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Freedom Is No Fairy Tale for Ex-Cons

DNA: Exonerated by new evidence, prisoners find they still aren't living on easy street.

June 02, 2002|SHARON COHEN and DEBORAH HASTINGS | Associated Press

Their time in prison surpassed 1,000 years, and all were wrongly convicted. Then they returned to lives that had passed them by.

An Associated Press examination of what happened to 110 inmates after their convictions were overturned by DNA tests found that, for many of the men, vindication brought neither a happy ending nor a happy beginning.

"It destroyed my family," says Vincent Moto, unjustly convicted of rape and imprisoned for 10 years in Pennsylvania. "It cost me over $100,000 to get exonerated. That was my mom and dad's money to retire. They're struggling. I'm struggling."

Moto, a 39-year-old father of four, says his kids suffered psychologically and he still has nightmares of prison. He survives on odd jobs, welfare and food stamps.

"I have to live with these scars all my life," he says.

Richard Danziger is even less fortunate.

Wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison, he suffered permanent brain damage when another inmate bashed in his head. Danziger was released in 2001 after he served 11 years in Texas.

Now, at age 31, he lives with his sister, Barbara Oakley.

"He basically gets up, watches TV, goes to the park, and that's the extent of his day," she says.

Lesly Jean, a 42-year-old former Marine imprisoned in North Carolina for a rape he did not commit, struggles to rebuild his life.

"You know that old saying, 'When someone knocks you down, you need to get back up'? Well," he says, "sometimes it's not that simple to get back up."

That's especially true when the released men find themselves in a new world where they possess few up-to-date job skills, limited education, and heavy, if not bitter, hearts. For many, being set free doesn't mean freedom.

In reviewing the cases of the 110, all men, AP found:

* About half had no prior adult convictions, according to legal records and the inmates' attorneys. While some were picked up for questioning because they were known to police, many had never been in trouble before.

* Eleven of the men served time on death row; two came within days of execution.

* Slightly more than a third have received compensation, mainly through state claims. Some have received settlements from civil lawsuits or special legislation. . For others, claims or suits are pending; and some had lawsuits thrown out or haven't decided whether to seek money.

* The men spent 10 years behind bars, on average. The shortest wrongful incarceration was one year; the longest, 22 years. Altogether, the 110 men spent 1,149 years in prison.

* Their imprisonment came during critical wage-earning years when careers and families are built. The average age when they entered prison was 28. At release, it was 38.

* Their convictions follow certain patterns. Nearly two-thirds were convicted with mistaken testimony from victims and eyewitnesses. About 14% were imprisoned after mistakes or alleged misconduct by forensics experts. Nine were mentally retarded or borderline retarded and confessed, they said, after being tricked or coerced by authorities.

Finally freed--by determined lawyers or their own perseverance--the men were dumped back into society as abruptly as they were plucked out. Often, they were not entitled to the help, such as parole officers, given to those rightfully convicted.

"The people who come out of this are often very, very severely damaged human beings who often don't ever fully recover," says Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

"Lightning strikes, they come out," he says, "and they're in bad, bad shape."


Mostly Black, Latino

They represent many walks of life--a homeless panhandler, a therapist, a junkie, a mushroom picker, a handyman, a crab fisherman -- but almost all were working-class or poor.

Of the cases reviewed by AP, about two-thirds involved black or Latino inmates, roughly reflecting state prison populations' racial makeup.

"All of these people have a certain vulnerability. It may be race, class, mental health issues or personality problems," says Peter Neufeld, who co-founded the Innocence Project with attorney Barry Scheck at the Cardozo School of Law in New York. About 60% of the men were helped by the 10-year-old legal assistance program, the rest by other groups or private lawyers. The first DNA releases came in 1989, according to the Innocence Project.

"They sort of get caught in this Kafkaesque vortex," Neufeld adds, "and the rest is history."

Jeffrey Todd Pierce, for example.

He had never been convicted of a crime when, at age 24, he was found guilty of rape. Oklahoma City Police Department chemist Joyce Gilchrist testified that hair found at the scene matched Pierce's, an analysis the FBI would conclude--15 years later--was just plain wrong.

Pierce's wife divorced him and his twin sons, now 16, grew up without him. After Pierce was released last year, he reunited with his family in Michigan, though he can't bring himself to remarry.

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