Imagine spending 30 years in prison. Thirty years on death row, awaiting death by electrocution. Finally prosecutors admit that you were not at the scene of the murder and could not have participated in it; as a result the court frees you. Exonerated after 30 years: what happens now?
Yesterday I was introduced to Glenn Ford who was released from Louisiana State Penitentiary on March 12th this year, where he had been since March 1985. Aged 64, an innocent man, he doesn’t move fast. Health is a big problem for exonerates; when you have been locked up for 23 hours a day in a cell you lose a lot of mobility.
I met Glenn at the Resurrection After Exoneration centre just outside the French Quarter of New Orleans. The centre is run by the remarkable John Thompson. John spent 18 years at the same prison as Glenn, 14 of them on death row, for a crime he did not commit. His experience of release - the struggle to get mentally and physically healthy, to get compensation, to get housing and a job, and to restore family life — was a struggle he did not want other exonerees to experience and so he set up RAE as a self help re-entry programme for others like him.
He explained that there were a number of young disadvantaged men who had been convicted of capital crimes with very poor legal representation. Inexperienced lawyers were pitted against elected district attorneys, under pressure to get convictions for horrific murders. It is only in the last ten to fifteen years that organisations like the Innocence Project New Orleans and Reprieve have been able to campaign and properly represent these people to give them justice.
It had never really occurred to me before that securing their release was only a part of getting justice. The movies may tell the story of the legal fight to clear someone’s name, but the drama normally ends with release. One of the most powerful scenes in “12 Years a Slave” is when Solomon is reunited with his family towards the end. That is the closest I have seen to portraying a sense of the lost years these exonerees have to try to make up.
John told us that on release they are experts in nothing but being tortured. They know about living under the shadow of a death sentence. And how it feels to get another stay of execution, and how that then effects your family. And what not being able to physically touch any of your family for ten years does to you.
So what about compensation?
Each state has their own law on capital punishment, and each has their own compensation arrangement for those wrongly convicted. Louisiana is not the best and it is not the worst. Here they award $25,000 for each year, up to a maximum of $250,000. You are also eligible for a “Lost Opportunity” grants of $80,000 on condition that you sign up to an education or other self improvement programme.
However it is not as simple as that. Just because you have been released, it doesn’t mean you are always believed to be innocent — it is just that there is not enough evidence to continue to believe that you are guilty. Often these victims then have to prove their innocence before they can get compensation.
So even if 30 years of your life has been wasted doing nothing but waiting to be killed by the state, and then that 30 years is valued at $330,000, you still have a fight to get the money you need to get by.
These are the words of Greg Bright who spent 271/2 years in Angola (the Louisiana State Penitentiary) prison as an innocent person:
“When I walked out of prison, to be honest compensation was the furthest thing on my mind. I was just happy to be free. But seven years after proving my innocence, I haven’t received an apology or a dime. I’ve had no financial support, no medical help and no mental help. To this day I haven’t received from the State so much as an aspirin for headache. I was thrown back into society without receiving job training, housing, or education.”
“The people who were responsible for my arrest and conviction went on to enjoy other things — careers, family and fortune. But for me it’s been a living hell, a nightmare both in and outside of prison. When innocent citizens can be sent to prison and nothing happens to the people responsible, we have a serious problem. We have a very serious problem.”
This last point was also something I hadn’t really thought about. In a country that has capital punishment, what happens to those that wrongly convict someone who is then killed? They have been party to state sponsored murder, or manslaughter at best. What is the comeback? How can these exonerees feel a sense of justice if these people escape any retribution?
These profound questions should inform any debate on capital punishment. Access to justice, to proper representation, is fundamentally important — but more so as the stakes are higher. As the Hillsborough inquest does its work in the UK, we sense a profound injustice and potential collusion and cover up. No criminal justice system is perfect, miscarriages of justice do happen, and we have to have answers about what happens to the new victims of the crime.
But meanwhile John Thompson will continue his crucial work in New Orleans. He showed us the community garden he is growing out back of the centre, and his plans to extend more first floor rooms as initial housing for newly released exonerees. We saw his space for screen printing and other activity for young people he engages with locally, and the main space was dominated by a young artist who has been helped by the project.
I was very moved by couple of hours with John. His strength and selflessness in doing what he is doing at RAE is truly inspiring. But the lessons of the experience that he and Glenn Ford have gone through will stay with me for longer still.