NEW YORK -- Christopher Scott was on the inside for more than 12 years. Sitting on the unit, talking with the other guys, he made a promise: When he walked, he wouldn't forget about them.
"Next thing you knew, I got out of prison," he says.
More than three years after Scott was exonerated for a murder he didn't commit, his transformation from convict to Dallas Morning News 2012 "Texan of the Year" seems almost magical. But Scott knows he was freed by hard work, not sleight of hand. Student investigators and the Dallas County district attorney's office opened an investigation into his case that produced a confession from another suspect in the killing.
Scott has joined with dozens of other men who were wrongfully convicted in Dallas County to form their own amateur detective agency to help prisoners. Scott calls the non-profit organization the House of Renewed Hope.
In Dallas, there's a lot of renewed hope to go around: Craig Watkins, the county's first black district attorney, has chosen to aggressively investigate cases where former prosecutors in his office may have made mistakes. Since Watkins was elected in 2006, 33 men -- including Scott -- have been freed from imprisonment for serious crimes they didn't commit.
DNA evidence was key to opening the prison door in most of those cases. But for Scott, it was a case of mistaken identity that put him away for a 1997 murder. He just happened to drive through the neighborhood of the crime shortly after it was committed, and police collared him on thin witness evidence. No DNA was available to prove Scott's claims that he was innocent.
"They gave me a million-in-one chance [of] getting out of prison for this type of case with no DNA, because it had never been done before," Scott remembers. But after a college junior who volunteered for the University of Texas Arlington Innocence Network became interested in his case, Scott was finally able to get the system's attention. Fortunately, another man admitted to the crime.
"Since I've been out, things has been so, so good," Scott says, "because I was an exoneree that didn't have to struggle and bustle for things."
Separate from House of Renewed Hope, Scott has started his own small business. His natty dressing style made him a natural to open a clothing shop with the nearly $1 million he got in state compensation for his wrongful conviction.
Back when he first got out, Scott lived with his mother for a couple weeks. But since he was a grown man, he says, "the walls started closing in." Another exonerated man named Steven Phillips offered Scott a room in his two-bedroom apartment. Scott now calls Phillips his best friend.
Phillips's generosity -- he also gave Scott a $20,000 personal loan while Scott waited for his settlement from the government -- is an example of the indelible bond many of the wrongfully convicted and now exonerated feel toward one another. They all have been through years or decades of indescribable experiences in prison, and many feel the need to give back now that they have been vindicated.
Scott has led an aggressive charge to reform Texas's criminal justice system, playing an important role in lobbying Austin legislators to toughen penalties for wayward prosecutors. "When I seen I was making a major contribution to the laws that applied to us in Texas, it made me want to give back, and it took away all the anger knowing I was doing something good to give back," he says.
House of Renewed Hope is taking it a step forward: looking into the cases of other men still behind bars who they believe have been wrongfully convicted. With no prior formal training, Scott admits it won't be an easy road. But sometimes all it takes is a little dedication: The first person to work on his case, he reminds people, was a college junior.
"It's really cool to be learning on site, learning on the field, because when we got out there was so much in front of us that we can learn from the people that helped us get out of prison," he says, "starting with the junior in college that came to interview me to take my story about being wrongfully convicted."
Scott is now working to free a man convicted of armed robbery. In the meantime, he is one of the subjects of a documentary film by director Jamie Meltzer that's currently raising money online to continue production. Meltzer has now spent days following Scott and the other detectives as they track down aging witnesses and conduct jailhouse interviews.
"A lot of those guys do nonprofit work ... but it's a whole 'nother ballgame for these guys associated with the detective agency to go out investigating cases," Meltzer says. "That really caught my attention."
House of Renewed Hope hasn't freed anyone yet -- but its volunteers have been fundraising for DNA testing, lobbying and providing post-release support since its founding in 2010.
"They could do anything, they could go to Bermuda and just chill out on the beach," Meltzer says of the exonerated prisoners. "But what they've decided to do is try to make a change here."
Watch a trailer for Meltzer's movie in production about the exonerated men now working to help others, "Freedom Fighters," below:
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