For innocent inmates set free, life outside presents its own challenges
By Jessica Tully
David Bryant felt euphoria as he took it all in: the heat of the sunshine as it beat down on his face, the taste of fresh air as he drew his first deep breath, the sound of traffic as cars zipped past him. After nearly four decades behind bars, he was free.
But quickly his emotions shifted, and he burst into tears outside the upstate New York prison where he had been released. The reality of the situation had sunk in: Although he was no longer behind bars, he was alone. While he was in prison for 38 years for a rape and murder he did not commit, his father, mother, sister and brother had died.
“My first moments of freedom were indescribable,” Bryant, 56, and living in Princeton, N.J., reflected months later as he choked through tears. “For a long time, I thought my life was over. I thought I would die without people believing I was innocent.
“But then I thought, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ “
The number of exonerated prisoners is growing, thanks to advanced DNA technology, which led to Bryant’s freedom, and to the efforts of organizations that work to free the wrongly convicted. The National Registry of Exonerations, which compiles a database, says that since 1989, 1,250 people have been proved innocent of crimes for which they had been convicted.
Like Bryant, many of these newly freed people find themselves without money, family support, homes, or
the skills they need to gain anything more than menial, low-paying jobs. Twenty-one states, including Pennsylvania, do not have laws compensating them for their wrongful imprisonment. Even in states that do provide compensation, it almost always takes several years of court appearances before any money is awarded.
“It is very common. In fact, I would estimate that practically 100 percent struggle financially after exoneration,” said John Kramer, director of Pennsylvania State University’s criminology program. “Few have families that can help them significantly.”
The uphill trend
The first DNA exoneration occurred in 1989. As a result, when the Registry was launched in 2012, it decided to use 1989 as the starting point for tracking exonerations. Twenty people were exonerated that year, 47 in 1999, 81 in 2009, and 77 in 2012.
The most common reasons for wrongful convictions are mistaken witness identification, false confessions, false or misleading forensic evidence, perjury or false accusation, official misconduct and inadequate defense.
The Registry is led by Samuel Gross, professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.
Maurice Possley, a senior researcher for the Registry and a member of a Chicago Tribune team that won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2008, said the Registry was designed to study cases of wrongful convictions and provide detailed information about those cases. He said it is the only database of its kind.
In more than half of the 2012 exonerations, police or prosecutors helped to confirm a wrongful conviction. That was a significant change; between 1989 and 2011, police assisted in 30 percent of the cases.
“This is encouraging,” Possley said, “because it indicates a growing acknowledgement by prosecutors that wrongful convictions occur, particularly in non-DNA cases.”
Aiding the exonerees
As more of the wrongfully convicted are released, cases like Bryant’s have focused attention on an unforeseen problem: the lack of financial support available to the newly freed.
About one-third of the people exonerated have never been compensated for the time they spent in prison, ac- cording to the Innocence Project, a litigation and public policy organization that works to exonerate the wrong- fully convicted.
“Exonerees need access to some money,” said Kate Germond, director of Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit organization based in Princeton that also works to free the innocent. “They should, at the very least, have the same resources that a guilty person has, like a stipend for public transportation, medical care, rehabilitation classes.”
Kramer agrees with Germond and said exonerees need to be provided with financial compensation immediately.
“I think we should have legislation that establishes financial reimbursement that automatically and quickly goes to those exonerated depending on the length of time incarcerated,” Kramer said.
With no money and no place to go, Bryant accepted an invitation from Germond to live in her house for several months after being freed. Germond had helped appeal his case.
For the first two months, he left his room only to use
the bathroom. After spending so much time behind bars, Bryant said he was more comfortable staying in one room. It took a lot of encouragement from Germond for Bryant to spend more time outdoors and with other people.
Bryant was convicted in 1975 of raping and murdering 8-year-old Karen Smith, who was found in the stairwell of a Bronx apartment after being raped, beaten and stabbed. The girl had lived close to Bryant, who had two previous arrests for sexual misconduct.
After being interrogated for several hours, Bryant, then an 18-year-old high school dropout, falsely confessed. False confessions occur in about 13 percent of wrongful convictions, Registry officials say.
Tests conducted decades after he was convicted found that Bryant’s blood type, Type B, did not match the semen stain found at the scene of the crime.
After he was arrested, Bryant could not afford to pay an attorney, so he was given a court-appointed one. The attorney never ordered a blood test that would have cleared Bryant.
A Bronx judge released Bryant in April after finding that his public defender had botched his defense 38 years ago.
Bryant is now renting an apartment and recently found a job in maintenance at Princeton Theological Seminary. He enjoys having a job but fears he is too old for a physically demanding job.
“It’s not like I’m money-hungry,” Bryant said. “I can’t get my family back, I can’t get 38 years of my life back, but I shouldn’t have to be on my hands and knees pulling leaves at 56 years old.”
How much compensation?
In 29 states and the District of Columbia, laws provide for some form of compensation. Former President George W. Bush and Congress recommended $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration.
New York, which incarcerated Bryant, does not specify a dollar amount. The law says a wrongfully convicted person shall receive “damages in such sum of money as the court determines will fairly and reasonably compensate him.”
The Innocence Project says that even the states with compensation statutes fail to meet a moral obligation to help exonerees recover from the years of imprisonment.
The lengthy process for receiving compensation is a problem in those states. It typically takes at least a year, usually more, for the wrongfully convicted to receive compensation.
“The problem is you have to hire a lawyer to get the money,” Germond said. “It’s not simply a matter of filling out paperwork. [Exonerees] need a lawyer to navigate the language of the legal system.”
Kramer said the lengthy process required for those exonerated to receive money is a flaw of the legal system.
“I would leave the pain and injury to the courts but provide funds based on length of time incarcerated as an automatic support system so they have funds available to begin quickly to get their lives back,” Kramer said.
In the 21 states with no compensation program, the only recourse for the wrongfully convicted is to sue. That can take years and cost thousands in legal fees.
Germond said innocent people who have served time in prison “are essentially being robbed” by attorneys who charge fees of 30 to 40 percent of what is eventually collected.
The situation in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is one of the 21 states without compensation statutes. The Innocence Project says 11 people exonerated by DNA evidence have been freed from the state’s prisons, but only four have received restitution.
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), chair- man of the Judiciary Committee, reintroduced a bill this session to grant exonerees the recommended $50,000 per year of incarceration. But its passage is unlikely as the legislature grapples with a tight budget.
The senator began working on compensation 15 years ago, said Gregg Warner, counsel to the Judiciary Committee. Warner described Greenleaf’s surprise when, during
a hearing on capital punishment, several witnesses said there were innocent people on death row. Greenleaf had a hard time believing the witnesses because he put his faith in the justice system, Warner said.
“The senator was a former prosecutor – he thought the justice system got it right,” Warner said.
Once the senator did more research on DNA testing and exonerations, he put together an advisory committee to write a bill. Warner said district attorneys wanted to make sure that the bill offered compensation only to those who were innocent, not those whose cases were overturned on technicalities.
State by state
Possley said the Registry has recorded exonerations in 46 states and the District of Columbia. The states without recorded exonerations are Maine, North Dakota, South Dakota and Delaware. Possley said, however, that there was a federal wrongful conviction in North Dakota.
“We don’t say there haven’t been exonerations in these states,” Possley said. “We just don’t know of any. I would be shocked if there haven’t been wrongful convictions in these states.”
The Registry collects data from a variety of sources, including the Innocence Project, news accounts, lawyers, judges, exonerees, and federal and state appellate court decisions.
California has had the most exonerations, according to the Registry, followed by Texas, Illinois and New York. Those four states have laws that allow post-conviction evidence testing and encourage police to re-examine cases in which a conviction might be in doubt.
The Innocence Project says studies indicate that between 2.3 and 5 percent of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent. For context, if 1 percent of all prisoners are innocent, 20,000 innocent people are in prison.
Germond said she wishes Centurion Ministries, which depends on donations, could take on more cases. Some cases can take millions of dollars to pay for hiring investigators and lawyers and to pay for travel. Bryant’s case was not as costly because DNA testing is relatively inexpensive.
Suffering psychological effects
Those who are exonerated usually have psychological problems, especially immediately after being released, said Zieva Konvisser, a fellow at the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Konvisser said the wrongfully convicted should receive psychological aid for an extended period of time.
While all prisoners – those both rightly and wrongly convicted – suffer from the “pains of imprisonment” and its negative psychological consequences, Konvisser said the wrongfully convicted have a harder time making sense of their experience.
“They have no opportunity to try to put that experience in some coherent framework,” Konvisser said. “There is no redemptive value to their experience.”
She said they are also affected by their memories of their arrest, the trauma to family members, their embarrassment and humiliation, and the adverse publicity they endured. “And it’s not uncommon that upon return to society, exonerees may be ostracized by people and communities who still believe they are guilty,” Konvisser said.
Konvisser said during their periods of wrongful incarceration, exonerees may have missed important life events – births, marriages or deaths of loved ones – as well as the loss of time, loss of feelings of security and loss of self. As a result, grievous losses and feelings of “what might have been” follow the exonerees throughout their entire lives.
Konvisser said when they are finally set free, it may be difficult for them to settle into normal lives and behave as though the imprisonment had not taken place. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, mood and anxiety disorders, and major problems of social adjustment.
Exonerees need wide-ranging assistance to rebuild their lives, Konvisser said.
Still recovering from his ordeal
Months after his release, Bryant still feels the effects of his wrongful imprisonment.
Bryant is awaiting a hearing to find out if the Bronx District Attorney will re-file charges against him. He said he isn’t worried because he has his innocence on his side.
One of the first stops Bryant made after being released was to a church to properly mourn the deaths of his family members.
“I never got to stand over their bodies and send their souls off in peace,” Bryant said. “I knew that was one of the first things I needed to do. I went to the church and said a prayer to each of them, just to let them know how much I wished things had been different.”
Sidebar: Support from family is key for ‘lucky one’ proven innocent
Frank O’Connell, 55, of Glendora, Calif., considers himself one of the lucky ones because he always had someone to support him. Many other prisoners who have been exonerated do not have any support.
His son, Nick O’Connell, 33, of Fort Collins, Colo., never doubted his father, even when O’Connell’s mother, father, sisters and friends turned on him, believing that he had killed another man.
When Nick was growing up in Colorado with his mother, he asked only a few questions about why his father was behind bars. Until he was 14 or 15, he said, he was too young to further question the situation. At that point his curiosity became too great.
After Nick read the 600-page transcript from his father’s trial, he said he was shocked at the paucity of the evidence.
From that point, Nick dedicated his life to working to free his father. He avoided serious relationships with women because his father would be unable to attend his wedding. He dropped out of college after his seventh semester because his father would be unable to see him graduate.
“I like to make decisions based on facts,” Nick said. He said he believes the justice system gets it right most of the time, but the system is far from perfect. “Why is a cop’s word valued more than someone else’s? Why give a cop the benefit of the doubt?”
After spending 27 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, O’Connell was released from California’s Solano State Prison in March 2012. The only eyewitness to the crime had admitted he was manipulated by prosecutors.
More than a year and a half after he was released, O’Connell still finds himself thinking about the day that changed his life: Jan. 5, 1984.
On that day, Jay French, the ex-husband of a woman O’Connell had casually dated, was killed in South Pasadena, Calif. A vehicle pulled into the garage of an apartment complex where French was loading old mattresses into his truck. A man got out and shot French in the back.
O’Connell first heard about the murder a few days later, when police knocked on Nick’s mother’s door and told her O’Connell was wanted for murder. O’Connell and Nick’s mother, Leslie Haynam, had stopped dating after she gave birth to Nick.
The police questioned O’Connell extensively about his relationship with French’s ex-wife, Jeanne Lyon, which had ended months before the murder occurred. O’Connell, who was 25 at the time, said he had been 30 miles away at the time of the murder. At his trial, several friends verified where he had been
Not a shred of physical evidence connected O’Connell to the murder. The only evidence police had against him was the testimony of French’s friend, Dan Druecker, identifying O’Connell as the shooter.
O’Connell’s Los Angeles County public defender repeatedly recommended a bench trial to his client, meaning that a judge, rather than a jury, would decide O’Connell’s guilt or innocence.
O’Connell, a former high school football star, was sentenced on April 16, 1985, to 25 years to life in prison.
Once incarcerated, O’Connell said he spent the first month or two feeling sorry for himself: His own parents believed he was a murderer. He couldn’t trust the men in prison. He felt more alone than he ever had in his life.
Then he decided he needed to make the best of the situation in order to change it. He started talking to the other prisoners and felt a sense of camaraderie he hadn’t expected.
“They were honest, good people who had just made a mistake,” O’Connell said, adding he continues to talk to prisoners today, trying to offer them hope. “Institutions are filled with good people who made bad decisions. If you are honest with them, they will treat you well.”
On the inside, O’Connell said time passed slower than imaginable. He would give himself milestones to look forward to – visits with Nick or a chance to go before the parole board. There was no point in keeping a calendar, however, because looking at the day’s date was often depressing. He didn’t get to see Nick as often as he liked, usually only twice a year, because Haynam had moved to Colorado and taken their son with her.
O’Connell used his free time to research eyewitness testimony at the prison’s legal library. He questioned fellow inmates about the handling of guns to learn more about the mechanics of shooting.
When Nick would visit, the father and son would discuss what happened but would have a hard time coming up with answers.
“All those years, you don’t know what happened; you are just guessing,” Nick said. “We would sit in the visiting room just guessing.”
O’Connell filed four appeals between 1986 and 1995, but all were denied. Some friends recommended he reach out to Centurion Ministries. But the likelihood of being selected was slim. Kate Germond, director of Centurion Ministries, said the organization receives about 1,800 requests a year but can accept only a fraction.
Centurion Ministries did accept O’Connell’s case in 1999 after a lengthy vetting process and extensive interviews. Centurion does not take on a case unless its leaders are certain
someone has been wrongfully convicted.
For the next decade, Germond and other investigators worked to track Druecker, the eyewitness who claimed to see O’Connell shoot French – and then persuade him to testify. It turned out that the regret of lying had been eating away at him. Years after his initial testimony, Druecker testified that he was really unable to identify O’Connell as the shooter but had felt pressure from interrogators to do so.
After Druecker’s new testimony, a new judge reopened O’Connell’s case. Centurion, given access to materials from the case, found handwritten notes from police admitting that Druecker, the star witness, had not been able to identify O’Connell as the shooter.
On March 29, 2012, word finally came from the judge’s chambers. In her eight-page decision, she said the case against O’Connell was “based solely on eyewitness testimony” and “the new information presented casts legitimate doubt on the accuracy” of the witness.
On June 11, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office decided not to retry O’Connell, meaning his case was dismissed. Finally, he was free.
O’Connell struggled at first with reintegrating back into society. The hardest adjustment, he said, was making decisions on a daily basis. In prison, all decisions were made for him.
He didn’t know how to use Google; he had never owned a cell phone; he struggled to use sinks with automatic sensors that turn on the water; and he hadn’t chosen his own meals in almost 30 years.
But Nick was a patient teacher, at times playing the role of father to his own father.
O’Connell forgave his mother and sisters for not believing he was innocent while he was in prison. His father had died while O’Connell was in prison.
O’Connell had sworn to a 4-year-old Nick after being arrested that, when he was released from prison, he would move wherever Nick was so they could live together. That promise is what brought the two to Princeton.
On many occasions, O’Connell doubted he would ever be able to walk beyond the confines of his cell, but he always knew he would honor that promise made to his son if given the opportunity.
From the time O’Connell was convicted when Nick was 4, Nick had only seen his father in blue prison garb.
Thirty years later, Nick and his father sit across from each other at a Starbucks in Princeton, both free men.
Both father and son are 6-feet-4. Frank O’Connell has wrinkles and gray hair that were not there when he was arrested at 25. Nick is a handsome man, with a full head of black hair and a stocky frame. He is more stoic than his father, who smiles constantly.
During the interview, a woman at a nearby table needed a chair. Frank O’Connell gave up his without hesitation and stood while sipping his coffee. Later in the day when fellow exoneree David Bryant, who lives down the street from the father and son, called about needing to do laundry, O’Connell offered a key to his house and told Bryant to make himself at home.
The O’Connells moved from California to New Jersey because of Nick’s discovered passion: He wanted to dedicate himself to helping to exonerate innocent men and women, and so he now works at Centurion Ministries, working with exonerees and helping Centurion raise money. His father helps to manage 14 Witchcraft gourmet sandwich shops in New York.
Although O’Connell said his boss told him he is welcome to discuss his past with whomever he wants, O’Connell said he tries not to think about the time he spent in prison.
But sometimes Nick can’t help but reflect on the lost time.
“I personally feel that there is still residual trauma that I deal with,” Nick said. “We’re still facing challenges from something that happened 28 years ago.”
California offers compensation to the wrongfully convicted, no more than $100 a day of wrongful incarceration or up to $36,500 a year. O’Connell chose to sue instead. His lawsuit against the state asks for $27 million, a million dollars for each year he spent in prison.
If he wins, the money will be contributed to wrongful conviction reform. O’Connell said there are innocent men and women in prison who deserve to be free. He wants to help them.
O’Connell experienced closure from his decades-long ordeal shortly after he was exonerated. Centurion Ministries keeps a list of active cases on a wall at the office. In front of a room full of his friends, family and Centurion Ministries staff in November 2012, O’Connell removed his name from the wall, signifying that this chapter of his life was closed.
“Nothing,” O’Connell said, “felt better than getting to see my name off that wall.”