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Exonerated! Not that what follows is joyous

May 01, 2003|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Clyde Charles spent 18 years in a Louisiana prison before DNA testing finally cleared him of rape. The day he walked free, he was greeted by euphoric relatives and attorneys, along with a media horde that captured the scene for the evening news.

Hopes for his future ran high.

"It was such a joyous moment," says lawyer Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, which has freed scores of wrongly convicted prisoners. "Everybody was all out there, 'We're going to help Clyde!' And then when the cameras went away, everybody went away."

As most of us know, scientific evidence has helped many wrongly convicted prisoners win their freedom in recent years. But what happens when they try to rejoin a world far different from the one they left behind?

In the provocative one-hour documentary "Burden of Innocence" (9 p.m., KCET), "Frontline" producer Ofra Bikel examines the challenges facing exonerated inmates such as Charles, most of whom reenter society without assistance, financial or otherwise.

Only 15 U.S. states allow the exonerated to apply for compensation. As for suing the government, freed inmates face an uphill fight because of the immunity given prosecutors and police -- no matter how sleazy their behavior. Prison records are not expunged, and potential employers are skeptical at best.

Not surprisingly, many exonerated inmates suffer lingering psychological effects from their incarceration.

"If you're a victim of war, if you're a victim of disaster, there are all kinds of organizations that will help you," says psychologist John Wilson, who is featured in the program. "But if you're a victim of our system of justice and you lose your freedom, we don't have any mechanisms to help you get back into a normal life."

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