By Heather Ratcliffe — ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH- St. Louis, MO
Antonio Beaver never stopped smiling the day he got out of prison.
His family bought him a new suit. The St. Louis circuit attorney gave him an apology. A waitress put a cherry on his ice cream at lunch.
"I came out with a clean spirit and clear mind," Beaver said.
But as the hugs and good wishes faded, Beaver, 43, began a surprisingly difficult battle to rebuild his life after serving a decade in prison for a robbery he did not commit.
He is among a small but growing legion of the exonerated — former inmates who often find themselves treated like other ex-cons while carrying the added psychological scars of unjust treatment and years that cannot be replaced.
Beaver struggled to connect with family, friends and work. He turned to an alcohol habit he thought he had kicked in prison.
He was luckier than some. He was freed by DNA testing, which made him eligible for state compensation. But his despair persists.
"I guess I expected more — a home, transportation, a decent job," Beaver said in a recent interview. "I have to seek and find and struggle. I could have had all that if a decade wasn't taken out of my life."
He was speaking from behind bars again. Last fall, he was sentenced to nine months in the St. Louis County Justice Center after a drunken driving crash.
National experts say Beaver's struggle is common for those unlucky enough to be wrongfully convicted but lucky enough to prove it.
Usually, they leave prison with a handshake, their release papers and nowhere to go. Advocates say there is usually more help — like counseling and temporary housing — provided to parolees who actually did commit crimes.
The nonprofit Innocence Project, based in New York City, is known for its work in helping inmates win release. But that's just the start.
"Most are terribly grateful, and looking forward to reuniting with their families and communities," said Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City attorney who works with the Midwestern Innocence Project. "But the reality is they are wounded inside on many levels and these scars are not visible sometimes for years."
She said depression, anxiety, substance abuse and paranoia are typical.
RESTORING LOST LIVES
Since 1989, the Innocence Project has counted 234 convicts exonerated nationally by DNA evidence. There is no known count of those cleared in other ways, such as the discovery of new evidence or the recanting of a witness.
Time stops for all prisoners while their children grow up, parents die, marriages fail and careers disappear. But the exonerated bear an extra burden.
"They were labeled rapists and murderers — the worst of our society, and they have done nothing wrong," Pilate said. "That eats at them every day."
John Wilson, a psychologist at Cleveland State University who has worked with the exonerated, said: "It looks like a happy ending at the end of the rainbow, but that doesn't happen. The injury sustained is permanent. I don't know anybody who has ever healed from it."
They all suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, Wilson said, in the manner of torture victims or combat veterans.
Wilson said some reincarcerate themselves, retreating to a stark bedroom and refusing to go outside. Some hesitate to go out in public without a "witness." Some carry newspaper clippings to prove their new status.
Beaver spent 10 years in prison for a 1997 carjacking near the Gateway Arch before DNA showed that the injured robber's blood in the car was someone else's. He was released March 29, 2007.
He said he found work sorting parts for a manufacturer in St. Charles but was fired two months later; he blames the stigma of prison. He quit the next job, laundering hospital linens, as too disgusting.
Kate Germond, executive director of the Centurion Ministries, in Princeton, N.J., an advocate for wrongfully convicted, said: "Unfortunately they are not emotionally prepared for life, and they blow these jobs. People grow impatient with them. It's hard for people to accept their limitations. You have to let them come out of their cocoon when they can."
A MATTER OF RESTITUTION
Twenty-five states offer restitution to some exonerated convicts.
In Missouri, only those cleared by DNA are eligible to receive $50 for each day incarcerated, paid over time. Illinois pays from $85,350 to $199,150 to those who get a pardon from the governor or certificate of innocence from a court.
Former Sen. Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, who sponsored an update of Missouri's restitution law, said: "We can't give them those years back. But the state owes them some form of compensation."
He said that he thinks those deemed "actually innocent" by a judge should qualify too but that some lawmakers insist only DNA can deliver such certainty.
Angie Morfeld, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said it can refer the exonerated to social service agencies. But unlike parolees, she said, they are no longer under the state's jurisdiction for its re-entry programs.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says the state should offer help as well as money to anyone found provably innocent. "I think that it is the pursuit of justice to put these people back into a position, as much as possible, to regain what they have lost," she said.
Steve Toney, now 62, exonerated in 1996 after 13 years in prison for a St. Louis rape, said he cannot keep a home or car even though he collects restitution and a disability pension.
"I'm up and the next minute I'm down," he said. "I'm holding on to what I can."
Pilate understands. "Every aspect of their life was managed in prison," she said. "They were not given the ability to mature, grow or make decisions for themselves."
Wilson said money "doesn't take away the pain or scars" that drive some to die drunk, or high, or commit suicide. He called for a concerted national counseling program tailored to the unique needs of the exonerated, as was done for Vietnam veterans.
"What's the responsibility of our justice system who took their freedom to attempt to restore their well-being?" Wilson asked. "That's a very important moral question that begs an answer."
Missouri's most recent example, Joshua Kezer, 34, said he plans to lean on his faith, friends and family. He was released Feb. 18 after serving 14 years for a 1992 murder in Benton, Mo.
Jane Williams, a social worker in Columbia, Mo., who was involved with Kezer's case, said she is optimistic. "He's a naturally gifted speaker, and we're trying to figure out how to help Josh tell his story."
Kezer visited his family in the Bootheel earlier this month for the first time since his arrest. "I got to hug my cousin, whom I haven't seen in 18 years," he said. "I watched my grandfather weep because he was so happy to see me. It's beautiful being free."
More than anything, the advocates say, the exonerated grieve the time lost with their families.
Darryl Burton's daughter was 1 year old when he went to prison in 1985 in a St. Louis murder case. Within months of his release after an overturned conviction last year, Burton, 47, visited her.
The daughter, Tynesha Lee, 25, said they are getting to know each other after so many years apart.
"There's no way to get it back," she said. "I can't be 10 years old again."
Beaver, whose children were 11 and 13 when he went to prison, said, "I feel like a stranger to them."
He moved in with a girlfriend months after his release. He said his drinking led to arguments, which led to more drinking.
On Aug. 31, he crashed into the back of a car in Bellefontaine Neighbors in which a pregnant passenger bumped her head. He pleaded guilty of second-degree assault.
Beaver said he now regrets turning away opportunities for counseling and alcohol treatment.
"I didn't want to admit I had a problem," he said. "I'm a grown man, and I thought I ought to be able to do this. I was wrong."
He said his priorities are now a place to live, a job and a new relationship with his sons.
"People fought so hard to get me out of prison, and I'm back in here," he said. "I'm so disappointed. I've got to change."