Burden of Innocence
homeprofilesafter the camerasfaqsdiscussionwatch online

Burden of Innocence

Written, Produced & Directed by Ofra Bikel

RICKY DAYE: They gave me a sentence of 14 years, 8 months, plus two life sentences.

FORMER INMATE: When I went to the penitentiary, my life was over.

ANTHONY ROBINSON, Sentenced to 27 Years: When the judge says that I was sentenced to 27 years, I thought to myself, "You're dead."

RON 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.

ANTHONY 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.

NEIL 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.

Dr. 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?

DWIGHT 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.

CLYDE 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:

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.

BARRY 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.

CLYDE 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 anything.

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 is lost.

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 cameras left.

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.

NEWSCASTER: 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.

NEWSCASTER: 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.

NEWSCASTER: 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.

NEWSCASTER: Imagine spending 10 years in prison for a crime you didn't do, 10 years of frustration and rage--

NEWSCASTER: --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 sweetheart.

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 raped anybody.

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 they've had.

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 prison?

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 problem.

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 the CORI.

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 escaping it.

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 a goal.

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 91, 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 quite right.

Then, in November of 91, 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 jail.

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.

JUDGE: 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 case."

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 governor.

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 out."

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 framed.

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 incarceration.

NARRATOR: Dr. Wilson evaluated Ron after his release.

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.


Ofra Bikel

Karen K.H. Sim

Jenny Carchman

Will Lyman

Bob Perrin

Boyd Estus
Jefferson Miller

Gerre Cannon
Frank Coakley
Dave Roche

Avra Scher

Maurice Chayut

Thomas Rutishauser

Michael H. Amundson
Julie Kahn

Jim Sullivan

Frank Ferrigno

Chad Goslee

Taryn Simon

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


Tim Mangini

M.R. Frederick

Steve Audette

Michael H. Amundson
John MacGibbon

Chris Fournelle

Chetin Chabuk

Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Erin Martin Kane

Christopher Kelly

Jessica Smith

Jennifer McCauley

Dennis O'Reilly

Jenna Lowe

Jessica Cashdan

Mary Sullivan

Danielle Gillis

Lisa Palone-Clarke

Eric Brass
Jay Fialkov

Adrienne Armor

Alex Fitzsimmons
Paul Plutnicki

Tobee Phipps

Sarah Moughty
Kimberly Tabor

Stephanie Ault

Sam Bailey

Wen Stephenson

Catherine Wright

Robin Parmelee

Ken Dornstein

Karen O'Connor

Sharon Tiller

Michael Sullivan

Marrie Campbell

Jim Bracciale

Louis Wiley Jr.

David Fanning

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.

EXPERT: Worldcom was a gravy train for almost everybody.

ANNOUNCER: And when it went under--

EXPERT: The hype was a lie for three or four years before it burst.

ANNOUNCER: --ordinary investors lost billions.

EXPERT: They were duped.

NARRATOR: Did Wall Street sell out America?

INVESTOR: I was robbed. I was lied to. I was stolen from.

INVESTOR: Who do they think they are?

NARRATOR: The Wall Street Fix next time on FRONTLINE.

Educators and organizations may purchase a copy of FRONTLINE's Burden of Innocence from PBS Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$59.95 plus s&h]

FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.


home » introduction » closer look » after the cameras » faqs » the innocents
interviews » discussion » interview with ofra bikel » producer's chat
tapes & transcripts » press reaction » credits » privacy policy
FRONTLINE » wgbh » pbsi

published may 1, 2003

photograph copyright © ed kashi/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation