After years behind bars, exonerated find comfort in one another

Associated Press, May 9, 2003
http://www.newsday.com/
By JENNIFER FRIEDLIN, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — DNA evidence recently proved what Eddie Lowery had already known for the past 22 years: He was innocent of a rape for which he spent a decade in prison.

Lowery was released in 1991, having paid a debt to society that was not owed. But his name wasn’t cleared until results of the test three weeks ago.

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“It’s very exciting when you finally get to prove your innocence for something you never did _ just to hear the judge say he was sorry,” said Lowery, 43, of Kansas City, Mo.

Lowery and 34 other exonerated people are expected to arrive in New York this weekend to kick off a new program designed to help former prisoners readjust to daily life following wrongful convictions.

The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School and the DNA Identification Technology and Human Rights Center of Berkeley, Calif., are scheduled to announce the establishment of their jointly run Life After Exoneration Project at a news conference on Friday.

“We were getting all these people out of prison, but we found most of them were having tremendous difficulty with life on the street,” said Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which provides legal assistance to prisoners seeking to prove their innocence through DNA testing.

Organizers and some of the exonerated said the help is necessary because exonerated prisoners are entitled to even fewer benefits than convicts upon their release.

“I couldn’t find work; I was so messed up in the head,” said Frederick Daye, 45, one of the first people in the United States to be exonerated using DNA when he was cleared of rape, kidnapping and other crimes in 1994 after serving 10 years.

As someone who has experienced the horror of being wrongly convicted, Daye said he’s glad to participate in the project, since it offers both camaraderie and the chance to help other people facing a similar situation.

“Now with this program here, a guy who knows he’s going out won’t have any stresses. He’ll have a job, house and people like us to help him,” said Daye, of Des Moines, Iowa.

During their weekend stay in New York, project participants will take part in job training sessions and attend the play “The Exonerated,” which chronicles the real life stories of innocents who did time on death row. They will offer their suggestions on the types of services exonerated people need upon leaving prison.

Project organizers plan to use the suggestions to establish a nationwide support network for the exonerated that includes housing assistance, job training and mental health services.

The Innocence Project and the DNA Identification Technology and Human Rights Center have raised $75,000 to fund the initial stage of the Life After Exoneration Project; organizers said they are seeking an additional $300,000 to $500,000.

Lola Vollen, who will direct the new program, said the support is needed also because people who are wrongly imprisoned are left emotionally and financially broken.

“At the end of the process, they are in a situation that is far worse than when they went in,” said Vollen, who is director of the DNA Identification Technology and Human Rights Center.

An initial evaluation of 50 of the 230 people in America who have been exonerated _ 127 as result of DNA evidence _ showed that all of those found innocent suffered profound losses during incarceration.

More than a third of the 50 people interviewed became divorced or separated, while a similar number became distanced from their children. Many lost a parent before they were freed, especially devastating because parents are most likely to stand by their children throughout their ordeal, Vollen said.

Most also face severe financial problems, having exhausted their resources fighting for freedom. After long stints behind bars, they emerge without skills but with huge stigmas. Employers often refuse to hire them, fearing they were influenced by other prisoners.

When DNA evidence finally cleared Walter Snyder of Alexandria, Va., of rape in 1993, he vowed not to spend too much time looking back. He pauses before giving his age of 36, saying he reset the clock when he was freed after serving seven years of a 45-year sentence.

“The day I came home, that’s the day I started all over again,” said Snyder.

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