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November 25, 2007
By Janet Roberts and Elizabeth Stanton, The New York Times
Christopher Ochoa graduated from law school five years out of prison and started his own practice in Madison, Wis. He has a girlfriend and is looking to buy a house.
Michael Anthony Williams, who entered prison as a 16-year-old boy and left more than two years ago as a 40-year-old man, has lived in a homeless shelter and had a series of jobs, none lasting more than six months.
Gene Bibbins worked a series of temporary factory jobs, got engaged, but fell into drug addiction. Four and a half years after walking out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, he landed in jail in East Baton Rouge, accused of cocaine possession and battery.
The stories are not unusual for men who have spent many years in prison. What makes these three men different is that there are serious questions about whether they should have been in prison in the first place.
The men are among the more than 200 prisoners exonerated since 1989 by DNA evidence — almost all of whom had been incarcerated for murder or rape. Their varied experiences are typical of what The New York Times found in one of the most extensive looks to date at what happens to those exonerated inmates after they leave prison.
The Times worked from a list of DNA-exonerated prisoners kept by the Innocence Project — widely regarded as the most thorough record of DNA exonerations. The Times then gathered extensive information on 137 of those whose convictions had been overturned, interviewing 115.
The findings show that most of them have struggled to keep jobs, pay for health care, rebuild family ties and shed the psychological effects of years of questionable or wrongful imprisonment.
Typically, testing of blood or semen from the crime scene revealed DNA pointing to another perpetrator. The authorities in some of the cases have continued to insist they convicted the right men, and have even fought efforts by some of them to sue for money.
About one-third of them, like Mr. Ochoa, found ways to get a stable footing in the world. But about one-sixth of them, like Mr. Bibbins, found themselves back in prison or suffering from drug or alcohol addiction.
About half, like Mr. Williams, had experiences somewhere between those extremes, drifting from job to job and leaning on their family, lawyers or friends for housing and other support.
And in many cases the justice system has been slow to make amends.
The Times researched the compensation claims of all 206 people known by the Innocence Project to have been exonerated through DNA evidence as of August 2007. At least 79 — nearly 40 percent — got no money for their years in prison. Half of those have federal lawsuits or state claims pending. More than half of those who did receive compensation waited two years or longer after exoneration for the first payment.
Few of those who were interviewed received any government services after their release. Indeed, despite being imprisoned for an average of 12 years, they typically left prison with less help — prerelease counseling, job training, substance-abuse treatment, housing assistance and other services — than some states offer to paroled prisoners.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Vincent Moto, exonerated in 1996 of a rape conviction after serving almost nine years in Pennsylvania. “They have programs for drug dealers who get out of prison. They have programs for people who really do commit crimes. People get out and go in halfway houses and have all kinds of support. There are housing programs for them, job placement for them. But for the innocent, they have nothing.”
The Times’s findings are limited to those exonerated inmates the newspaper reached and do not represent the experiences of exonerated prisoners everywhere.
Most of the 137 exonerated inmates researched by The Times entered prison in their teens or 20s, and they stayed there while some of their peers on the outside settled on careers, married, started families, bought homes and began saving for retirement. They emerged many years behind, and it has been difficult to catch up.
To be sure, many in the group were already at a disadvantage when they entered prison. More than half had not finished high school. Only half could recall holding a job for more than a year. Some admitted to abusing drugs or alcohol or running with the wrong crowd.
But dozens of them had been leading lives of stability and accomplishment. More than 50 had held a job for more than two years in fields as varied as nursing, mail delivery, welding, fishing, sales and the military. Five had college degrees, and 20 others had completed some college or trade school.
Still, many of those were as unlucky as the most modestly educated when it came to finding work after their release. Most found that authorities were slow to wipe the convictions from their records, if they did so at all. Even newspaper articles about their exonerations seemed somehow to have had a negative effect in the public’s mind.
“Any time that anyone has been in prison, even if you are exonerated, there is still a stigma about you, and you are walking around with a scarlet letter,” said Ken Wyniemko, who spent more than nine years behind bars in Michigan after a rape conviction.
Before his conviction, he managed a bowling alley. After his release in 2003, he spent two fruitless years job hunting, and he estimates he applied for at least 100 jobs. Today, he lives off money he received in a legal settlement with Clinton Township in Macomb County, Mich.
Many of the jobs the newly released found proved short-lived, often lasting no more than a year. A few ex-prisoners like Kevin Green, who went from bingo caller to utility crew supervisor, changed jobs to advance their careers, but most drifted from job to job with little gain in status or salary.
Ryan Matthews, with a fiancée and 2-year-old to support, lost a series of jobs after he was exonerated from Louisiana’s death row. He lost a shipyard job after his employer saw a news report about his exoneration on television.
Short of suing, few received substantial compensation from the government.
Given the hodgepodge of state compensation laws, an exonerated prisoner’s chances of receiving any significant sum depend on the state where he was convicted and whether he can find a lawyer willing to litigate a difficult case. One man who served three years in California sued and won $7.9 million. Another, who had served 16 ½ years in Texas, filed a compensation claim and received $27,850.
President Bush and Congress moved in 2004 to improve the compensation the wrongly convicted received, adopting legislation that increased payments for people exonerated of federal crimes to $50,000 per year of imprisonment, and $100,000 per year in death penalty cases. The legislation included a clause encouraging states to follow suit, at least for wrongly convicted prisoners who had been on death row.
Lawyers and others involved with helping the exonerated have seized on that recommendation in pushing for improved compensation laws nationwide. But their efforts have gained little.
Only one state — Vermont — has adopted a compensation law since the bill passed. Twenty-one other states and the District of Columbia already had procedures for compensating the exonerated; half cap awards below $50,000 per year of incarceration.
Of the 124 prisoners exonerated through DNA and known to have received compensation, 55 got at least $50,000 for each year in prison. And most of them sued in federal court, claiming their civil rights had been violated by overzealous police officers, crime lab specialists or prosecutors. Lawyers say such cases are very difficult to win.
Twenty-five were convicted in states that provide no compensation and have collected nothing. Among them is Mr. Moto, who said he struggled this summer to raise his 10-year-old daughter on $623 a month in disability payments.
“You give no compensation to none of those guys who were wrongfully incarcerated and proved their innocence?” he said in an interview. “How can you say we believe in justice?”