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Worst-case Scenario

The Story of Herman Atkins' Years Imprisoned as an Innocent Man Might Scare the Hell Out of You. It Should.

June 25, 2000|FRED DICKEY | Fred Dickey last wrote about Jenny Craig International for the magazine

I'm in the kitchen dumping garbage for 8 cents an hour, like I do every day, when the head guard comes up to me and says, "Herman Atkins? They want to see you up front." I follow him into the office area of Ironwood, where this suit reads me a paper and then tells me, "You're going out in the morning."

After 13 years, three months and six days in state prison, I'm going out in the morning. Just like that. The suit keeps talking about how great it is that I've been proven innocent, but I'm not listening. That's not news to me. I'm thinking, "Thirteen years. Thirteen damned years of afraid to go to sleep; afraid to wake up."

I'm happy, but I'm not used to that and so don't know how to feel. I'm also mad. I know what that feels like. I want those years back, because, dammit, I really was innocent! But to the stone-cold killers and old-women muggers in this pissed-off place, I was a "sex offender." That put me on their list. Three times they tried to kill me. I lived every day knowing they'd try again.

The suit tells me they've got a separate cell for me tonight if I want it. "No," I say, "I'll spend my last night in D-3-111, just like all the other nights."

I don't sleep. I'm scared, but not of the threats inside. Am I ready for the world of Feb. 18, 2000? I don't know what's happening out there. Got no skills, no education, no friends, no way to make a living.

I listen to my cellmate toss and turn, and for the last time I hear hip-hop from the loud, tinny radios echo off the walls. After a while the noise dies down. I stare at the bunk above and think of what I've survived. I remember. I can't not remember.

I remember missing family funerals. I remember seeing murders, suicides, beatings, race riots. I remember until morning breaks through the narrow window, and I know those memories will walk with me out that gate. They'll walk with me until the day I die.

After breakfast, I head down to Reception and Release. I go through five sliding metal doors and listen to them close behind me. I count the doors until there are no more. At R&R, I change into the Levi's and sweatshirt that I'd saved just for this moment. They fit. The guard in charge gives me a card that says I'm a free man, and then he hands me $200 "gate money." I think what it means as I count: Ten $20 bills to rebuild a life.

The final gate opens. The blue desert sky is huge, and my family's waiting. They all look older. I don't hear that last door slam shut.

*

HERMAN ATKINS SR. ANSWERS THE DOOR AT HIS SISTER'S house in Inglewood. He looks trim and has a smile on a face that betrays no bitterness about the years spent in some of the toughest prisons in California, the last being Ironwood State Prison in Blythe.

Atkins is free to choose his life now, but everything seems out of reach. He can do anything he wants, but at 34 he doesn't know what to do, and he has no money, anyway. He is lost in a landscape with no familiar markers.

After being sentenced in 1988 to 47 years, 8 months for rape, robbery, the use of a gun and forced oral copulation, Atkins immediately headed for the prison law library and made exoneration his daily labor. For five years he fired off appeals and then watched in dismay as the rejections came back like a bad novelist's manuscript. One day, an old inmate in the library remarked about the futility of Atkins' approach: "You can't just trim the tree, you've got to uproot it." He then tossed an article toward the younger man about the Innocence Project, which, as Atkins learned, was an undertaking by New York lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Atkins read it and learned how DNA testing could sometimes help inmates who were wrongly convicted.

DNA? Atkins knew little of DNA, but had heard it was so accurate that it rendered obsolete the blood-typing used to convict him. Atkins was soon writing the letter he hoped would do for him what the courts seemed unwilling to do: Give him the chance to prove he didn't belong behind bars.

*

DNA EVIDENCE HIT THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN THE EARLY 1990S with the same thunderous impact of fingerprinting a century earlier. DNA is the genetic coding in human cells, the analysis of which can unerringly identify any person. The material used for testing can be microscopic--particles of blood, body fluid, skin or hair.

DNA emerged on the national stage at the same time and in the same place that Scheck and Neufeld did--the O.J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles. The Simpson prosecutors put on a show about the new science that introduced an enrapt nation to such DNA concepts as RFLP, alleles and nucleic acids. They insisted that DNA evidence placed the football star at the scene of his former wife's murder.

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