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People face many challenges after incarceration — from getting healthcare to reconnecting with family. But even for those who have been wrongfully convicted and then freed — those same challenges exist. Ricky Kidd's experience is one such example. Amna Nawaz and producer Frank Carlson report on the issue as part of our series, Searching for Justice.
We have been exploring this week the many challenges people face after incarceration, from getting health care to reconnecting with family.
But for those wrongfully convicted and imprisoned and then fortunate enough to be freed, those same challenges exist. And, for many, there's even less support than for those who committed crimes and are released on parole.
Amna Nawaz and producer Frank Carlson report on the struggle that begins after freedom is won.
It's part of our series Searching For Justice.
What about this, this area? What is this from?
Ricky Kidd, Wrongfully Imprisoned For 23 Years: Prison. It's all prison pictures.
Over two years ago, Ricky Kidd walked out of a Missouri prison after 23 years behind bars. He'd been wrongly convicted for two murders he always said he didn't commit.
In the two short years he's been free, Kidd got married, moved into this house, started a business, and welcomed his new daughter, Harmony Justice, into the world.
Look at me, daddy!
I often say that freedom is the ability to embrace life fully. It feels like freedom because I'm embracing it fully.
Since his release, Kidd's traveled across the country. He put his feet in the ocean for the first time.
Did you ever think that you wouldn't get out?
He even came by the "NewsHour" for a 2019 interview with his lawyer, Sean O'Brien
We came to see you all…
… a few years ago.
I recognize that set anywhere.
Dawn Elizabeth, Wife of Ricky Kidd: Right now, we have your book, the workshop.
And with his wife, Dawn, he's built a public speaking business, sharing his story, advocating for criminal justice reform, and fighting for others to be freed.
I have a lot to be thankful for today, especially when you compare it against other people who are still languishing in prison for crimes they didn't commit.
On the outside looking in, you check all the boxes, right, home, job, family. Everything seems really good. What's happening inside?
Sometimes, I'm overwhelmed. It's a lot. And it comes out of nowhere. I think, I got this, I got this, I got this. And then I feel like I don't have it. Anxiety, nightmares began to surface, horrible nightmares.
To the public, the story of most exonerees ends on the day they're released and walk out of prison, when, in fact, that day marks the beginning of an entirely new set of struggles ahead.
So, here we are walking into prison.
From the outside, it looks like Kidd has moved on. But, inside, he is grappling with his past.
In his basement storm shelter, Kidd created a replica of his prison cell, down to the exact same items he had during more than two decades of incarceration.
This was my I.D.
This is your actual I.D.? Missouri Department of Corrections Offender in big red letters, Ricky Kidd.
And they usually call you 528343, not your name. They want you to respond, 528343.
Do you think you will ever forget that number?
Still, he visits this place almost every morning.
Sometimes, I'm thinking about what I have been through, that I was once here. Sometimes, I'm thinking about the other people that are still here.
Imagine waking up in a maximum Level 5 prison.
Earlier this year, he filmed an online series here, reenacting his prison days. Reliving them became overwhelming, so he stopped.
Kidd has also struggled with his health. He's a diabetic, and earlier this year had an emergency triple bypass heart surgery. More recently, he's struggled with his breathing, a complication from that surgery. He blames more than two decades of poor prison health care, unhealthy prison food, and the stress of being wrongfully imprisoned and fighting to prove it.
On top of that, he's received no support nor compensation from the state of Missouri.
You took all my 20s. You took all my 30s, and you took half of my 40s. At that stage, people who have been working and are a little diligent and a little disciplined, they have a little something. Well, I came home at 45 and had nothing.
Is there a way for them to make you whole? Can they do something to make it right?
I don't think there's nothing they can do to make me whole. There's things they can do to make it better. But even if they did that, against their best efforts, we're still left wounded. We're still left with our wounds. And that's a consequence of a wrongful conviction in America.
On a chilly morning on the other side of Kansas City, Ricky's lawyer, Sean O'Brien, is picking up Joe Amrine, another former client, to go grocery shopping.
Joe Amrine, Wrongfully Sentenced to Death: So, do you remember Lehman's (ph) case, Sean?
Sean O’ Brien, Attorney:
I do remember Lehman's case, because you went with Dan Groathouse (ph)…
Sean O’ Brien:
… to talk to the witnesses that eventually exonerated him.
Sean's helped free more than a dozen wrongfully convicted people in his career as a law professor and defense attorney. In 2003, it was Joe Amrine's turn, after spending 17 years on death row.
You know, when you know that everybody in the state, everybody in the world wants you dead, there ain't much you can do. There ain't nothing you can do. Just can't imagine that, that everybody wants me dead.
He could have been executed any time.
For a crime he didn't commit.
Every month, they executed one of these 10 men. And then after they execute them at midnight on the first Tuesday of the month, they would come back into the office that morning and issue a new warrant for the next one. About midway through that process, one of his friends, who he had known since junior high school, was executed. And he called me the next morning and said: "I want to be next because I can't do this again."
Since being released, Amrine has struggled, with his health, holding down a job, and meeting basic needs.
When you got out, what kind of support did you get?
I had none whatsoever, no support whatsoever.
Getting my driver's license, Social Security card, filling out paperwork and stuff, I was lost.
Amrine's depended on help from people like Sean to keep the lights on and keep the refrigerator stocked.
He's food-insecure, for crying out loud. That's wrong.
You know, if I don't — if I don't periodically take him to the grocery store, you know, he will call me up and say: "I don't have anything. I haven't eaten in a week."
Across the country, the support and compensation exonerees are eligible for differs drastically depending on where they're convicted; 37 states and the District of Columbia have laws for compensating exonerees in some way.
But qualifying for and accessing that support is another story entirely. In Missouri, one of the states that has a law on the books, Joe Amrine and Ricky Kidd don't qualify for help because they weren't exonerated through a specific mechanism involving DNA evidence.
You can count on one hand the number of people who have qualified for support under Missouri's compensation statute. He would be better off if he had been guilty and then released on parole, because a parole officer would help him get public assistance and would constantly be on the lookout for job leads and…
He would be better off if he'd actually done the crime? He'd have more support coming out?
He would be better off if he had done the crime and been released on parole, yes.
Yes, I'm mad. I'm still mad. I'm really mad. And I'm going to stay mad. Until the day I die, I will probably be mad, because they took my life.
So far, Ricky Kidd's experience after prison has been very different than Joe Amrine's, and he counts himself lucky.
For the first time, I felt bitterness towards the state.
But the trauma, the loss, the anger, many of those are the same.
Kidd recently began seeing a therapist to work through those issues. He's currently suing the Kansas City Police Department in civil court, which could take years. Because of governmental immunity, Sean O'Brien says most clients get nothing.
In the meantime, he's trying to focus on the positive each day, advocating for the friends he left behind, the wrongful convictions he can prevent, and redefining what freedom means.
These are things that I always wanted to happen. And now they happen, so…
Not wasting a day.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Kansas City, Kansas.
And you can learn much more about Ricky Kidd's life and case in our podcast "Broken Justice" and about the failures in public defense that led to his incarceration.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Frank Carlson is a general assignment producer at the PBS NewsHour, where he's been making video since 2010. @frankncarlson
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