December 19, 1999 |
"Bittersweet Trip Brings Inmate Home After 18 Years in Jail"
Nearly everything has a price for Clyde Charles. Some things he can
quantify, but others have taken a toll he's only beginning to comprehend.
The pack of loose cigarette tobacco that he slides out of his jeans pocket
every 20 minutes or so Saturday is easy.
"Fifty-six cents," he says, referring to the tiny blue package of Bugle tobacco
that he uses to roll a treasured smoke. "That's more than two hours work. It's
better than $2.93 for Camels. I earned this. I'm gonna finish it."
As he sat under gloomy skies outside his sister's Thibodaux home, enjoying his
first full day of freedom, the price of his tobacco was one of the few answers
that came easily.
Nearly two decades after being sent to prison on a life sentence for a rape
that he now can prove he did not commit, he's struggling to pick up the pieces
of a life he no longer recognizes.
He was a young man when he stepped off the bus at Angola, a commercial
fisherman with a 4-year-old daughter. When he walked out Friday and into a
waiting limousine, he was a balding, middle-aged man racked by diabetes and a
touch of tuberculosis. His daughter, now 23, is a vibrant woman he barely
Charles' release came hours after a state judge ordered him freed on bond when
a second DNA test showed he wasn't the man who raped a Houma nurse in 1981.
"How much is that worth?" he echoes, his eyes suddenly looking far off, his
festive red sweater a contrast to the gray skies laced with the soot of the
nearby sugarcane fields. "I'll leave that up to somebody else. I just want to
live. I don't have time to think about all that. It's in the Lord's hands."
He glances down at his new watch with its bright white face, his red,
cable-knit sweater. For Charles on his first full day of freedom, everything is
He woke up at 5 a.m., even though he'd only slept a little more than two hours
-- his champagne and home-cooked gumbo celebration lasted until the wee hours.
Even so, his pre-dawn rising was still an hour later than he'd usually slept in
the prison dormitory he shared with 106 inmates.
While his relatives dozed, he took not a shower but a hot bath -- his first in
nearly two decades. Then he stepped into his sister's carport, settled into one
of the hand-made oak rockers he'd made in the prison woodshop and tuned in the
sounds of freedom.
"Eighteen-wheelers," he said, breaking into one of many grins. "They
Then there was the rural route driver who threw the newspaper with a satisfying
thump. "I got to take the paper in for the first time in 19 years. You don't
think about things like that."
When his sister, Lois Hill, awoke, he convinced her to drive him about 30 miles
to Bobtown, his family's old neighborhood off Grand Caillou Road about 10 miles
south of Houma. His parents' white bungalow still stands there, along with a
cousin's shrimpboat and a couple of skiffs moored to the bayou behind it.
Both parents and two brothers died while Charles was in prison. He was given
leave to attend his mother's funeral and burial in the tiny cemetery near their
house, where the graves rise above the often sodden grounds on tens of acres
that date to Charles' great-grandfather, the son of slaves. Charles, his
brothers and cousins used to hunt alligator and rabbit in the moss-draped bayou
for which the Grand Caillou community is named.
"You can take a man out of the country but you can't take the country out of a
man," he said more than once in a 2 1/2-hour span.
The trip home was bittersweet.
On the way there, he passed the spot on Grand Caillou Road where his nightmare
The woman, who still lives in the Houma area, told a sheriff's deputy that she
had been raped by the side of the road by an African-American man. The victim
After dropping her off at the hospital, the same deputy returned to the roadway
and spotted Charles hitchhiking. The deputy stopped Charles, handcuffed him and
drove him to Terrebonne General Hospital, where the rape victim was being
The woman, who just hours earlier had described her attacker as a clean-shaven
man, identified the fully bearded Charles as the man who assaulted her. He was
convicted of aggravated rape 15 months later by an all-white jury and ordered
to serve a mandatory life sentence. Attempts by the newspaper to contact the
victim were unsuccessful Saturday.
Though court after court denied his appeals, Charles never gave up. In 1990, he
began asking about DNA testing -- a new science that could prove beyond
millions of odds that he was an innocent man.
"A friend in prison showed me an article about it," he said. " I had a lot of
time to read and to do everything else. All I had was time."
In 1996, Charles wrote to the Innocence Project at Yeshiva University's
Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. The project's mission is finding cases where
DNA can possibly prove a convict's innocence.
The school kept Charles' request on file with hundreds of others. Then the PBS
documentary series "Frontline," looking for a DNA story, got his name from the
The show's reporters and producers realized Charles' crusade, led by his
sister, could have merit. He was just about to request the genetic test on the
victim's rape kit. Family members thought it might be his last chance.
The Innocence Project, led by co-founder Barry Scheck, the attorney most famous
for his role for the defense in the O.J. Simpson trial, sued the Terrebonne
sheriff and district attorney's offices in federal district court in New
Orleans, asking that the rape kit, which included samples of fluids collected
from the victim, be released for testing.
It wasn't until May of this year that a federal district judge revived Charles'
request. Terrebonne officials settled with Charles, agreeing to release the
glass slides containing the semen sample from the woman's attacker as long as
both sides could commission their own tests. Charles' family raised money for
the defense testing.
"This was about my brother's life," Hill said.
It was in the nick of time. The sample was rapidly degrading in the muggy
Louisiana summers. But five genetic markers were available for testing. Two
showed Charles didn't commit the crime for which he'd been incarcerated.
The defense test, performed by a California laboratory, cleared Charles. He got
the news on Nov. 19, his 46th birthday. Then, on Friday, the FBI lab at
Quantico, Va., contacted the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office and alerted
authorities that their preliminary test confirmed Charles' innocence. A state
district judge in Houma ordered Charles released the same day. Another final
test will be performed in coming weeks, but experts regard it as a
After the final FBI test confirms the previous ones, Scheck is expected to file
a motion for a new trial and Terrebonne District Attorney Joseph Waitz Jr. said
he will promptly drop the case, ending the nearly 19-year odyssey.
Waitz said the victim has been told about the turn of events. He said his
office will do whatever it can to help with her healing -- more than a decade
after believing the man who attacked her was permanently behind bars.
For Charles, his struggle to heal is just beginning. But his days are filled
with moments of pleasure.
"Brother, is it really you? Is it really you?" his brother Leo asks him,
engulfing him in a bear hug, playfully slamming a straw hat on his balding
"It's really me," Charles said, looking down, as if he's convincing himself as
well. "I'm here."
He sneaks a peek at his watch again, explaining he has another one in his
"Clyde, we're fine," Hill assures him. "You're not on Angola time anymore."
There are questions but surprisingly little anger.
"His family, we've carried the anger for him," explains another sister,
Rochelle Abrams of Houma, who gathered with many of the family's surviving 10
out of 13 children at Hill's home Saturday amidst a phalanx of television
cameras and reporters.
"I don't have time to be angry but I do want to know why," Charles said. "This
was no mistake. I don't want to point the finger at anyone in particular. But
why did this take so long? Why suck the life out of a human being? I know I
left some innocent men behind."
December 28, 1999
"Time Limit Frustrates Requests For DNA Test"
It seemed like an eternity for Clyde Charles. The world outside his
Angola prison dormitory whizzed by. Three missions to Mars. Two presidents. The
dawn of compact discs and cellular phones. His daughter's high school
Over nine years, Charles, who had already served eight years of his sentence
for a crime he didn't commit, repeatedly asked state and federal judges to give
him a DNA test, comparing his genetic code with that contained in a sample of
semen collected and stored as evidence after the rape. But the Terrebonne
Parish sheriff's and district attorney's offices blocked the convicted rapist's
attempts to prove his innocence.
"Both of the defendants herein know that the plaintiff is not guilty of
this charge, and their continued refusal to release the rape kit only makes
a farce out of the criminal justice system, while the plaintiff is forced to
languish his life away in prison," Charles wrote in one of his many
pleadings to judges.
Nine years after he first asked and thousands of dollars in legal fees
later, Charles, 46, got his wish for a trial by science. DNA tests proved he
did not rape a Houma woman nearly 19 years ago and prosecutors were forced
to ask for his release from prison.
Louisiana prosecutors say they were standing on firm ground when they
contested the innocent man's pleas. He was already well past the deadline
for the state's three-year limit on post-conviction appeals.
But while Louisiana has remained inflexible, other states have acknowledged
the pivotal role genetic testing can play and adjusted their procedures
accordingly. Charles' case is apparently the first in Louisiana in which
double helix strands of DNA, taken from his blood, led to his exoneration
and release from prison. Deoxyribonucleic acid, which can be typed from blood,
semen, saliva, skin and hair, is the basic building block of genetic
material and, like fingerprints, is unique in every individual other than identical
twins or other multiple births resulting from a single egg.
"There are a lot of people who don't have the best interests of other
people at heart," Charles said from his sister's Thibodaux home days after
his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola earlier this month.
"Maybe that's why it took so long," Charles said. "I've always wondered
why. If the evidence was there, why not use it and see if you got the right
man? That's the beauty of modern technology. I thank God for it."
Law slams the door
Charles' case has prompted his New York defense attorneys and appellate
lawyers here to call for changes in Louisiana law to open the door for
inmates who may have valid grounds to ask for DNA testing on evidence used to
convict and sentence them.
"This is science, it's not a Ouija board," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of
the Innocence Project at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York that
responded to Charles' request for help.
"Clyde asked for the test for nine years," Scheck said. "We need a statute
in Louisiana that allows people in his position to get testing. This wasn't
a frivolous request - the rape kit evidence was still there and there were
questions about the strength of evidence in his conviction."
. . .
Scheck cites Louisiana and Florida as the most recalcitrant foes of inmates
seeking DNA testing.
Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau has repeatedly opposed the
Innocence Project's efforts to win genetic testing for Archie Williams, an
Angola inmate serving a life sentence for a rape conviction. Moreau did not
return phone calls seeking comment.
As in Charles' case, Scheck has filed a federal lawsuit charging that
Moreau's office has violated Williams' civil rights by refusing to release
the rape kit evidence for testing. The tactic worked for Charles after a federal
magistrate judge oversaw a settlement between the parties that called for
independent tests. Scheck hopes Williams gets the same deal.
"I don't know if Archie Williams is innocent or guilty but he has a right
for the evidence to be tested based on science," Scheck said.
Similarly in Florida, Scheck said prosecutors are still fighting requests
from a convicted rapist to reopen his case for testing. Florida prosecutors
have cited Florida's two-year limit on appeals. Louisiana this year reduced
its three-year limit to two years, a move that defense attorneys say will
strangle a convict's right to appeals.
"Louisiana and Florida are the worst," Scheck said. "Everyone needs to
follow the lead of Illinois and New York that have struck out to remedy
these gross errors."
Of course, post-conviction DNA testing doesn't always work to the convict's
advantage. In November 1998, Gov. Foster stayed convicted murderer Doby
Williams' execution after the Sabine Parish District Attorney joined defense
attorneys in asking for DNA testing. The test showed Williams had indeed
committed the murder of a Sabine Parish woman in her home when he was on a
weekend furlough in 1984. With all doubts put to rest, he was executed in
"More often than not, this works to benefit the prosecution. That's a known
fact. But it can erase mistakes like the criminal justice system has never
before been equipped to do," Scheck said.
Like all 50 states, Louisiana plans to build a database of offenders' DNA
to correspond with the FBI's own stockpile of genetic fingerprints, allowing
evidence from older unsolved crimes to be compared state to state. Critics
have said Louisiana's plan to take DNA samples from suspects in violent
crimes before conviction creates a quagmire of legal issues.
"The clear message is that Louisiana is going in the wrong direction," said
William Campbell Jr., a New Orleans criminal appeals attorney.
. . .
Charles' wrongful conviction is a textbook example of DNA's importance,
advocates of testing agree.The rape victim provided the sole identification
after Charles was picked up by a sheriff's deputy while hitchhiking in the
vicinity of the reported attack and brought to the hospital where she was
being treated. Asked if he was her assailant, the woman said yes and Charles
was booked, despite having no previous convictions. The woman's confidence
in her identification was never tested by making her pick Charles out of a
Scheck said the identification was even more troubling because it involved
cross-racial identification that often is faulty. Charles is
The victim is white. The only other evidence was the victim's hairs found on
Charles' clothing, which Scheck believes happened because crime lab workers
did not take pains to keep the evidence sterile.
. . .
Scheck says that the number of valid appeals based on prisoners' requests
are limited. In 70 percent of the cases, the evidence has been destroyed
because of its age and the lack of storage space in underfinanced courts. In
New Orleans, for example, the Clerk of Court's office often discards
evidence five years after the case is resolved.
First Assistant District Attorney Tim McElroy of Orleans Parish said he is
not familiar with any appeals based on the advent of DNA testing, but added
that his office would not block a valid request where the conviction had
been based on eyewitness identification.
"If you can have science validate the conviction and there's a reasonable
basis for the request, you should," McElroy said.
Defense Attorney Laurie White disputes McElroy's characterization of his
office. She said that Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick has a
history of challenging post-conviction DNA tests. White said she has several
requests pending in rape cases.
"They have fought it, saying they're not timely or 'he's already been
convicted, why do we need this now?' " White said. "They've never granted a
Zully Jimenez, spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish district attorney's
office, countered that her office has little to do with such requests
criminal district judges have the power to rule if testing should be
"If the judge gives the order to do it, we comply," Jimenez said.
As Charles struggles to reconnect with the world of change that occurred
during his time behind bars, sympathetic benefactors have showered him with
gifts: a repaired front tooth, a three-piece suit and Cajun dinners galore.
But his attorneys say that doesn't begin to make up for nearly two decades
behind bars. Scheck and Bob Glass, a New Orleans attorney who helped with
Charles' federal lawsuit, say Louisiana legislators should compensate him
for his lost time because prosecutors are immune to civil suits.
"This is about righting wrongs," Glass said.
speaking out ·
total system failure? ·
how far will it go? ·
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