Tragic Justice: Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners Die Shortly After Exoneration
For many people who are wrongfully convicted, being arrested for a crime they did not commit is just the first in a series of tragic events. If the arrest is traumatic, then their conviction and often lengthy incarceration is heart-rending.
But such events merely set the stage for what happens after the joyous day when an innocent prisoner is finally exonerated and released – typically years or even decades after they were sent to prison. That is when they face the consequences of the inadequate medical and mental health care they received while incarcerated. It is also when they discover that their work skills have become obsolete, making it hard for them to find jobs to support themselves, while they are frequently overwhelmed by their return to the outside world.
Thirty states and the federal government have compensation statutes that provide financial aid to wrongfully convicted prisoners, but that takes time – and 20 states provide no financial assistance. Exonerees have to apply for compensation, which must be approved by state officials; it may take months, or even years, before the first payment is made. Exonerees usually do not receive even the pittance given as “gate money” to other released prisoners. Nor are the reentry services routinely provided to parolees made available to exonerees, since they are not released on parole.
These factors make it difficult for wrongfully convicted prisoners to assimilate back into free society. Essentially, the criminal justice system takes away their freedom, which often leads to the loss of their jobs, their homes and their savings – and sometimes their health and families – then tosses them back into the street with few resources, homeless and unemployable, and offers no immediate financial support. Is it any wonder, then, that some exonerees don’t survive very long once they’re freed?
In July 2015, Alprentiss Nash, 40, died of multiple gunshot wounds in “a drug deal gone bad” about three years after he was released from prison in Illinois after serving 17 years on a wrongful murder conviction. Nash’s 80-year sentence was overturned after DNA evidence indicated he was not the person who had murdered Leon Stroud in 1995. Incorrect witness testimony had been used to secure his conviction.
The state issued Nash a certificate of innocence and gave him $200,000 in compensation, but that didn’t help him find a job – so he used the money to attend a culinary arts school and hoped to eventually open his own restaurant. Nash was afraid he was being targeted because of the compensation money; he felt unsafe and wanted to leave Chicago.
“He just really wanted to disappear and get out of here,” said his attorney, Kathleen T. Zellner, who helped him win his freedom. Zellner assisted Nash’s son in pursuing a federal civil rights action that Nash had filed against the city of Chicago and its police department before he died. In September 2016, Chicago’s city council voted to settle the case for $350,000.
According to news reports, Nash was killed while trying to rob Paul Vukadinovic, a drug dealing associate. Both men were armed and exchanged gunfire. Vukadinovic, 30, was sentenced to two years in prison for fatally shooting Nash.
Forest Shomberg, 49, was found dead in a car in Madison, Wisconsin on August 16, 2013. He had been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and spent six years in prison before DNA evidence led to his exoneration. Shomberg was scheduled to appear in court the following month on his claim seeking the maximum of $25,000 in compensation plus $77,500 in legal fees for the cost of proving his innocence. His application for compensation had initially been denied by the Wisconsin Claims Board and he had to fight them in court for years. Finally, in June 2013, a circuit court judge sided with Shomberg, finding the Claims Board had failed to investigate his innocence before rejecting his application. He died two months later.
Shomberg had wrestled with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts since his release; he was even returned to prison after discharging a firearm into the ground in his back yard during an aborted suicide attempt. His death was ruled accidental and drug-related, possibly an overdose.
“He didn’t have a monkey on his back, he had a gorilla,” said Sheila Berry, who runs Truth in Justice – a Virginia-based advocacy organization for the wrongfully convicted. “Many of these people, when they finally get out, die,” she added. “It’s really sad.”
In May 2014, the Claims Board belatedly awarded $97,500 to Shomberg’s family.
Former Augusta, Wisconsin police officer Evan Zimmerman was charged with the strangulation murder of his former girlfriend after a hypnotized witness claimed to have seen a woman with her appearance sleeping in a van that looked like Zimmerman’s. The prosecution argued a telephone cord found in Zimmerman’s van was the murder weapon. DNA tests on items found near the body excluded Zimmerman, and scientific tests showed the phone cord could not have been used in the murder. Other forensic examinations indicated the body had not been in Zimmerman’s van. However, his attorney did not inform the jury about any of that exculpatory evidence during his 2001 trial.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project helped file an appeal, and an appellate court reversed Zimmerman’s conviction on August 12, 2003. The prosecution began retrying the case but opted to have the charges dismissed after several days of testimony. Zimmerman had suffered a stroke during his three years in prison; he died of cancer on July 1, 2007, two years after the case was dismissed. He was 61 years old. Zimmerman’s ordeal was the subject of a 2005 documentary on the A&E channel entitled “Facing Life, the Retrial of Evan Zimmerman.”
Beth LaBatte, 30, was convicted in December 1997 of robbing and murdering two elderly sisters. Despite overwhelming pretrial publicity that vilified her, LaBatte steadfastly maintained her innocence. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole eligibility until she was 85 years old in one case and 90 in the other – reflecting the ages of the sisters who had been killed. Three jailhouse snitches testified that LaBatte had confessed to the murders.
The University of Wisconsin Law School’s Innocence Project helped LaBatte challenge her convictions on the basis of new DNA evidence. Her conviction was reversed in 2005 but prosecutors proceeded to retry her. Her friends and family put up real estate to cover her bond, and just weeks before the trial was to begin the charges were dismissed.
“This will always be over my head,” said an emotional LaBatte. “It won’t be over until whoever murdered these women are caught.”
LaBatte’s freedom was short lived. Around 20 months after her release, in September 2007, she died after losing control of the pickup truck she was driving. She had a blood alcohol level of 0.21.
“She had been drinking. She grumbled at other people – ‘Don’t drink and drive, don’t drink and drive’ – but she did it herself,” said LaBatte’s mother. “I think it was catch-up [for her time in prison]. She didn’t have that kind of willpower. And there were still people who remembered [the murder case] and didn’t let her forget it.”
Kenneth Waters was in his mid-twenties and working as a chef in Massachusetts when he was convicted in 1983 of the robbery-murder of his neighbor based on the testimony of his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and the police-coerced testimony of his ex-girlfriend and another former girlfriend. He served 18 years of a life sentence before being exonerated by DNA evidence.
Waters’ sister, Betty Anne Waters, put herself through college and law school just so she could help him fight his conviction; she worked tirelessly with the Innocence Project to prove her brother’s innocence. Ironically, the police had fingerprint and hair evidence that excluded Waters, but did not provide that information to prosecutors. Waters also had a strong alibi – he was at work with an entire kitchen staff – which the police had confirmed at the time.
Just six months after the prosecution dropped all charges against him on June 19, 2001, Waters died due to a head injury resulting from an accidental fall. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.42].
“Kenny had the best six months of his life,” his sister stated. “After so many years behind bars, the world was new to him.”
Eight years later, Waters’ estate settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the town of Ayer, Massachusetts for $14.1 million. The case was the basis of a 2010 movie, “Conviction,” starring Hilary Swank.
Sharif Wilson was 15 years old in 1992 when the mother, sister and cousin of his friend Anthony Yarbough were murdered in a Coney Island, New York housing project. Wilson and Yarbough, 18, were coerced by the police into confessing to the killings.
In 2013, new DNA evidence from one of the victims was matched to an unsolved 1999 Brooklyn rape and murder. Since Wilson and Yarbough were in prison in 1999, they could not have committed either crime. They were released in February 2014 and Wilson died of an asthma attack eleven months later.
“[Wilson] was a healthy, young 15-year-old boy. And he came out a broken, morbidly obese individual whose health care wasn’t really well monitored and maintained by state prison authorities,” said his attorney, Adam Perlmutter.
Another New York exoneree, William Lopez, died in September 2014 at the age of 55, also of an asthma attack. He had spent more than 23 years in prison for the 1989 murder of a Brooklyn drug dealer, and was released in January 2013 following the recantation of a key witness. Attorneys and legal staff from the Jeffery Deskovic Foundation for Justice worked for years to help Lopez prove his innocence.
U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis, who ordered Lopez’s release, called the case, which had been based solely on the testimony of two police-coerced witnesses, “rotten from day one.” The judge said the district attorney’s office was “overzealous and deceitful,” and Lopez’s lawyers had been “indolent and ill prepared.”
“In short, the prosecution’s evidence was flimsy to begin with and has since been reduced to rubble,” said Garaufis, who granted habeas relief. See: Lopez v. Miller, 915 F.Supp.2d 373 (E.D. N.Y. 2013).
“It feels great to be back on Earth,” said a newly-freed Lopez. “I’m looking forward to restoring my life as best I can.”
Lopez had filed a lawsuit against the City of New York seeking $124 million in damages; the case was scheduled for trial the day after he died. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.1].
“He was always looking forward to being compensated,” said Jeffrey Deskovic, whose foundation works to free the wrongly convicted and help exonerees. “He wanted to do some domestic travel to other states, and to travel internationally. He wanted to go to college and to go to law school. He wanted to set his wife up in business, and he wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Deskovic added. “His life was really robbed from him.”
Lopez was survived by his wife, mother, brother, daughter and three grandchildren. In January 2016, state officials settled his estate’s wrongful conviction suit for $4.2 million, and last September the City of New York agreed to pay $8.25 million – money that Lopez had needed after his release but never saw during his 20 months of freedom.
Timothy Howard was 53 when he died of a massive heart attack, just four years after his exoneration and release from prison. He and a childhood friend, Gary L. James, spent 26 years in Ohio’s prison system for a robbery that resulted in the murder of bank guard Berne Davis. They were freed in 2003 when evidence that had previously been suppressed by the prosecution proved they were wrongfully convicted at their 1977 trial.
When a judge offered him his freedom if he would plead guilty, Howard replied, “Do what you’ve got to do, judge. I have nothing to do with that bank robbery or murdering Berne Davis. His murder is not on my conscience.”
“That took a lot of integrity and courage,” said Howard’s attorney, James McCloskey, the head of Centurion Ministries – an organization that assists the wrongfully convicted. “That was his shining moment.”
McCloskey blamed Howard’s lengthy incarceration for his death.
“We see this time and time again,” he noted. “Some of them just hold on to the wrong that was done to them and it just eats them alive.”
In 2006, Ohio settled a lawsuit filed by Howard for $2.5 million, which at the time was the largest amount received by a former prisoner in the state’s history. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.21].
“It was a tough road for Timmy,” McCloskey said, referring to Howard’s death in March 2007. “He just couldn’t get past the years that were robbed from him. In a sense, he was in his own prison for the last four years.”
Glenn Ford died of lung cancer at the age of 65. He spent almost 30 years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for a 1984 robbery and murder; exonerated and freed in March 2014, he enjoyed a mere fifteen months of freedom. He had been released with only $20 to his name, no home, no job and failing health. At the time of his death he was living in a residence provided by Resurrection After Exoneration, an organization that assists exonerees.
Ford’s case was featured on ABC’s Nightline in April 2015, shortly before his death. Represented by his attorney and friend William Most, Ford had three federal lawsuits pending against Louisiana officials seeking compensation for his wrongful incarceration and inadequate medical care in prison.
“Glenn was an inspirational person, and even after so many injustices had been heaped upon him, he focused on the future,” said Most. “Glenn wanted justice in this country and that means a system of accountability for innocent people being sent to jail or to death row.”
Ford died on June 29, 2015 – about three months after the prosecutor in his case penned an editorial apologizing for his role in Ford’s wrongful conviction. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.16]. His claim for compensation from the state was denied by a judge who cited evidence that Ford had some involvement in the robbery even if he didn’t commit the murder.
Bobby Rae Dixon, 53, died of cancer on November 7, 2010, less than a month before he was officially cleared of the 1979 rape and murder of a woman in Mississippi. He spent over 30 years in prison before he and a co-defendant, Phillip Bivens, were exonerated based on DNA evidence. The Innocence Project assisted Dixon in securing his release; another co-defendant, Larry Ruffin, died in prison in 2002 and was posthumously exonerated in February 2011. Bivens passed away in August 2014.
All three died before the state settled their lawsuits, eventually agreeing to pay $500,000 to Ruffin’s estate and $375,000 to the estates of Dixon and Bivens. In August 2015, Forrest County officials settled civil rights actions filed by the men’s estates for a total of $16.5 million.
In another case, Joseph Lamont Abbitt died in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in March 2015, when the car he was driving collided with another vehicle. He had been exonerated of rape and released from prison in 2009 after serving 14 years.
John Grega, 52, also was killed in a vehicle accident, on January 23, 2015 in Lake Ronkonkoma, Vermont. His convictions for raping and murdering his wife had been reversed in 2012 based on DNA evidence. A former NASA contract engineer, Grega was imprisoned for 18 years. State officials agreed in April 2016 to pay $1.55 million to his estate while admitting no wrongdoing.
Exoneree Joseph White, 48, was crushed to death in an industrial accident on March 27, 2011. He had been one of six people convicted in 1989 and 1990 of murdering an elderly woman in Beatrice, Nebraska. He was the only one of the defendants – known as the Beatrice Six – not to buckle under intense police interrogations and confess. The others took plea bargains, but White went to trial even though three of his co-defendants testified against him. He was sentenced to life in prison but still fought on.
In 2007, White finally convinced the Nebraska Supreme Court to order DNA testing which, when completed the following year, proved that neither he nor any of his co-defendants had anything to do with the crime; instead, DNA evidence identified the actual murderer. White was released in October 2008 after serving nearly 20 years.
With the help of Lincoln attorney Robert F. Bartle, White filed a claim seeking the maximum amount of $500,000 in compensation, but had received only $25,000 before he died less than three years after he was freed from prison. In July 2016, a jury awarded $28.1 million to the Beatrice Six; White’s estate received $7.3 million. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.54].
White refused to blame his co-defendants who had pleaded guilty and implicated him for his wrongful conviction, faulting instead the police and prosecutors for threatening them with the death penalty to coerce false confessions.
“These people who testified and lied on the stand were scared. I can understand fear,” he said. “When people feel scared, they do anything they can do to feel safe.”
After his exoneration, White reconnected with his high school sweetheart; they were engaged and had set a wedding date. “It was the happiest he had been in his whole life, really,” said White’s mother. “I was so glad he had this time of happiness and freedom.”
For some exonerees, it takes many years before the stress and collateral effects of their wrongful convictions have fatal consequences. Darryl Eugene Hunt was declared innocent of his North Carolina rape and murder convictions in February 2004 after serving 18 years in prison. He was released due to DNA evidence that implicated another suspect who confessed to the crimes. Hunt received almost $2 million in compensation, and became an advocate for the wrongfully convicted and against the death penalty. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.47].
He founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice. A dozen years after being exonerated, however, he committed suicide on March 13, 2016. He was 51 years old. According to his friends, he remained “haunted” by the trauma of his wrongful conviction, the Charlotte Observer reported. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.32].
Whether their deaths were due to poor medical care while incarcerated, the stress of the injustice of their wrongful convictions, or accidents or other causes, all of these exonerees were victims of a broken criminal justice system that robbed them of their freedom and, ultimately, their lives. Many died while still fighting for compensation from the state or local officials who had wrongly prosecuted and imprisoned them. In some cases, only their estates benefited from eventual settlements and verdicts in wrongful conviction lawsuits.
“Lives are literally being stolen from these wrongful convictions,” said Jeffrey Deskovic, who was himself exonerated and released in 2006 after serving over 16 years for rape and murder. “What is it going to take for our government to finally pass legislation to prevent this? How many more lives are going to be impacted like this?”
Sadly, it will likely be many more – far too many.
Sources: www.madison.com, www.law.umich.edu, www.truthinjustice.blogspot.com, www.jsonline.com, www.liveleak.com, www.nypost.com, www.innocenceproject.org, CNN, www.nbcnewyork.com, www.abcnews.com, WCNC-TV, www.archive.digtriad.com, Columbus Dispatch, www.newsday.com, www.cbsnews.com, www.justicedenied.org, www.journalstar.com, www.theguardian.com, http://floridainnocence.org, Chicago Sun Times
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