'After Innocence': Stories of Wrongful Imprisonment
ED GORDON, host:
The film Farai mentioned, "After Innocence," profiles eight men who served sometimes more than two decades in prison before DNA evidence helped overturn their convictions. Herman Atkins was one of those men. He spent 13 years behind bars for forcible rape, robbery and use of a handgun. The Innocence Project helped free Atkins five years ago.
(Soundbite of "After Innocence")
Mr. HERMAN ATKINS: Well, my father, a highway patrolman--he used to always tell us, `Look, America has the best justice system.' When I got tried and found guilty, my whole faith, my whole belief was shattered about the justice system.
GORDON: Mark Simon wrote and directed "After Innocence." He also was a former student of The Innocence Project, where he met Herman Atkins 10 years ago. I spoke earlier with both men. Simon explained how Atkins and the other men in the movie motivated him to make the film.
Mr. MARK SIMON (Writer and Director, "After Innocence"): Well, for me, it's more the ongoing inspiration from these guys. There is not the anger and bitterness that you might expect. They're true survivors. Each time I learn a new thing: Herman graduating from college, going back to help other people who are leaving prison and helping them re-enter society. So it's more the inspirational surprises that keep coming up.
GORDON: Herman Atkins, how can you let go of what I would think most of us would have, and that would be anger, not only with the judicial system but possibly with society as well?
Mr. ATKINS: I'm a very spiritual person, and I made God a promise that if he ever provide a platform for me to speak on and share my story to help others, then I would do just that. And with that, I just put the blame where it belongs, which was in the hands of the prosecutor for indulging in prosecutorial misconduct, as well as the police, who indulged in police misconduct, and I left it there.
GORDON: Mark Simon, one of the interesting things that the documentary brings up is the idea of mistaken identity. We hear so often and have certainly been raised with the hour crime saga on television that, `Oh, we have an eyewitness,' as if that means it's a closed-door case. But the reality is, misidentification happens a whole lot in cases like that.
Mr. SIMON: It's not in all cases where misconduct happens, but in the case of eyewitness identification or misidentification, it is a leading cause of wrongful conviction of the innocent. And that is why these DNA exonerations open a window into the system, into the flaws of the system.
GORDON: Mark, we should note, we keep talking about DNA, DNA, DNA; we should talk about the idea of how extraordinary this has become in really correcting some of these wrongs.
Mr. SIMON: Absolutely. There are over 400 DNA exonerations where there was biological evidence at the scene of the crime that was collected and then, decades later, was able to be re-examined. That biological evidence, whether it be from blood, skin or semen, is then tested, and it leaves a genetic fingerprint that is only unique to that one individual, and it can prove whether that person was or wasn't the person who committed the crime.
GORDON: Herman, I'm curious; as an African-American male who went through this, talk to me about if you believe there's any way that we can make sure that we get black men standing on a more even playing field in the judicial system.
Mr. ATKINS: Black men most definitely have to prepare themselves about how the system works, how it functions. You know, it seems as though that Americans' justice system target two types of people to put in the prisons nationwide, which is the uneducated and the undesirables. And, unfortunately, the face to the uneducated and the undesirable is people of color.
GORDON: Let me ask you, Mr. Atkins, have you had the opportunity over the years now to talk with the victim?
Mr. ATKINS: No. No, I haven't--I've never received an apology from the victim, from the prosecutor or the police, for that matter. Now I really don't care.
GORDON: I was going to ask: Would it make a difference at all to you?
Mr. ATKINS: No, it wouldn't make a difference, see, because while being in prison and realizing what had happened to me, I chose to change myself from the person that I was to the person that I am now. I obtained not only an education, but doubled back and administered a much-needed psychological therapy to the exonerees as well as prisoners who have gotten out of prison, be they right or wrong.
GORDON: Mark Simon, did you find that many of the men that you talked to who faced this were as extraordinary as Mr. Atkins, who could take such a dreadful situation and turn it to a positive?
Mr. SIMON: The exonerees are absolutely of the ilk of a Herman Atkins. That is how they persevered for this. It's everyone's ultimate nightmare, being in prison for 10, 22 years--one of the guys in the film was on death row in solitary confinement for 22 years. That's Nick Yarris from Pennsylvania. They keep fighting. They're trying to change the system, and they're trying to improve their lives and affect other lives by that.
GORDON: Herman Atkins, tell me the hardest day for you. Do you remember that day? Was there a day that you felt like, `I'm not gonna make it through this'?
Mr. ATKINS: Yeah, the day I lost my mother. She died a year after I was out. Being incarcerated for 12 years, I was not allowed to see her; she was not allowed to see me. As to why, I do not know. When she died, that was the day I actually had thought that, you know, `I'm not gonna survive this.'
GORDON: And it's--people don't understand this, Herman, and I sense it in your voice: There are things that you cannot be given back, no matter what happens.
Mr. ATKINS: Yes. Yes. Yes. I cannot be given back the years that I've lost with my sons, who were one year old when I was incarcerated, 14 when I got out. And, you know, I cannot replace the years that I've lost with my mother or my grandfather. You know, the days of being able to make a career for myself--coming out of high school, not even being out of high school two years--there's nothing that they could give me to replace nothing. I must continue forward and then try to enjoy the remaining days of my life, in which I'm hoping I'll live to be about maybe, you know, 80, 90 years of age.
GORDON: You can go for a hundred.
Mr. ATKINS: Well, I'm striving. I'm striving.
GORDON: Mark, let me ask you--what has been the most difficult--is there any one issue or problem that ran the gamut of reaching all of these men, that they found most difficult when they got out?
Mr. SIMON: The seven featured exonerees in this film--only one of them has received compensation from the state that wrongfully convicted him. Herman's from California, which does have a compensation statute. Herman has not gotten compensated because they said that he did not file in time for his statute. He was fighting, trying to get it passed, and then once it got passed, they said that he was not eligible. So the common thread is these guys enter a world with truly no assistance.
GORDON: And, Herman, what about when you come out and you've lost, some people, 10, 15, 20 years--just the rapid growth of technology alone in the last four or five years is staggering. I can't imagine being away for a decade and then walking back into a world that clearly would be tremendously different than the one you knew.
Mr. ATKINS: Yes, it's scary. Even to this very day, it's scary. All I've done, Mr. Gordon, is I just attended school. Technology today is really scary. I actually was given a iPod, and that scares me. Learning how to operate the modern telephones--all of that was scary to me, but I accepted the challenge and was successful at learning how to use these items. And one of the things that a lot of states are fearful of, Mr. Gordon, is owning up to the issue that's at hand. And it is sad that a nation will not even go as far as acknowledging the mistakes they made, when a person who actually committed a crime and gets out on parole has more resources to acclimate themselves back into society, when in actuality a person who has been wrongfully convicted and exonerated from a crime doesn't.
GORDON: Gentlemen, I thank you both very much. Mark, we thank you for shining the light on a subject that most people don't even, quite frankly, think about. And, as I said earlier, Herman Atkins, thank you for being so strong in representing, and we wish you the best of luck with all that's in front of you.
Mr. ATKINS: Thank you.
Mr. SIMON: Thank you, Ed.
GORDON: This is NPR News.
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