Burden of Innocence
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photo of barbed wire and an american flagintroduction: may 1, 2003

Clyde Charles spent 17 years in Louisiana's state penitentiary at Angola before DNA testing finally cleared him of the rape for which he had received a life sentence.

Frederick Daye, Neil Miller, and Anthony Robinson each spent 10 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit before they were finally exonerated.

And Ron Williamson spent 11 years on Oklahoma's Death Row for a rape and murder he didn't commit. At one point, he was just five days away from being executed.

When these men walked out of prison, they were greeted by media cameras (including FRONTLINE's, in the case of Clyde Charles), jubilant family members, and triumphant attorneys. Hopes were high. Yet when FRONTLINE found Charles three years later, he was jobless and homeless, living in his car. And he is not alone. Charles is one of hundreds of wrongfully convicted prisoners -- the most celebrated being the approximately 130 cleared by DNA evidence -- who have found that re-entry into society is much more difficult than they ever expected.

In "Burden of Innocence," acclaimed FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel -- whose unparalleled work on America's criminal justice system has helped exonerate 11 individuals and has won numerous awards, most recently the Robert F. Kennedy Jr. award for last season's "An Ordinary Crime" -- tracks down these five exonerated men to learn how they have fared following their highly publicized releases. Her report examines the social, psychological, and economic challenges these men now face, the vast majority of them without any financial or transitional assistance from the states that imprisoned them.

"We've done so many shows trying to help people to get out," Bikel says in this interview with FRONTLINE. "It's natural to want to follow their stories and find out what happens afterward -- when the celebrations are over, the television cameras are gone, and they are marching toward their freedom."

"The people that were exonerated feel such a deep bitterness," Bikel continues. "Not only were they in prison for something they didn't do, but nobody recognizes it. Nobody. All of them said, 'I thought I would get an apology. I want an apology.' They don't get an apology. They don't get bus fare. They don't get anything."

Even the lawyers who worked tirelessly to champion the cases of wrongfully convicted prisoners admit to being surprised at the difficulty their former clients have encountered after prison. "We thought it would be enough just to get people out, and they would be so pleased to get out that everything would be great," says Peter Neufeld, who co-founded The Innocence Project at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, which has helped exonerate dozens of wrongfully convicted prisoners. "Obviously, that was incredibly naive of us. Most of the people we have gotten out have had very, very difficult times adjusting."

Many exonerated inmates suffer lingering psychological effects from their incarceration. "Most of them experience this sort of anxiety of floating: floating adrift in the American society, wanting to find a niche, wanting to get back in and to resume a normal life like they had before they were locked up," says John Wilson, a psychologist who has worked for two decades with the wrongfully convicted. "But finding the keys to unlock the door seems almost as difficult as getting out of prison."

The exonerated men often find themselves in dire financial situations as well. Most exonerated prisoners receive no compensation for the lost years they spent in prison; only 16 states have statutes that allow the wrongfully convicted to apply for compensation. And finding jobs to make ends meet -- after spending so many years in prison and away from the job market -- has proven extraordinarily difficult.

"I still feel sometimes I'd rather be in jail," Neil Miller tells FRONTLINE. "At least in jail, I could still get a job." Miller has given up trying to find work after years of unsuccessful attempts.

As for suing the government for damages, prosecutors and law enforcement officials are often immune to any charges of wrongdoing. "If a prosecutor hides exculpatory evidence and really commits [a] criminal act, that prosecutor is immune from any kind of civil lawsuit -- absolute immunity," says Barry Scheck, who founded The Innocence Project with Neufeld. "If a police officer or a laboratory technician lies on the witness stand, they have absolute immunity." Scheck says that even if a prisoner does challenge the immunity protections, the lawsuits can take years. "Nobody wants to bring these cases because they cost so much money and the likelihood of winning is not always so great."

Nonetheless, some of the men profiled in the film have been compensated for their lost years. Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz, who was sentenced to life for the same rape and murder, settled their civil suit and received an undisclosed amount of money. (See a Web-exclusive video of Fritz's story.) In addition, Anthony Robinson was instrumental in helping Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis win passage of a bill that provides compensation to the wrongfully convicted, and he eventually received $250,000.

"Some people ask me, 'That's a lot of money, isn't it?'" Robinson says. "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.'"

 

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published may 1, 2003

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