[Marxism] WSJ: A Convict Freed By DNA Evidence Tries to Find a Life After 24 Years in Prison

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Tue Oct 30 07:58:49 MDT 2007

(I'll never forget the final words of the first chapter of the book
BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, later made into a 13-part German TV series.
It recounted the life of a man who'd been jailed for crime he DID
commit, and had completed his sentence. The movie told of how his
life evolved after release. The man had no particular political or
social consciousness. His subsequent life was based on living off
of others. As he's released from prison into "freedom", the voice
of the narrator says, "Now the punishment begins."

(Since Washington sets itself itself up as judge, jury and decider
of what constitutes human rights for Cuba and for the rest of the
world, this article, from today's paper, provides a perfect example
of just what U.S. human rights practices really are. How timely for
this to come out on the day the U.N. General Assembly votes on the
Cuban resolution against the blockade. Look to see how the Iraqi
government votes this time. They either abstained or weren't in
the room for the vote last time. The Afgan government supported 
and voted for the Cuban resolution last time.)

A Convict Freed By DNA Evidence 
Tries to Find a Life After 24 Years in Prison,

Mr. Williams Needs Help;
A Stranger to His Family
October 30, 2007; Page A1

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Michael Anthony Williams took a road trip through
the Southeast recently, looking for a place that felt like home.

For more than half his 43 years, Mr. Williams had lived in the
infamously tough Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He had been
convicted of raping and beating his school tutor when he was 16 years
old. Only his family believed him when he said he was innocent.

DNA testing finally exonerated him, and he was released in March
2005. But since then, Mr. Williams has lived in a different kind of
prison. After 24 years of estrangement, he says his six brothers and
sisters want nothing to do with him. He has little education, no job
skills and few friends.

"It's been lonely," he says. "Very lonely."

Mr. Williams is one of a growing number of convicts -- more than 200
so far -- who have been freed from prison after DNA testing proved
them innocent. After years of fighting to clear their names, they're
emerging into a changed world, with not much help to find their way.
A 2003 study of 60 exonerees imprisoned an average of 12 years by
Lola Vollen, founder of the Life After Exoneration Program in
Berkeley, Calif., found that nearly half suffer from depression,
anxiety disorder or some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Exonerees are like torture victims or political prisoners, given the
psychological trauma they've suffered," says Vanessa Potkin, a staff
attorney with the Innocence Project, a New York nonprofit
organization that used DNA to help clear Mr. Williams. Ms. Potkin
says, "Michael is one of the harshest cases, because he was so young
and his prison experience so horrendous, but he also represents the
challenges and obstacles shared by many exonerees."

To be sure, some of their problems are common to anyone, guilty or
innocent, confronting the world after serving a long prison sentence.
But experts say the issues are often worse for exonerees, who have
the added emotional and psychological burdens of having been wrongly
locked away, as well as having comparatively fewer services available
to them when they are released.

The Innocence Project and other groups' efforts to help inmates after
they've been freed have been hampered by a shortage of both programs
and funds.

Twenty-two states currently compensate the wrongly convicted. The
funding varies from $20,000 total to $50,000 a year for every year of
incarceration. Advocates argue that much more than money is needed.
Exonerees need help with housing and health care, and access to
education, life skills and job training so that they can become

Mr. Williams had to persuade a Louisiana state representative to
write a bill on his behalf to appropriate funds for his compensation.
He was finally paid $150,000 this past summer -- about $6,300 a year
for each year of his imprisonment.

Mr. Williams was just a high-school sophomore when he was tried as an
adult for the rape of his 22-year-old tutor. The woman's head was
covered during the attack, but she testified that she recognized the
teenager by his voice. Despite a lack of physical evidence, Mr.
Williams was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

When he arrived at Angola, he says, a guard shackled him to the cell
door and left it open, exposing him to attacks from other inmates. 
As he spoke, his fingers traced a scar on his elbow, left when he
attempted to fend off an inmate who came at him with an ice pick.

Mr. Williams was just another convict claiming innocence until 1995,
when he learned about DNA testing by watching the O.J. Simpson murder
trial on a prison television. Tests conducted by three different labs
determined that the semen collected from the rape victim in Mr.
Williams's case could not have come from him. The man who actually
attacked her has not been found.

When Mr. Williams was freed, he had nowhere to go. Ms. Potkin tracked
down several of his siblings, but after 24 years, they barely knew
him, and refused to take him.

Guilty or Damaged

"When you are in prison for as long as I was, people either think you
must be guilty or at least damaged," says Mr. Williams.

He didn't know how to drive. He had never used a cellphone, or left a
message on an answering machine, or typed on a computer. He says that
what surprised him most was the automatic flush toilets at Wal-Mart.

Even adjusting to the sounds of his new world was difficult. 
He says that being locked up all those years had made his hearing
particularly sensitive. "In prison, your ears are your eyes," he
says. "You know everyone's footsteps." Even now, he can't get used to
sleeping in the dark, and has to leave the lights on.

The Innocence Project finally tracked down a younger sister, Kay
Jackson, an Army surgical technician in Virginia.

She felt she owed it to Mr. Williams to let him live with her and her
teenage daughter and fiancé, a retired Marine. But it was tougher
than she had expected. "He was a 43-year-old man trapped in a
17-year-old brain," she says.

The smart, mischievous boy she remembered had become a distrustful,
awkward, self-absorbed man. He was angry, unemployed, and passed his
days shopping and eating fast food. His habit of taking long showers
and sleeping with the TV on ran up her utility bills, she says, but
he resented it when she complained. He says he offered to pay.

Trouble Conforming

Mr. Williams went back to Baton Rouge but returned to Virginia within
a few months. He had a series of jobs -- unloading trucks, stocking
shelves at Target, laying tar on roadways -- but he had trouble
conforming to rules, and none of the jobs lasted long. Mr. Williams
offers different reasons for losing the jobs. While laying road tar,
Mr. Williams, who weighs 300 pounds and has high blood pressure, says
he suffered heat stroke.

Between jobs, Mr. Williams liked to sit in a lounge chair in front of
his sister's house, where he became a magnet for neighborhood kids
who loved to hear his prison stories. The local homeowner's
association sent out a letter forbidding "loitering" in the
neighborhood. He left for good about a year ago.

Mr. Williams still hasn't been able to find steady work here. He used
$27,000 of his state compensation to buy a new car -- a Toyota Camry
with a V6 engine and twin exhaust. He invested some of the remaining
money in an annuity and is living on the rest.

Two weeks ago, he lost most of his possessions when his electric oven
caught fire and ruined his apartment. The next day, Mr. Williams got
hugs and sympathy from fellow parishioners at the nondenominational
Miracle Place Church in nearby Baker, La., which was started by a
former drug dealer. Regulars include several Angola inmates, a former
prison guard and the local police chief.

Community of Exonerees

In a few weeks, Mr. Williams will return to Atlanta to look for a
place to live. There, he hopes to join a small community of other
exonerees he met through the Innocence Project.

Mr. Williams believes that with a little more help, he could make a
better life for himself. "If I could go to school for computers. And
get a place of my own," he says defiantly, sitting in a lawn chair
outside his charred apartment. "If I could see a future...."

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