Exonerees Fulfill Dreams, Help Other Prisoners Overcome Wrongful Convictions
by David Reutter and Joe Watson
Former Louisiana death row prisoner John Thompson has spearheaded an organization that aims to help the wrongfully convicted and former prisoners successfully rebuild their lives.
Thompson was sentenced to death for the 1984 fatal shooting of a hotel executive from a prominent New Orleans family. His conviction was reversed because the prosecution withheld evidence that cast doubt on his guilt, and he was acquitted at another jury trial in 2003.
“We felt good about the retrial; the evidence suggested we were going to win. We were worried about what happens next, after he walks out of prison after 18 years,” said Michael Banks, one of Thompson’s appellate attorneys. “There’s not a lot of vocational training on death row; the only thing you’re trained for is to learn to die.”
Thompson was married and had a steady job just six months after his release. By 2005 he had a new home, a car and a dog, and he and his wife were running their own sandwich shop. Then Hurricane Katrina wiped it out. That made Thompson realize he was not the only one struggling to ease back into society.
“Men come home and the system has nothing in place to help them put their lives back together,” he said. “They need to be reprogrammed because the survival tactics they learned in prison don’t work in the outside world.”
To assist them, Thompson founded Resurrection after Exoneration (RAE), an education and outreach program, in 2007 as an offspring of the Innocence Project New Orleans. “We think states and cities should provide housing and job training,” he said. “[Exonerees] shouldn’t have to wait for compensation to find those services.”
The organization currently provides temporary housing for four ex-prisoners while helping them create a five-year plan. It also helps them reconnect with family and friends to provide a support network, and provides job training that includes learning computer skills and creating resumes. A mental health checklist ensures former prisoners can recognize the lingering effects of long-term incarceration.
“If you can’t identify and deal with the trauma you fall into depression and look to drugs and alcohol to escape reality,” Thompson noted. “That’s what keeps these guys from getting over the lump and moving forward.”
RAE also educates and informs the public about wrongful convictions. “We need to make everyone aware of the importance of accountability and oversight when it comes to prosecutions,” said Thompson. “When you send one person away, it destroys entire families.”
On November 23, 2015, Thompson published an article criticizing Bill and Hillary Clinton for their continued support of capital punishment, which he finds “incompatible with a commitment to racial justice.” He argued the death penalty has a disproportion impact on marginalized communities, particularly communities of color.
“Given my experience, this [primary] campaign has had a certain Groundhog Day feel to it. Once again a Clinton was running for president, and once again a Clinton was supporting the death penalty,” Thompson wrote.
While Hillary Clinton now advocates for an end to mass incarceration and has criticized capital punishment, she continues to back the death penalty.
“I find this cognitive dissonance – recognizing – the death penalty’s racial bias while still supporting it – to be anything but hopeful. It instead shows that, despite Clinton’s purported concern over the criminal justice system’s racial bias, valuing black lives remains a low priority for her,” Thompson stated.
Meanwhile, in Texas, Christopher Scott, a 44-year-old from Dallas who was exonerated of capital murder and released from prison in 2009, is working to help other wrongfully convicted prisoners prove their innocence.
For 13 years, as he languished in an east Texas state prison, Scott dreamed of the day he would be found innocent of murdering a man whose wife misidentified Scott in a police lineup as one of two men who burglarized her home and killed her husband. He also dreamed of fulfilling a lifelong goal of opening a men’s clothing store and owning his own home with a pool and basketball court.
All of it has come true.
“Isn’t it so crazy that everything happened?” Scott told the New York Times recently, sitting in the lounge of his suburban Dallas store, Christopher’s Men’s Wear.
Prosecutors provided a jury with no physical evidence and relied solely on eyewitness testimony to convict Scott in 1997, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison. If not for a confession from the real killer more than a decade later, Scott would not have been released.
At his exoneration hearing, a group of about a dozen men – all from Dallas County and all of whom had been wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit – showed up in tailored suits, shined shoes and diamond bling. They were there to show their support, as they have been for other innocent men in Texas fighting for their freedom.
“Most of the guys know whenever we have an engagement and we all have to be there, everyone is dressed properly,” said Johnnie Lindsey, now one of Scott’s closest friends, who spent 26 years in prison before he was exonerated.
The state’s compensation statute for wrongfully convicted prisoners allows Lindsey and the other exonerees to afford their upscale clothes – not to mention the 20% discount that Christopher’s Men’s Wear gives to exonerees – and dressing well, according to Lindsey, helps them distance themselves from their time in prison.
Dr. Jaimie Page, co-director of the Texas Exoneree Project and a social work professor, said the group – including Scott – has become a brotherhood. Their style brings them even closer together.
“Part of it is very deep and meaningful, and part of it is fun,” she said. “It helps with their new identity. It helps with their self-image and self-esteem.”
In addition to his clothing store, Scott has also created a nonprofit organization called House of Renewed Hope, which mainly helps innocent prisoners who were convicted without DNA evidence, like himself, disprove the charges against them. The organization consists of eight members and operates like a detective agency to investigate wrongful conviction cases.
The House of Renewed Hope has thus far opened nine cold cases. No exonerations have yet occurred, but Scott encourages his clients to remain hopeful.
“I tell them to do what I did. I kept my head on faith. I kept hope alive that one day I was going to be free. You can never give up. If you’re fighting for your innocence and you know that you’re not guilty, never give up,” Scott told the Innocence Project in an October 2015 interview.
When the wrongfully convicted are released, Scott is ready to dress them fashionably with boxes of clothing donated to his organization by A. Tiziano, a brand of upscale sportswear that his store carries.
“Not only do I work their cases,” he said, “[but] when they get out, I can put some clothes on their back.”
Scott’s story and the organization he founded to investigate wrongful convictions were featured in a recent video documentary, True Conviction, that was released in February 2016 thanks to a $150,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
Other exonerees have also worked to assist wrongfully convicted prisoners, including Jeffrey Deskovic, who served 16 years in prison and used his own funds to start a foundation in New York City to help free the innocent. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.30; Aug. 2013, p.1].
Sources: www.cnn.com, www.r-a-e.org, www.nytimes.com, www.innocenceproject.org, www.mic.com, www.trueconvictionfilm.com