this. What reason?" And it's just tearing my family up.
NARRATOR: For 18 years, his family had fought for
him. His sister, Rochelle:
ABRAMS: The only thing we want is our brother
home. The only thing he wants is
to come home.
NARRATOR: His sister, Lois, spent days and nights
working for his freedom. In 1999,
FRONTLINE and the Innocence Project took up his cause. Barry Scheck, co-director of the
project, was cautiously optimistic.
SCHECK, Co-Director, Innocence Project: There could be
a fight. I hope there isn't, but
there could be a fight.
NARRATOR: Three months later, by Christmas, 1999,
cleared by DNA, Clyde Charles was free and finally embraced by his family.
CHARLES: It's really hard to explain the fact
that how I feel at this moment, you know?
Every now and then, I got to pace myself. This has really happened to me, and I thank God, you know?
NARRATOR: When we met Clyde three years later, he
wasn't where we hoped he would be.
He had no job, no money, and he was living in his car.
[three years later]
CLYDE CHARLES: I ain't never thought it was just 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
NARRATOR: He went to prison a healthy, a carefree
and hard-working 27 year-old. He
came out 18 years later sick, penniless and bitter. He had become estranged from his family, who had worked so
hard to free him. He felt that
they were imprisoning him all over again.
CLYDE CHARLES: I'm the only one who could choose what
I like to taste or what I like to do.
Now I'm in control of my own life.
No one else is in control of my life.
LOIS HILL, Clyde's Sister: Freedom allowed Clyde to
come into this world, back into the free world, to try and catch up on 21
years. He's trying to go back when
he was young, and he can't go back.
ROCHELLE ABRAMS, Clyde's Sister: I
think he couldn't do for a long time, so now, if you say, "You can't do," he go
do. He's not taking care of
himself all correctly. He do not eat
right. He has diabetes. That needs to be taken care of. He don't even take medication for it
anymore, I don't think.
CLYDE CHARLES: I do not like to be criticized
anymore. I don't need to take
criticism. I don't need to take
criticism for what I do. It's all
right to pray for me. It's all
right to give me a little food.
But it's not all right to worry about me and not all right to tell me,
"Don't go here" or "Don't go there."
LOIS HILL: I just want him to take-- be taken care
of. That's what I want. I want him to be taken care of
psychologically. First, number
one, get this man some counseling.
ROCHELLE ABRAMS: He's angry. Angry. He's really angry.
All of this is bottled up inside of him. All of it. It's
got to come out.
LOIS HILL: He's in hell. He's miserable.
He's not happy. He's
confused, he's hurt and he's suffering.
He's lost. My poor brother
NARRATOR: A few weeks after we saw him, Clyde was
granted over $100,000 compensation.
But before he received it, he had stabbed his brother. He was jailed awaiting trial and then
sent to a clinic for psychiatric care.
BARRY SCHECK: Clyde Charles is one of the most
upsetting cases because when he got out, we all thought, "Well, at least Clyde
has this supportive family." And
he really seemed so happy. It was
such a joyous moment when he was released from prison. And there were so many promises. Local legislators were coming forward
and saying, "I'll take your case.
I'll get a bill passed in the legislature for compensation. We'll help you with problems." Everybody was all out there, "We're
going to help Clyde." And then
when the cameras went away, everybody went away.
NARRATOR: By 2003, there were a great number of
exonerated prisoners. The most
celebrated are the prisoners who have been exonerated through DNA. There are close to 130 of them. Together, they served well over 1,500
years. Their stories became a
staple of television news. Viewers
shared their joy, their relief, their first moments of freedom. Everyone wished them well before the
This is what happened to a few of them.
For Ricky Daye, it began on January 10th, 1984, when the
police in San Diego, California, rushed to the help of a young white woman who
had been assaulted and raped in her car by two black men. The police investigation went on for
two weeks before the victim identified a photograph of Frederick Daye as one of
the perpetrators. Originally from
Iowa, he had a robbery record for which he had served three years in prison.
RICKY DAYE: When they told me it was rape, I
couldn't believe it. It's just
something that I could never conceive of doing. And then when they said it was a white woman, you know, see,
I'm, like, "Oh, no. I really can't
believe this. You can't be holding
me for this."
NARRATOR: Years later, Dwight Ritter, a
well-known San Diego attorney, took up his case.
DWIGHT RITTER, Trial Attorney: Well, what was so amazing
to me was that it was just basically one very simple event that started a
consequence that led to an innocent man receiving a life imprisonment sentence
and serving over 10 years in prison.
And the event was that this photo line-up of approximately five
photographs were give to this woman, who was the victim in the case, and she
simply chose out of that five-- those five pictures, this picture of Ricky. And from that stage on, that was the
best evidence they ever had.
RICKY DAYE: They gave me a sentence of 14 years, 8
months, plus two life sentences bow-legged. My first parole date hearing hasn't even came up yet, and I
went to prison in 1984. My first
parole date hearing is 2008. It
had to have been 20-something years before I ever got to see the parole board.
NARRATOR: He was incarcerated in California's
notorious Folsom State Prison.
RICKY DAYE: I wouldn't wish that on nobody. Nobody. I'm in one of the most violent prisons in the United States,
you know, constantly surrounded by violence, 24/7, 6,000 people. Everybody has life sentences,
basically. And I was the only
person there from Iowa. No
friends, no nothing. I didn't know
anybody, you know?
It just made you have the attitude where you just didn't
care about nothing, life itself or nothing. There are things that just happen in that sort of
environment that unless you're a strong individual and you're really trying to
survive, you'll fall to the wayside.
ANTHONY ROBINSON, Sentenced to 27 Years:
Prison-- it's really hard to describe, as long as you're talking to a
reasonable person because the very essence of confinement is unreasonable
because the world gets turned on its head, and the conduct that you would think
is, you know, abhorable is commonplace.
The things that are done to people that you would think are unconscionable
are just a matter of routine.
RON WILLIAMSON, Sentenced to Death: There
was trouble. Yeah, there were
fights and vicious arguments and murder.
I only could imagine that what the Jews suffered in World War II,
prison, concentration camps. That
was the closest thing that I could give an analogy to or parallel or something
symbolic that would have come as close to describing what kind of mistreatment.
NARRATOR: Before he retired, Jack Cowley served
as a warden for 20 years in Oklahoma.
OFRA BIKEL: What goes on in prison that people
can't talk about?
JACK COWLEY: What capacity of depravity do human
beings go to when you're void of any real ethics or morals or standards. Oh, I could tell you stories that, how
can human beings do those kind of things?
But I can also tell you stories of what I have done, as a deputy warden,
to people confined in prison, and that after 15 years, I'm still asking God to
forgive me for doing it. It
happens. I mean, it's this void of
the very dark places. It's what
people will do to one another when no one can see that really cares. Inside those walls, what goes on is--
it's totally another world.
[www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]
RICKY DAYE: In order to maintain my sense of sanity
and my sense of self-worth, I had to do things-- stabbing people and things like
that, you know?
OFRA BIKEL: You weren't a nice guy in prison.
RICKY DAYE: No. No, I couldn't be a nice guy. Nice guys, they finish last or end up dead for real.
He spent 10 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, but today he's
a free man.
NARRATOR: On September 27th, 1994, after a
much-delayed DNA test, and after a local station in San Diego took up his
cause, Rick Daye's sentence was vacated, and he was released.
That's right. We have been
here all day, waiting for Rick Daye to be released. And as you say, it happened just about 3:00 o'clock.
NARRATOR: It was all documented on television.
A light blue prison van pulled up just before 3:00 o'clock, a sergeant
opening the back door, and that was it.
Frederick Rene Daye a free man.
RICKY DAYE: 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, 8 months. And they was always asking me, "Are you bitter? Are you angry?" And I used to always tell them no, not
knowing full well that I was.
Imagine spending 10 years in prison for a crime you didn't do, 10 years
of frustration and rage--
--behind bars for 10 years for something you didn't do.
NARRATOR: The first two months were a swirl of
media attention, culminating in his televised wedding. His bride was Mary Bell, a childhood
RICKY DAYE: I got out on September 27th. I got married on December 17th. That's three months after I got out of
prison. My first wife. I was her first boyfriend. So I had a lot of love for her.
MARY BELL DAYE: I loved him unconditionally. Despite what anybody said, I still
married him. I got married, and I
want to say not soon after, I knew it wasn't going to work.
OFRA BIKEL: Why did you get married?
RICKY DAYE: I have no idea. I guess it's because my wife had a nice
apartment. You know what I'm
saying? She was stable in her
job. And I was able to get from
her the things that I felt I needed at that time in my life.
MARY BELL DAYE: He really wanted something, at
first. He really wanted to be--
like, he wanted to be a comedian.
He really wanted to be-- to have something. Then all of a sudden, when all-- when everybody let him down,
it's just like he let go.
NARRATOR: When he was first out of prison, Rick
Daye tried to work but couldn't hold onto a job.
RICKY DAYE: I do my job, you know, the best of my
ability, but just because I was in prison for rape, you know what I'm saying,
I'd be in the break room or something, and women would get to whispering to
each other. Then they would go
tell my supervisors, "Well, this guy, you know, was in prison for rape. We don't feel comfortable." But don't nobody look at the fact that
I was totally exonerated on the rape and that I am not a rapist and I hadn't
MARY BELL DAYE: It was hard because after we had our
daughter, there was things that I wanted her to have that she couldn't have, and
there was times when he had left us.
The last time he left, he said he was going to an uncle's funeral. Never returned.
RICKY DAYE: I don't know if you could ever imagine
going to a store or something and your daughter asking for something, and you ain't
got the money to pay for it, you know what I'm saying? To have-- just to see the look on my
daughter's face when I say, "Daddy ain't got no money."
MARY BELL DAYE: She told me a couple days ago that she
didn't have a father. And I asked
her why did she say that? I said,
"You do have a father." She said,
"He told me he was going to a funeral."
And she's, like, "Mom, how long is a funeral?"
NARRATOR: When their daughter was 4 years old,
Mary divorced him.
RICKY DAYE: Freedom-- I guess, once it's taken away
from you, that's the only thing that you basically want back, your
freedom. Once you get your freedom
back, you stop thinking about the other things that go along with your freedom--
being responsible, being able to fit back into society.
DWIGHT RITTER, Trial Attorney: It's very difficult. It's that realization that society has
said your life is not worthwhile.
You are a throwaway person.
And these types of offenses -- that is, false convictions -- they don't
occur to doctors or lawyers, sons of judges or judges. These only occur to people who don't
have the strength of support to scream out about their innocence. It's only the person that we can falsely
convict and then forget about because if you have to look at someone like Ricky
Daye every day with realization that he's innocent, you can't live with
it. But he has to live with
it. It's very difficult.
[www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]
NARRATOR: When the Innocence Project in New York
City first set out to fight for the wrongfully convicted through DNA tests,
they hadn't foreseen all these difficulties. Peter Neufeld is a co-founder of that project.
PETER NEUFELD, Co-Director, Innocence Project: I
would have to say that when we first started the Innocence Project, most of
what we now realize, we didn't begin to think about back then. We thought it would be enough to just
get people out, and they would be so pleased that they get out that everything
would be great. Obviously, that
was incredibly naive of us. Most
of the people we've gotten out have had, you know, very, very difficult times
adjusting emotionally, financially, work-wise, sexually. You name it, those are the problems
NARRATOR: Neufeld himself keeps track of many of
them. Neil Miller from Boston was
34 years old when he was released from prison in 2000, having served 10 out of
a 45-year sentence for a rape he didn't commit. Neufeld was Neil Miller's post-conviction lawyer.
PETER NEUFELD: I remember the day I walked into court
in Suffolk County, in Boston, to walk him out of prison. You know, at first blush, he was very
bookish. He was a
philosopher. He was a poet. And he had beautiful things to
say. And I thought to myself, "My
goodness, he's going to have an easier time dealing with life when he gets out
because he's so rational, he's so thoughtful, he's so reflective." I can now look back-- this was almost
two years ago. Again, boy, I was
really pretty naive. Neil's had a
really terrible time adjusting.
NEIL MILLER: I still feel that sometimes I'd rather
be in jail. At least in jail, I
could still get a job. I might not
have been able to get a job in the nurse's 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. You know, at
least there, I can get a job.
Out here, I can't even get a Burger King job, dishwashing
job, you know, a painter's-- I can't get anything. Although I have people trying to help me, I still can't seem
to just get by. I mean, I can't
even, for goodness sakes, get a part-time job. You know, I mean, come on~!
NARRATOR: For the first year after he was
released from prison, Neil Miller lived with his younger sister, Demaris, and
her husband, Dana Smith. They are
both correctional officers.
DANA SMITH, Neil's Brother-in-Law: It's
hard when every door you open is slammed in your face. He's been out walking every day. He's out looking for jobs. He walks into a mall and puts
applications in every place, every store in the mall. He's tried every possible thing he can do to get over that
hurdle and to get back into society.
But like I said, the hurdle just gets higher every time. And eventually, everyone has a breaking
point, and I think he's reached his.
NARRATOR: After two years of looking for work, he
now feels defeated and spends his time playing video games.
NEIL MILLER: Oh, I could sit there all day and play
on them. You know, I could sit
there all day and just play.
Normally, I wouldn't give up on, you know, just life and looking for
work, but 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.
So I play videos to keep me sane.
NARRATOR: Ricky Daye, out of work, also spends
his days playing games. After his
divorce, unable to support himself and still penniless, he married again. His wife, Castine Johnston, is a
correctional officer. The two had
known each other when they were younger.
OFRA BIKEL: What was he like before he went to
CASTINE JOHNSTON: Oh, he was the type of person that was
always cracking jokes, so fun to be with.
Everybody enjoyed being with him.
And now it's just-- he could be happy one minute, the next minute he's
crying. He don't know why he's
crying. There's periods of times
that he would take a chair and just sit in the closet and shut the door. I don't know why. But he'd be in there crying.
OFRA BIKEL: And he couldn't talk about it?
CASTINE JOHNSTON: No. He doesn't know why.
RICKY DAYE: I'm angry for a lot of different
reasons. I don't think money will
fix anything, but money sure would make my life a whole lot easier. For someone who doesn't have anything
and to be able to have something, I think it would make a great
difference. A great
difference. I've had nothing since
I've been out.
DWIGHT RITTER: I've often told this story to people
that I meet on the streets. You
tell them the Ricky Daye story.
And they hear about a man who's innocent and spends 10 years in prison,
they're shocked by it. And they
say, "Well, that case must be a million-dollar case, surely." But the problem is that the system has
a great deal of protections for itself.
So all of a sudden, the cases that most people in the streets think are
multi-million-dollar cases turn out to be worth very little.
Basically, the civil justice system failed to provide him
with any compensation after they fully recognized that he had been falsely
convicted. And that was a double
tragedy for him.
NARRATOR: Not getting compensation is an enormous
BARRY SCHECK, Co-Director, Innocence Project:
Compensation with money can never make up for these loses. It can't make up for all of those years
of your life where you were just rotting away in a hole and everybody else was
growing, living, moving on with their lives. It can never make up for that.
But if you don't have any money and you don't have any
compensation and you can't afford medical care and you can't afford
psychotherapy and you can't get a car to drive around and you can't get a job
and you can't further your own education, well, it gets all that much worse,
doesn't it. And that's what
happens to so many of these people.
NARRATOR: Most of the exonerated get no
compensation at all from the state to help them with their reentry into
society. A few legislatures have
passed compensation bills for individual cases, but rarely. To sue the state is an expensive and
unpromising endeavor. What most
must count on are compensation statutes, which would allow them to claim
damages for years of wrongful incarceration. But only 15 states have a such statute.
[www.pbs.org: Examine the situation state by state]
NARRATOR: Massachusetts is one of the 35 states
that does not have it.
NEIL MILLER: I don't believe that anyone really
understands what the word "exonerated" means. Every time I go to a job and I fill out the application and
I explain to them that I was exonerated, I always get the-- or the-- you know,
like, "That word, what does that word mean?"
I know that I am not going to be hired by anybody because of
the rape-- that I didn't commit.
Every job has the right to not hire a person because of what they see on
NARRATOR: The CORI -- the Criminal Offender Record
Information -- is not automatically expunged upon exoneration.
NEIL MILLER: There's no escaping it. It's just on my record, and there's no
NARRATOR: Expunging the records of the wrongfully
convicted and awarding them monetary compensation are the important points in
the Massachusetts legislature compensation bill, which has been pending without
passage for the last four years.
Elizabeth Keeley is the former first assistant district attorney in
Suffolk County, Massachusetts.
ELIZABETH KEELEY, Fmr 1st Assistant District Attorney: The
problem is that we have so many demands on our government today, and budget
crises and the economy and so on and so forth. These people are not going to get the attention of the
legislatures in order for these laws to be passed. And I don't understand it because I believe the system-- you
know, and I don't know what the percentages are, but -- more often than not is
right. Most of the time, we get it
right. But when we don't, we
ought, we ought to know that we haven't, and we ought to do everything we can
to correct it and learn from it.
NARRATOR: But on December 30th, 2002, when the
bill finally reached the floor of the Massachusetts legislature, it passed in
the house but was killed in the Senate.
Prof. CRAIG HANEY, Psychology, Univ. of California: I
believe that as long as there is a policy of no compensation, then it allows
the states to act as though there is no responsibility for what happened. These were accidents. These were innocent mistakes. These were honest mistakes. People are people. They're human. You know, you explain it in whatever
sort of haphazard random way you want.
Providing compensation acknowledges a level of responsibility for an
error which could have and should have been avoided.
NARRATOR: Dr. John Wilson, a psychologist, has
worked for 20 years with the wrongfully convicted.
Dr. JOHN WILSON, Psychologist: It's an interesting
thing, isn't it, in a democracy.
if you're a refugee and you come to this country, well, there's all
kinds of agencies that will help you move from refugee status to being an
American. If you're a victim of
war, if you're a victim of a disaster, there are all kinds of organizations
will help you. But if you're a
victim of our system of justice and you lose your freedom and you're
traumatized in a similar manner to a war veteran or a refugee or a person who's
a victim of a disaster or a terrorist act, we don't have any mechanisms to help
you get back into a normal life and a normal place in society.
In a very real sense, these people have often a sense of
ultimate aloneness, that no one understands, no one cares.
NEIL MILLER: 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 drink more than I eat, at times. I drink more than I laugh.
OFRA BIKEL: Do you know why?
NEIL MILLER: The only comfort I have. That's the only comfort I have. That's the only bit of solace and peace
that I have is drinking. All I
really wanted was to just get out, work for a little bit, and then just leave Massachusetts. But I can't even do that because,
stupidly, when I was drinking, I
ended up catching two more cases.
NARRATOR: Once he got violent in his sister's
house, the other time at a liquor store.
NEIL MILLER: I never expected to be on probation
again in life. I never expected
that, but it happened.
JOHN WILSON: For some, there's an unconscious wish
to go back to an environment that you knew, that was predictable, that was
controlled and structured, because if it doesn't work out here, at least you
knew where you came from. And as
odd as that sounds, some harbor that kind of dilemma. Maybe it was even better, you know? And that's part of the confusion. What does it now mean to be free?
NEIL MILLER: So if you were to say to me right now,
"Get a life," you wouldn't be lying because I don't have a life, you know? I mean, I don't have a life.
NARRATOR: Oklahoma does not have a compensation
statute, either, not even for someone wrongfully convicted who was literally
snatched from the jaws of death.
RON WILLIAMSON: It was all said and done. They brought me within five days of my
execution. And my sister, you know
-- she was my nearest relative -- got a letter, you know, as to where they wanted
my body sent to. And it gave a lot
of-- well, it-- it was so-- I keep saying the word "pain," but that-- you know
that's-- some people have a lot more pain than other people, and I've had more
pain than a lot of people. There
have been people that have had more pain than me. But all-- 12 years, all I ever felt was pain.
ANNETTE HUDSON, Ron's Sister: When he first was
released, we were driving down the highway, and there was a young man out there
by the highway jogging. And he
looked over there, and he says, "Annette, the state took my body." And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I used to run five miles
every day or more." He said, "Now
it's hard for me to walk up the steps to a house."
The Ronnie that I knew when he was in his teens and early
20s was bright, intelligent, articulate, very highly motivated, very
competitive. Whatever he did, he
wanted to be the very best. He had
NARRATOR: But he was injured, and his baseball
career went downhill. Deeply
troubled, he was eventually hospitalized several times in psychiatric clinics.
Then, in 1982 a young woman was raped and murdered in the
small town of Ada, Oklahoma, where Williamson lived. The case lingered unsolved for five years until, in 1987,
Ron and his friend, Dennis Fritz, a science teacher, were arrested and tried
for the murder. Despite their
protestation of innocence, Dennis Fritz got life, Ron Williamson death.
RON WILLIAMSON: Death row is the closest thing that I
can imagine, other than Krakow, Auschwitz, Treblinka. Really a place of hell on earth. It was devastating to be moved there and to find out that
there actually was a place, not some mythical place, but actually a physical
presence. I was on death row in
Oklahoma for the murder of someone I didn't murder.
Just the worst nightmare, that's what it was. It was just a nightmare.
LESLIE DELK, Post-Conviction Attorney: When I
first met him in the summer of Î91, it was at the old McAlester prison, which
is where they were all housed. As
we talked, he was relatively calm, but it was clear to me that something wasn't
Then, in November of Î91, the death row unit was moved into
the new underground facility known as H-unit. This is a super-max unit. The unit is built underground. There is no natural light or air that gets into the
building, and the men are in concrete cells with concrete bunks. And they're locked down there
24/7. In other words, it's a
punishment. It's a jail within a
ANNETTE HUDSON: It was told to me that he was so angry,
he would stand at the door of his cell hollering for hours and hours, "I'm
innocent, get me out of here," until he would lose his voice.
LESLIE DELK: Ron went into the system a mentally ill
person, and being under that situation was just horrible for him.
ANNETTE HUDSON: I went to see him one time. And I was sitting on the other side of
the glass, and I thought, "Well, why are they bringing this old man to see
me?" He had lost 90 pounds, and
his hair had turned gray. He was
dirty. And then when he come in
closer, I realized it was Ronnie.
If I had met him on the street, I would not have recognized him. He looked that different. Broke my heart.
LESLIE DELK: For so long, when I would see Ron, he
would always talk about voices.
"Why do these voices come in?
And they talk to me, and they ask me why I did this, and I didn't do"-- I
mean, he would weep. And I really
assumed that was part of the psychosis.
I found out at one point that, in fact, what was happening in the middle
of the night is that the guards were coming in over that one-way intercom, harassing
him, mentioning the name of the victim.
"Why did you do this to me, Ron?"
You know, that kind of thing, which-- I was so appalled, I couldn't
believe it. And the guards
apparently were doing this because they thought it was fun.
KIM MARKS, Investigator, Public Defender's Office: It was
frightening, not in the sense of how he looked, but I was genuinely scared for
him because I saw he was going completely out of control, and no one was doing
a thing about it. No one. And his attorneys did try to call and
make some calls, but they were virtually ignored.
NARRATOR: Then, in 1999, his public defenders,
who had been working hard on his behalf, managed to prove through DNA tests
that neither he nor Fritz were involved in the murder.
The motions to dismiss will be granted for both of you.
KIM MARKS: Ron got out of jail for the last time
on April 15th, 1999. I went down
to Ada, and I didn't actually get to go into the hearing because it was too
crowded. And then he came out.
At one point, he stopped to talk to some of the press. And he saw me, and it's like,
"Kim!" And he gave me a big
hug. And I just can't tell you the
feeling in my heart on that day to-- [weeps] I still just-- to see what he had gone
through all those years, and then to see him walk free, it-- it was just one of
the-- I think the best moments of my life!
NARRATOR: There were no tears or cameras when
Anthony Robinson was released from a Texas prison in 1996 after serving 10 of a
27-year sentence for rape. Unlike
the others, he had not been exonerated.
He was granted parole because of overcrowding of Texas prisons at the
time. And yet his release would
change not only his life but the lives all the wrongfully convicted in Texas.
ANTHONY ROBINSON, Sentenced to 27 Years: My
whole purpose of surviving the time that I did survive was to get my name
cleared and to get this situation off my back. So I said, "OK, I've got to find someone who will take my
NARRATOR: He found attorney Randy Schaffer, who
was impressed by his determination to clear his name.
RANDY SCHAFFER, Defense Attorney: Here's
a guy who had no money, and he was willing to pay what little he did have to
exonerate himself, after he was already out on parole. That's one thing if an inmate's in prison
and wants to get out. But for a
guy who's already out and on the street and has a job and obviously can live
out the conditions of parole, onerous though they may be, to want to put his
money down on the table and still try and overturn the conviction is a factor
to me in thinking, "Well, this guy probably is innocent."
NARRATOR: Robinson was a college graduate with an
honorable discharge from the Army before he was arrested. He would now spend all his time helping
to research the law and working to pay his legal expenses.
ANTHONY ROBINSON: Whatever job I can find, whatever few
pennies I can pick up, even aluminum cans-- I was collecting aluminum cans. Whatever I could do to get the money, I
did it. And I just said OK, you
know? If it was a job that worked
four days sweeping a-- you know, a construction site, I took it. If it was a job that required to pick
up cigarette butts, I took it. If
it was a job that said, OK, move this pile of bricks from over here to over
there, I took it.
NARRATOR: After three years and two DNA tests
which exonerated him, his sentence was reversed and he was pardoned by the
ANTHONY ROBINSON: When Randy told me that we had gotten a
pardon, I was kind of numb. In
fact, I told him, I said, "Well, can you fax me a copy over right now so I can
see it?" And it's, like-- he said,
"Yeah." He says, "Well, how do you
feel?" I said, "Well, until I
actually see it, I really don't feel anything. I kind of want to see it." And then I saw it, and then I kind of said, "OK. OK. It's over now."
NARRATOR: But it wasn't all over. Something important was just
beginning. A few months before,
State Senator Rodney Ellis had filed a number of criminal justice bills. Among them, one asking for substantial
compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
Sen. RODNEY ELLIS, Texas State Legislator:
I had my staff prepare a fairly ambitious bill, and then I had a host of
other criminal justice reforms. So
to be honest with you, I don't think this bill was going to go anywhere, and I
don't think I would have put a lot of energy into it. And then I saw an article in a local newspaper, "The Houston
Chronicle," one day, talking about one Anthony Robinson who spent 10 years in
prison for a rape that he did not commit.
And the story just sounded very interesting, so I called his lawyer.
And I said, "Look, I don't want to be rude, but I'm on a
short time fuse. I need a poster
child to pass this bill." So I
knew if I spent 10 months in prison, guilty or not, I'd probably come out a mental
case. And so I just very bluntly
asked, "Is the guy crazy?" And the
lawyer said, "No. You'd be
surprised. He's a very pleasant
person." And I said, "I'd like to
meet him." And the lawyer said,
"When?" And I said, "Now."
ANTHONY ROBINSON: He said that I should go over and see
him right then. And I said, "Does
that mean, like, later on today?"
He says, "No, you need to go right now."
Sen. RODNEY ELLIS: Well, I wanted to make sure that
the lawyer didn't have time to prep him because I assumed the lawyer -- who's a
fine guy, Randy Schaffer here, prominent attorney -- may have been contemplating
suing the state or maybe thinking that I would pass legislation giving a
considerably large amount of money.
I mean, this was his lawyer.
And I just wanted-- I needed a poster child. I was not interested in the details. I just wanted to make sure-- if I had a
good person who would help me pass the bill, I could do it. And I wanted to see him then, quick.
ANTHONY ROBINSON: A poster child. I think those were his exact words,
that he was going to be my-- "You're going to be my poster child if you check
NARRATOR: Only a few weeks after Robinson
testified in front of the Senate, in April, 2001, the compensation statute for
the wrongfully convicted was approved.
The bill awarded $25,000 for each year served in prison.
Sen. RODNEY ELLIS: That bill would not have gotten legs,
it would not have had a life, it would not have passed the Senate and would not
have passed the House had it not been for Anthony Robinson. That bill should have had Anthony
Robinson's name on it instead of my name.
NARRATOR: Anthony Robinson, who was one of the
first to get his compensation under the bill, is a success story, and he looks
it. But he says that this is not the
reason why he dresses so meticulously.
He does it as a defense.
ANTHONY ROBINSON: That has been a proven fact, that if
the police officers do stop you and you appear to be respectable, there's less
chance of the contact getting out of control. And particularly in Texas, it just gives you just a little
bit more of insurance.
You just don't turn fear off. 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.
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. I find myself getting up sometimes in the middle of the
night just to walk around and check the doors and make sure that I can walk
around. And sometimes I'll get up
in the middle of the night, and I'll get my wife and say, "Let's go to the
store," you know, just so we can just, like, go somewhere, you know, just to
get out and to make sure that we can get out.
You've been taken out, put into this insane world. Now that you've survived, they take you
out and they put you back in the real world, and they say, "OK, forget
everything that happened to you."
Well, you can't.
NARRATOR: With the help of Senator Ellis, Robinson
got a grant to attend the law school at Texas Southern University. He is now a second-year student. He works at night and goes to classes
during the day.
ANTHONY ROBINSON: 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."
Before that, I always thought that this was truly the land
where we would be more than happy to let ten guilty people go free before we
incarcerated one innocent person.
My view has changed, and I believe that there are people who would
gladly convict ten innocent people just to keep their numbers high. And for me, that's sad. That's-- it's really a sadness that our
system has been distorted to serve the objectives of the few, as opposed to the
needs of the many.
NARRATOR: If innocent people can find themselves
arrested and convicted, only to be exonerated 10 or even 20 years later, why
don't they all sue the state for wrongful convictions?
BARRY SCHECK, Co-Director, Innocence Project: It's
very hard to bring a federal Civil Rights action in a case where somebody's
been wrongfully convicted. If a
prosecutor hides exculpatory evidence and really commits a criminal act, that
prosecutor is immune from any kind of civil lawsuit. Absolute immunity.
If a police officer or a laboratory technician lies on the witness
stand, they have absolute immunity for their testimony. And then, even if you have a case where
you can show it's not just a mistake or negligence, but bad faith misconduct by
a police officer that brought about the wrongful conviction, then they get what
they call interlocutory appeals.
And the lawsuits can take years and years and years. And nobody wants to
bring these cases because they cost so much money and the likelihood of winning
is not always so great.
NARRATOR: So Scheck and a few other lawyers have
decided to take on some cases just to prove that it could be done. One of the cases was that of Dennis
Fritz and Ron Williamson. They
filed a suit against state, county and local law enforcement agencies who were
responsible for the conviction, producing evidence that the two defendants were
BARRY SCHECK: We found item after item of exculpatory
evidence that was absolutely extraordinary. Terrifying.
[www.pbs.org: More on Details on Fritz's case]
NARRATOR: Ten months later, the case was settled
with the city, county and state, each paying both Williamson and Fritz an
undisclosed sum of money. For the
first time since their arrest 15 years ago, the two men could now live in some
comfort. Dennis went to live with
his mother in Kansas City. Ron
moved in temporarily with his sister, Annette. But the comfort that the money brought him seemed to have
come years too late for him to gain any peace of mind.
RON WILLIAMSON: Money-- you know, it's nice to have it,
but as far as making you happy, I don't know if it'll do that. No, I don't. I don't know if it'll do that at all.
Dr. JOHN WILSON, Psychologist: Money is useful. It will help Ron. It will give him a safety net. But it won't solve any of the
psychological problems or emotional scars that has from this wrongful
NARRATOR: Dr. Wilson evaluated Ron after his
JOHN WILSON: The injury to Ron is one that's very
profound. The scars are deep
inside of his psyche, and I am not sure that he has recovered from it.
ANNETTE HUDSON, Ron's Sister: He has told me several
times, "When I can get you and Renee" -- that's our sister -- "set up and know
that you all are taken care of, I'm ready to die." And oh, that would just-- that just stings me because I want
him to enjoy some of the fruits of the money. I want him to be able to enjoy doing something. But he doesn't want to do anything.
RON WILLIAMSON, Sentenced to Death: 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.
They drilled it in so much that it makes me, a lot of the time, just
wish that my life could be over.
I'd rather not have ever been born. 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.
I mean, it may not be something that you want to hear, since it is so
negative, and that you shouldn't consider it anything that'll rub off on
you. It's not contagious. It's my life.
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, you know, I
can't do anything about it. I have
to just go on and pick up the pieces and live by the day. But I struggle. I struggle.
BURDEN OF INNOCENCE
and DIRECTED by
Karen K.H. Sim
Michael H. Amundson
Taryn Simon from the book, The Innocents
Ada Evening News
Mark Bratcher, City of Ada, Oklahoma
California Department of Corrections Communications Office
Oklahoma Publishing Company
Michael H. Amundson
Erin Martin Kane
FOUNDATION GRANT MANAGER
WEBSITE MANAGING EDITOR
Louis Wiley Jr.
A FRONTLINE Co-Production with Ofra Bikel Productions
ANNOUNCER: There's more to explore about this
report on FRONTLINE's Web site, including the views of experts on what it will
take to help the falsely convicted, a closer look at the stories featured in
this program, answers to some frequently asked questions, such as the number of
people exonerated so far and how your state is dealing with this issue, an
opportunity to view the full program online. Then join the discussion at PBS on line, pbs.org.
Next time on FRONTLINE: It was Wall Street's hottest stock.
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ANNOUNCER: And when it went under--
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