Wrongly Convicted Fla. Man Freed After 35 Years

James Bain was 19-years-old in 1974, when he was arrested and charged with kidnapping and raping a 9-year-old boy. He was convicted largely because the boy identified him in a police lineup. After serving 35 years in prison, Bain was freed after DNA testing — which he pleaded for when he was initially accused — found him innocent of the crime. Bain talks about his life as a freed man and whether he holds any resentment toward the judicial system for the life-changing error.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We go back more than three decades, to 1974. James Bain was 19 years old when he was arrested and charged with an awful crime: kidnapping and raping a 9-year-old boy. And he was convicted, largely on the basis of the boy's identifying him in a police lineup. Mr. Bain always insisted on his innocence. He said he was home watching TV with his twin sister when the crime was committed. His sister agreed. And he pleaded for DNA testing, pleas which were repeatedly rejected.

Then the Innocence Project got involved. That's a group that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people, mainly though DNA testing. A new test exonerated Mr. Bain and last week he celebrated his first Christmas in 35 years as a free man. And James Bain is with us now, along with his attorney Seth Miller of the Florida Innocence Project. They're both with us. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. SETH MILLER (Attorney, Florida Innocence Project): Thanks for having me.

Mr. JAMES BAIN: Thank you for having me on your show.

MARTIN: Mr. Bain, what have you been doing?

Mr. BAIN: What I've been doing lately Miss, is spending a little time with my mother. As much time as I can.

MARTIN: Can you take us back to the moment when the judge announced that you were free to go?

Mr. BAIN: When I go back to that moment Miss, a big relief come to me and that's the first time I ever seen even a judge smile.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. BAIN: Yeah. And the way he said it, I can't say it verbatim, but he said in such a way he just went to smiling himself and I had to clap when I seen this as well.

MARTIN: You told reporters that you're not angry, despite having, you know, 35 years of your life taken away. Why do you think you're not?

Mr. BAIN: Miss, after looking back after that - all this here took place, I can't feel bitter because the family was doing what they feel was best because I would've did the same thing.

MARTIN: The family of the victim?

Mr. BAIN: Yes. Correct.

MARTIN: Did you ever feel that you would see this day? Did you think that you would be free at one point?

Mr. BAIN: Miss, I thought I would never even see or dream of this day after doing 35 years.

MARTIN: How did you make it all these years?

Mr. BAIN: Well Miss, I just find myself occupying my time and trying to take it day by day.

MARTIN: Seth Miller, can you clarify for us, was DNA testing not available in 1974 when Mr. Bain was convicted? Was it not widely available?

Mr. MILLER: It wasn't available at all in 1974. DNA testing didn't come to use in courts around the country until about 1988. And we didn't even have a DNA testing statute for people to go back and reopen their cases and test evidence to prove their innocence in Florida until 2001.

MARTIN: And Mr. Bain, can I ask you about this, how did you come to start asking for a DNA test?

Mr. BAIN: A friend of mine was pretty good what we call a jailhouse lawyer. He wrote a 3.8-50 on me, which is mean is something they use to try to get you to move forward on this issue pertaining to DNA.

MARTIN: So he heard about it, he told you about it.

Mr. BAIN: Yes.

MARTIN: And you kept at it even though you kept getting turned down. What do you think allowed you to keep at it?

Mr. BAIN: Because I knew if they ever ran this test on me, I know one thing for sure, it's going to either lock me or free me. I knew for a fact it would free me.

MARTIN: In your original trial, did you have any representation? Did you have a lawyer?

Mr. BAIN: Yes, Miss, I had a paid lawyer.

MARTIN: But what? He just what?

Mr. BAIN: Miss, he didn't do the job we paid him to do at all, because from the bottom line, I was put in a position where I didn't know anything pertaining to law. That was the first time I ever been in that situation, anyone in my family.

MARTIN: Seth Miller, I know it's difficult for an attorney to second guess another, particularly so many years after the fact, but I do wonder whether there's anything his counsel could have done back then to have kept this from happening.

Mr. MILLER: He could've more vigorously looked at the identification made by the victim. It's pretty clear that when the victim came home after - poor victim after he was raped, he mentioned the characteristics of the perpetrator. And the victim's uncle and other members of his family simply suggested that Jamie Bain met that description. So right from that point...

MARTIN: How did they know him? Did they know him? They knew...

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. The victim's uncle was Mr. Bain's assistant principal at his school. So from that point on we were well on our way to a wrongful conviction. I mean, children are suggestible. They are - have a tendency to want to please authority figures. And what it seems to be in this case is that 9-year-old victim, not really knowing what to do, just stipulated to the fact that Mr. Bain was the person who raped him and that's how this all got started.

There was also some biological testing that was available at the time that seemed to indicate that Jamie did not commit this crime, that the semen left on the underwear was not his. And the lawyer certainly could've argued that to a greater degree and that was eventually rejected by the jury and they believed the victim's identification.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. You're saying that whatever testing was available at the time did not point to Mr. Bain, but for whatever reason, that evidence wasn't deemed credible?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, it was disputed. The state offered an expert to say that he could not be excluded as the donor of the semen based on the limited primitive scientific testing that was available at that time. Yet, a doctor from the local hospital looked at that same evidence and said that he was in fact excluded, that he could not have been the donor. So right then, everybody should've known that Jamie Bain was innocent of that crime. But because of the nature of this crime, because, you know, obviously someone wants to get someone for this crime, the jury chose to believe that evidence that pointed towards guilt.

MARTIN: Why did he have to ask five times for that, even though the test did not exist at the time that he was first convicted? I think a lot of people would - don't understand that, you know.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I don't understand it either, Michel. I mean, you know, he shouldn't have had to ask five times. You know, the courts just got it wrong each and every time. And it wasn't until one court finally took a look at this case and recognized that more needed to be done on the fifth time that we were able to get involved and it led the state to agree to the testing. Because they understood the import of this case and what the results would mean if we did get the testing and it was favorable.

MARTIN: Which leads us to a logical question I think that many people would have. I mean, obviously nobody can give a man back 35 years of his life, especially 35 years in prison for a crime - a terrible crime that he didn't commit. I mean not just the time served and also the stigma of having been accused of something so heinous.

Mr. MILLER: Yes.

MARTIN: So is there any recourse here? Does he have any compensation for what happened to him, particularly given that there was judicial error involved later in the process?

Mr. MILLER: Yes. In Florida we have a statute that provides a stipulated amount of compensation for each year of wrongful incarceration. So in his case because he meets all the requirements of that statute, he'd be able to get $50,000 a year for each year he was wrongfully incarcerated. And if you add that up it comes to 1.75 million. But we're looking at, you know, all options. We think that there was potentially some misconduct in the case. And so we need to really dig down into the case to recognize what all his potential avenues for relief are and then make some good decisions with Jamie about, you know, how we go forward. And we'll be looking to do that soon after - in the New Year.

MARTIN: And when does he get the money?

Mr. MILLER: When we petition under the statute we believe it all should go as planned and he should be able to be compensated in about four months. And we'd be pretty pleased if all goes well and we get it for him in four months.

MARTIN: Well Mr. Bain, that must've been welcome news.

Mr. BAIN: That is good news, Miss.

MARTIN: What do you think you'll do with that money?

Mr. BAIN: Well, actually I will give it all to my mother, because she practically suffered more than I did.

MARTIN: Well, what will she do with it?

Mr. BAIN: She could do whatever she want.

MARTIN: There's nothing you want for yourself?

Mr. BAIN: Well, whatever she want to give me.

MARTIN: Well, what do you want for the rest of your life?

Mr. BAIN: Well, Miss, I can't really say at this point.

MARTIN: Well, you're 54 years old. You're still a relatively young man. You still have a lot of life ahead of you.

Mr. BAIN: Yes I do, Miss.

MARTIN: What do you think you want to do?

Mr. BAIN: Well, at this point I want to go back to school more than anything else. During that 35 years, I don't have a high school diploma. And out of that 35 years, I spent about 20-something in school and was never able to achieve that goal.

MARTIN: Well, that's great. And Mr. Bain, it's a difficult question, but that 9-year-old, he would be 44 now, and I wonder if you ever think of him?

Mr. BAIN: No, Miss. I have heard from him from other peoples that he's doing fine and he's willing to help me in any way possible that he can, hope that I can get some release from this.

MARTIN: What happened to you is awful. What happened to him is awful. But the other awful thing is that whoever actually did this to him, to our knowledge, has not been brought to justice.

Mr. BAIN: No, he's not.

MARTIN: And I wonder what - I mean, obviously that's not your burden.

Mr. BAIN: No it's not, Miss, but whatever is necessary against him, I hope they do it.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel?

Mr. BAIN: Oh, Miss, I feel great because the most important thing is being here with her after so many years on the elapse.

MARTIN: Well, Happy New Year to you and good luck to you with everything that you have planned.

Mr. BAIN: Yes, same to you, Miss.

MARTIN: James Bain is a free man after DNA proved him innocent of kidnapping and rape convictions that carried a life sentence in prison. We were also joined by Seth Miller. He's an attorney with the Florida Innocence Project. He joined us from WLRN in Miami. Gentlemen, I thank you both for speaking with us and Happy New Year to you both.

Mr. MILLER: Same to you. Thank you.

Mr. BAIN: Same to you, Miss.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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