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What would you do?

Last week I attended an exoneree luncheon where a man named Charles was the guest speaker. Charles was released from the Texas state penitentiary about a month and a half ago. He was convicted of aggravated rape in 1981 and sentenced to 99 years in prison. During his 27-year incarceration, Charles maintained his innocence. He had an alibi for the night of the crime, but no one ever bothered to check it out—not even his attorney. The only condemning evidence was that the victim picked him out of a line-up—but only on the second attempt and after possible police coaching.

In 2001 Charles heard that DNA testing was available in Texas and wrote a letter to the governor to request testing in his case. Eventually, the evidence was tested and the result was that a testable sample could not be obtained. The evidence was badly deteriorated after having sat on a shelf for over 20 years and the lab’s primitive equipment could not extract enough DNA to run a comparison.

Charles could not afford a second test so he sought help from the Innocence Project. Eventually, the Innocence Project was able to secure the funds necessary for another test. Again, the test came back inconclusive—the sample was insufficient for comparison. By this time, there was only enough evidence left for one more test; after that, Charles would have no way to prove his innocence.

During his incarceration, Charles became eligible for parole. One of the prerequisites for parole is that the inmate acknowledges his crime and shows remorse. Charles had two options: maintain his innocence and remain wrongfully imprisoned or admit guilt for a crime that he did not commit and regain his rightful place in society.

What would you do in Charles’s place? Remember, two attempts to clear his name had failed and the evidence would only hold up for one more test. Charles was 20 years old when he was convicted, now he was in his late 40s, more than half of his life was spent in prison for a crime that he did not commit.

Charles refused to tell the parole board that he was involved in the crime so he was denied parole. He came up for parole twice during his incarceration, both times he told the truth, not what the board wanted to hear, both times he was denied parole. Finally, in early 2008 the evidence was tested a third time. By that time, technology had progressed to a point that a viable sample could be obtained. It showed that Charles did not commit the crime for which he was convicted.

Charles was released from prison and now faces a long road of readjusting to society. Things we take for granted are completely foreign to Charles; he has only seen them on TV. People in the grocery store look at him like he is stupid when he cannot figure out how to use a debit card; cell phones and other technology will take quite a while to figure out; even eating with a knife and fork took some training the first time—sharp utensils are not permitted in prison. It is comparable to you or I watching Star Trek and then one day waking up on the Enterprise. Would you know how to function?

Amazingly, exonerees do not qualify for the various social adjustment programs available to regular, guilty, parolees. Exonerees are sent out the door and left to fend for themselves. Lucky for Charles, he has a strong family to support him.

When asked if he feels any anger, Charles said that his anger is only toward the system. He does not feel anger toward the judge, the prosecutor, the victim, his attorney, or any other person. This is an amazing statement coming from a man who spent 27 frustrating years doing time for a crime he did not commit.

3 Comments.[ Leave a comment ]

  1. This is a very sad, but fascinating story. My first thought, if I were in that situation, is that I would maintain my innocence. I would want to keep my integrity, and also if I ever were released from prison, I wouldn’t want a guilty verdict to follow me the rest of my life. However I don’t know what it’s like to live in prison, especially for 27 years, and I don’t know how that would affect my thoughts.

    The most amazing thing to me is the lack of support this man received from the state of Texas. After incarcerating an innocent man for so long, it seems the state owes him not only some social programs and help getting back into a society that is now foreign to him, but some financial compensation. It seems unconscionable to me to let him just fend for himself. It is amazing how he seems to be dealing with the situation.

    Thanks for posting such an interesting story. Dave and I were thinking that it’s too bad you don’t have a law license yet, because you could give a lot of help to all those children from ElDorado.


  2. That is amazing. How often does it really happen? Kim, when are your final exams (bar/board? exams) How bright is the light at the end of the tunnel? We’re excited for you. Lots of changes coming.

  3. Dallas County leads the nation in verified wrongful convictions — there have been 15 exonerations since 2001. Nationwide there have been 214 DNA-related exonerations. The main reason Dallas has so many is that they have kept the evidence in all their cases. Most jurisdictions discard the evidence as soon as they are legally able, so there is nothing to test 20 years later.

    This was the second exoneree that I heard tell his/her story. The first person wrote a book about her experience and in it she goes into detail about the horrible conditions she endured in prison — Sue, it deprives a person of all human dignity and self. I have the book if anyone is interested in reading it.

    Karin, DJ and I are very excited too. Next Monday is the last day of classes, then two weeks of finals. Graduation / hooding is May 9. I will spend the entire summer taking a commercial Bar-prep class and studying for the Bar exam, which will be the last three days of July (yes, I will be sitting for the Bar seven months pregnant, that’s going to be fun). Then I’m done!