Derrick Jamison was scared. "They were getting ready to murder me, an innocent man, for something I didn't do." The prison guards on death row in Lucasville, Ohio asked Jamison what he wanted for his final meal and where they should send his body after he was executed. He heard the questions, but it still seemed unreal to him; how could he be executed for a crime he didn't commit? It made no sense to him then. It makes no sense to him now, seven years after his release from prison. While on death row, Jamison watched many of his fellow inmates being taken away to die and witnessed others lose their minds while waiting for the inevitable visit from the prison officials to take them on that final journey. Today, he sees his own survival as nothing short of miraculous.
Jamison sat on death row for 17 years, convicted of a murder that he didn't commit following a trial where 35 pieces of evidence were allegedly withheld. Only hours away from his execution at one point, Jamison was granted a stay and he was able to continue his quest to prove his innocence, which he finally managed to do in 2005. Now 51 years old, Jamison has been free for nearly seven years, but has found it difficult to adjust to life on the outside. "I'm still trying to make the transition back into society. They took so much from me. They took two decades." Jamison is getting help in this transition from others who have been down the same path that he has -- other exonerees who have set up a transitional home/community center at the edge of New Orleans' Ninth Ward.
There's an old saying that prisons are full of people who claim they "didn't do it," but what happens when it's actually true? Over the past few years, more and more people have been released from prison after having their convictions overturned. New advances in DNA testing and increased oversight and vigilance by groups like The Innocence Project have been making headlines for helping to overturn convictions of innocent people and to win their release from jail. For many people, hearing about the wrongfully convicted winning their freedom is a story with a happy ending of justice served, albeit belatedly. For the exonerees, however, winning their freedom is merely the continuation of their ongoing struggle.
When John Thompson got out of prison in 2003, he decided to devote himself to helping others who had gone through experiences similar to his. Thompson himself was wrongly imprisoned in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison for 18 years, 14 of which he spent on death row. Seeing a need to help others who were also being freed after languishing for years, even decades for crimes they didn't commit, Thompson wanted to ease the transition to freedom. The brainchild of his efforts is Resurrection After Exoneration (RAE). The RAE House has become a magnet for exonerees from around the country to meet and spend time with other one another, gain skills to help them cope in a world they don't quite understand, and spread the word about the plight of the wrongfully accused.
Once released, exonerees rejoin a society that they aren't prepared for and don't know much about. When Dan Bright was released from Angola ten years after his wrongful conviction, he was handed $10 and a bus ticket home. Returning to live with relatives, Bright thought that he was losing his mind when he saw people on the street walking around and talking to themselves. He called an aunt and asked to be picked up immediately; it was only after explaining why he was so agitated did she tell him that no one had gone crazy, people were just talking on their cell phones. When Bright had gone away, cell phone usage was in its infancy and home computers had yet to achieve the penetration rates they have today. But thanks to RAE's computer classes, Bright, Jamison and others have become computer literate. "I'm no Bill Gates with a computer," Bright said, "but I can find what I'm looking for."
While there are programs available to help ex-cons, there are none specifically for exonerees, who number about 400 throughout the country. And life on the outside can be difficult for them. Hardened by their years in jail, many find it difficult to re-connect with their families and establish relationships on the outside and jobs can be hard to come by. "Who wants to hire a guy who's been on death row even if they were innocent?" asks Bright, who spends much of his time at the RAE House. Those who were on death row found themselves on 23-hour-a-day lock down and couldn't develop skills that would help them when they got out -- they weren't supposed to get out at all. Many exonerees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are in need of counseling, which they get at RAE too. Perhaps most importantly, here at the RAE House, they have each other. There are currently three men who live at the House full time; others from around the region come by frequently. "It's a blessing for a person to come out of jail and have RAE to help them. I thank God every day for John Thompson," Jamison says.
RAE sends exonerees on speaking engagements around the country and they tell their tales from death row to anyone who will listen. They do so to raise awareness of the many innocent people who are currently languishing throughout the U.S. prison system and to warn young people about the need to stay out of jail. Moreover, these exonereees serve as a painful reminder of the human cost of a judicial system that too often focuses on getting convictions at any price.
Exonerees have earned the right to reclaim their lives. Resurrection After Exoneration is helping them get their chance.
Brad Rothschild is an independent filmmaker living in New York City. He wrote and produced the feature film Homeland and produced the documentary Kinderblock 66 on the efforts to save children within the Buchenwald concentration camp during the Holocaust.
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