Exonerated Prisoners Adjust to Life on the Outside After 22 years in prison, Willie "Pete" Williams was recently exonerated by DNA evidence. As he adjusts to his newfound freedom, he's taking advice from Calvin Johnson, the first man in Georgia to be exonerated by DNA evidence.
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Exonerated Prisoners Adjust to Life on the Outside

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Exonerated Prisoners Adjust to Life on the Outside

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Exonerated Prisoners Adjust to Life on the Outside

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. When the prison term ended for Willie "Pete" Williams, his story was just beginning. Williams is one of the latest convicts to be freed with the help of DNA evidence. He spent nearly 22 years in a Georgia prison for a rape he did not commit.

Mr. WILLIE PETE WILLIAMS: Being free, there's nothing that can actually replace that, you know. Freedom, it means everything.

MONTAGNE: This is the story of how Willie "Pete" Williams is trying to reclaim that freedom. He is learning how to start over in life, and one of his teachers is another Georgia man released from prison seven years ago.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Pete Williams is six feet tall and soft-spoken, a rather shy man who's been besieged by the news media since his release. The long years of incarceration have taken a toll. Williams is still questioning himself day and night about whether his newfound freedom is real.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I still have problems with that. I wake up, well, 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, taking a look around to make sure that I'm not, you know, inside of a prison. You know, making sure. You know what I mean, I just wake up and I do it every night.

LOHR: Williams says he wants what everyone on the outside has: a job, a home, a woman who cares about him. But the question is how to begin. He's taking cues from the first Georgia man to be freed by DNA evidence in 1999.

Mr. CALVIN JOHNSON (Author, "Exit to Freedom"): I started my quest to reestablish, rebuild my life from the day I walked out of prison.

LOHR: Calvin Johnson was falsely accused of rape and received a life sentence. He served 16 years before he was freed.

Mr. JOHNSON: Everything is new. I mean, you come out and it's a big world. And sometimes you just want to look. You catch yourself just looking at everything, just watching people and their actions or what they're doing, how they're dressed, and just seeing what's going on around you, looking at different type of vehicles or the cars, things that you were deprived of.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Mr. WILLIAMS: I like to get an early start. It's good to get an early start because from six to nine the trains run faster because of the amount of people riding. I can cover a lot of territory.

LOHR: Not long after he was released, Johnson began working for Atlanta's rail system known as MARTA. As a supervisor, his job is to check in at the stations and make sure things are running smoothly.

Mr. JOHNSON: Good morning.

Unidentified Man #1: Good morning.

Mr. JOHNSON: Hi.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).

Mr. JOHNSON: How are you all doing? See, she went and called me by nickname to let you all know she really knows me.

LOHR: Johnson is so thrilled with his job and with his new life that he smiles almost constantly.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Gerald(ph), how are you doing?

Unidentified Man #3: How are you doing, man?

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm doing good.

Unidentified Man #3: (unintelligible).

Mr. JOHNSON: You got that right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LOHR: His attitude is contagious. Johnson says there's lots to smile about. He had some big advantages, including strong family support and a college education.

Mr. JOHNSON: I had a resume. And I didn't try to hide anything. My resume had a list of jobs that I had while I was in prison. And as I listed former employer, I listed the state of Georgia, which I didn't lie.

LOHR: Johnson did hard labor, worked in the prison library and with men in isolation. It seems so far removed from the life he has rebuilt.

Ms. BRIANNA(ph) JOHNSON (Daughter of Calvin Johnson): I'm going to put some eggs in here for my pancakes.

Mr. JOHNSON: Pancakes? Okay, now when you finish that, who's going to eat it?

Ms. JOHNSON: You?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LOHR: Brianna Johnson is more evidence of Calvin's new life. He watches his six-year-old daughter as she pretends to cook on a pink stove in the stately brick home south of Atlanta where they now live. His wife Sabrina(ph) Johnson remembers meeting Calvin at her church the weekend after he was released.

Ms. SABRINA JOHNSON (Wife of Calvin Johnson): And I just said, oh man, it would just be nice to just hear his story just as testimony. You know, how he endured all those years. And I got to hear it.

LOHR: They were married about a year later. While still in prison, Johnson overcame his anger and frustration about being wrongly convicted and warehoused in a tiny cell for 16 years. But when he got out, he was 41 years old.

Ms. LISA GEORGE (Communications Director, Georgia Innocence Project): We watch these guys walk out of the courtroom, and everything they have to show for decades of their lives is contained in a Tupperware box.

LOHR: Lisa George is with the Georgia Innocence Project.

Ms. GEORGE: If you walk somebody out of the courtroom having gotten them exonerated after 20 years, and you shake their hands on the courthouse step and say, thank you, have a nice life, you're setting them up for failure. How can anyone having gone through that experience walk into what for them is a brand new society and function immediately. There's just no way to do that.

LOHR: The Georgia Innocence Project took Calvin Johnson's story to the state legislature, and ultimately he received a half-million dollars. According to the National Innocence Project in New York, about half of those exonerated by DNA have received some kind of compensation, from a few thousand dollars to as much as $12 million. Twenty one states have laws which allow payments, but most hear each case individually before deciding whether to pay anything at all.

Johnson says he knows he's one of the lucky ones. He faced a number of challenges: learning how to use computers and cell phones, opening up a bank account, and even getting a fair deal on his first apartment after a manager wanted to double or triple his security deposit.

Mr. JOHNSON: I remember actually leaving, going home, getting all these newspaper articles together of me coming out of prison, going back to that renter's office and speaking to the manager and sitting down with all my articles in front of him. And I said, here, look. I said how can I have a rental history?

LOHR: Johnson convinced the manager to rent the apartment at the regular rate. Part of the key, he says, was never letting the small problems deter him from his true goals.

Mr. JOHNSON: The fact that I've come out, I have a steady job, I'm a homeowner, I have a lovely wife, I have a daughter, I have a little dog that wags his tail. You could basically say I'm living the American dream.

LOHR: Calvin Johnson still catches himself looking around sometimes, not sure his life is real. When everything is taken away for years and years, he says, you really miss it.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

MONTAGNE: Calvin Johnson spends part of what he calls his American dream supporting other wrongly convicted prisoners. He stood behind Pete Williams, who we heard about earlier in this story, when a judge announced his exoneration in a Georgia courtroom.

With him was Clarence Harrison and Robert Clark, who also served decades in prison for crimes they didn't commit and who are now free after DNA testing proved their innocence.

In an excerpt from his book, "Exit to Freedom," Calvin Johnson writes about the growing anger he felt while being in prison. You can read it at npr.org.

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