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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

Billy Wardell, 37, has a wife, a 2-year-old daughter, a house and a job as a machinist--every single thing he dreamed of during 11 years in an Illinois prison. And yet something is missing.

"There's a big gap that makes me wonder ... all the things I could have been and could have done," he said. "Now there's just a big piece of time that's gone."

Ronald Cotton Jr. faces the future by looking, unflinchingly, at his past.

Jennifer Thompson is the rape victim whose mistaken identification put him in prison for 10 years. He has become her friend. Together, they give speeches.

She lobbied to change laws so Cotton would be entitled to more than the $5,000 North Carolina originally offered as compensation. He received nearly $110,000.

After becoming a free man in 1995, Cotton bought some land, got married, fathered a child and found work as a machine operator.

Still, he is haunted.

"I know if it happened once," he says, "it can happen again."

Contributing to this report were AP writers Allen G. Breed, Sharon L. Crenson, Jeff Donn, David Foster, Rex W. Huppke, Johanna Kiamzon, Martha Mendoza, Paul Shepard and Robert Tanner.

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