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Punishing Start for the Freed

Unlike parolees, who receive state services, the wrongly convicted are left to deal unaided with shattered lives and festering resentments.

August 16, 2004|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Because of his fateful physical resemblance to a killer, David Quindt was wrongly convicted of a murder, faced life behind bars and was driven twice to attempt suicide while in custody.

After 14 months in jail, he was exonerated. Now, four years later, he still has to steady himself against the aftershocks.

He could have used help finding a stable job. He still could use debt counseling, healthcare for his young family, eyeglasses he can actually see through, some dental work. He could use, he admits, a bit of psychological retuning to manage the anger and despair that infected him during his time in jail.

"What I went through was the biggest nightmare anybody could ever have," said Quindt, a lanky, articulate man of 27 whose right forearm bears tattooing from his days as a teenage rowdy. "I'd been doing so good. I had a good job, made good money. I'd really turned my life around. Now, I don't feel like I'm part of society. I feel like I'm sitting off in the corner -- alone, scared."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Exonerated convicts -- An article in Monday's Section A about the plight of exonerated former inmates reported that Dr. Lola Vollen, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the group Life After Exoneration, was formerly an operative of Physicians for Social Responsibility. She formerly worked for Physicians for Human Rights. Also, the article said that the DNA Technology and Human Rights Center, which Vollen also heads, is part of the university. It is separate from UC Berkeley.

No state provides services to so-called exonerees, the nationally growing number of former prison inmates who, thanks to DNA technology, recanting witnesses and other exculpatory forces, are being found innocent of any involvement in the crimes for which they were convicted.

Although a small number may eventually obtain the monetary compensation some states offer, exonerated prisoners get nothing on release but a bit of pocket money. They're left to deal unaided with shattered lives, the enduring suspicion of others and their own festering resentments.

On the other hand, those who never had their convictions overturned -- parolees -- can receive free employment counseling, housing referrals and physical and mental health services through parole agents charged with helping them rejoin society.

"People don't really recover from this," said Dr. Lola Vollen, a physician and co-founder of the Berkeley-based Life After Exoneration Program, a year-old organization dedicated to helping the exonerated after they're released.

"When you struggle to make a living or to find an apartment and people look at your work record and see this big gap, even though you're innocent, you're damaged goods," Vollen said. "Exonerees get overwhelmed. They don't know where to start."

Across the United States, as many as 35 innocence projects work for the release of the wrongfully convicted. Life After Exoneration is believed to be the first program to focus exclusively on the needs of such prisoners after they're freed.

Recently fortified by a $100,000 grant from the Oakland Federal District Court, the group envisions a national network of exonerated people aided by volunteer "case managers" who help the former prisoners reassemble their lives.

Vollen, a former operative of Physicians for Social Responsibility, pioneered the effort to identify Bosnian massacre victims through DNA analysis. As director of the DNA and Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley, she came to realize that the various innocence projects were not really equipped to help the exonerated after getting them out of prison.

A University of Michigan Law School study released in April identified 328 exonerations nationwide between 1989 and last year, including 22 in California. (The figures did not include the more than 100 criminal defendants released in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart scandal.) The study focused on prisoners freed because of "factual innocence," as opposed to those whose convictions were overturned for technical legal reasons.

The study gleaned figures primarily from media reports because no official registry of exonerations exists. It found that they averaged a dozen a year through the early 1990s, but have increased to 43 per year. The prisoners included in the report spent an average of 10 years behind bars.

The expunging of their criminal records doesn't erase the reality of what they face on the outside. Life After Exoneration recently surveyed 58 such former prisoners and found that 40% struggled with depression (80% reported having been physically injured or attacked in prison). A third were financially dependent on family or friends.

David Quindt's plight is illustrative. Amid intense Sacramento media coverage, Quindt, then 21, was convicted of first-degree murder in the October 1998 shooting death of a teenage boy and the wounding of a teenage girl during a drug robbery.

A man Quindt had legally bought two guns from the day before the killing spoke to the surviving victim and suggested that Quindt might be responsible. The wounded girl, who had never seen Quindt, provided police with a sketch that bore a marked resemblance to him (and, it turned out, to one of the real killers).

After he was contacted by police, Quindt's frequent, nervous questions and suggestions to investigators over the ensuing four months further stoked authorities' suspicions.

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