The New York Times has a fascinating set of articles today that focus on lives of people who have been exonerated over the years, mostly through DNA evidence. How have the years that folks spent in prison left them to deal with life outside?
Christopher Ochoa graduated from law school five years out of prison and started his own practice in Madison, Wis. He has a girlfriend and is looking to buy a house.
Michael Anthony Williams, who entered prison as a 16-year-old boy and left more than two years ago as a 40-year-old man, has lived in a homeless shelter and had a series of jobs, none lasting more than six months.
Gene Bibbins worked a series of temporary factory jobs, got engaged, but fell into drug addiction. Four and a half years after walking out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, he landed in jail in East Baton Rouge, accused of cocaine possession and battery.
The stories are not unusual for men who have spent many years in prison. What makes these three men different is that there are serious questions about whether they should have been in prison in the first place.
The men are among the more than 200 prisoners exonerated since 1989 by DNA evidence — almost all of whom had been incarcerated for murder or rape. Their varied experiences are typical of what The New York Times found in one of the most extensive looks to date at what happens to those exonerated inmates after they leave prison.
The Times worked from a list of DNA-exonerated prisoners kept by the Innocence Project — widely regarded as the most thorough record of DNA exonerations. The Times then gathered extensive information on 137 of those whose convictions had been overturned, interviewing 115.
The findings show that most of them have struggled to keep jobs, pay for health care, rebuild family ties and shed the psychological effects of years of questionable or wrongful imprisonment.
Typically, testing of blood or semen from the crime scene revealed DNA pointing to another perpetrator. The authorities in some of the cases have continued to insist they convicted the right men, and have even fought efforts by some of them to sue for money.
About one-third of them, like Mr. Ochoa, found ways to get a stable footing in the world. But about one-sixth of them, like Mr. Bibbins, found themselves back in prison or suffering from drug or alcohol addiction.
About half, like Mr. Williams, had experiences somewhere between those extremes, drifting from job to job and leaning on their family, lawyers or friends for housing and other support.
And in many cases the justice system has been slow to make amends.