Chicago Tribune

'They're in limbo'
By Jeff Coen; Chicago Tribune
March 24, 2004

Without clear direction and assistance, exonerees must navigate an uncertain path to restarting their lives.

Redemption was sweet, but it did not fully make up for what was taken.

They lost out on their youth. Their children aged. Their friends moved on. Holidays came and went, over and over again.

"I do feel I lost my most precious years," said Michael Evans, incarcerated for more than 27 years before DNA evidence caught up to his case last spring and freed him at age 44. "There's no way to turn back the hands of time, and I think I would have accomplished a lot more in life if I had been in society."

Months after the end of their criminal cases, three men who found freedom in Chicago last year after lengthy prison stays are still trying to turn second chances into new lives. For Evans, his former co-defendant Paul Terry and Dana Holland, the recovery has been slow.

The struggle to survive behind prison walls has become a struggle to rebuild who they were, get work, reconnect with family and find ways to come to accept what happened to them.

Recent high-profile exonerations have shown that life after prison can be fraught with difficulty, even for men who didn't belong there. Among those Death Row inmates pardoned by former Gov. George Ryan in January 2003, Aaron Patterson has become a community activist and ran (unsuccessfully) for state representative. Others have not fared as well, including Leroy Orange, also pardoned by Ryan in January 2003, but arrested recently on charges he delivered crack cocaine to an undercover police officer.

Any ex-offender or parolee coming out of prison can have significant mental health concerns and other hurdles to face as they try readjust to society, experts say, but exonerees are especially vulnerable. And while parolees at least have a parole agent who can offer advice or links to job placement or addiction counseling services, these men -- because they are innocent in the eyes of the system -- have found no assistance.

"When they come out, all the strings have been cut," says Dr. Anderson Freeman, a clinical psychologist and a deputy director in the Illinois Department of Human Services. "They don't even have the amenities of parole services -- basically no social services at all. They're in limbo."

Ironically it's exonerees who might need the most help. There are perhaps more psychological repercussions from being incarcerated wrongly, Freeman says, more bitterness and anger to overcome, more negative effects on self-esteem. "It's like they've had a post-traumatic experience."

Evans, Terry and Holland are on their own roads back, but no one gave them a map.

"You get frustrated and you get depressed, but it takes time to get back on your feet," Holland said. "When you're in this position, everything's not gonna fall in your lap."

This is what Dana Holland wants to do with his life.

He is standing before 50 people in a Pentecostal church in the suburbs on a Saturday, including about a dozen men who have just been paroled or have recently finished their prison sentences. Gripping a microphone in one hand, his other waves in front of him in a fist as he is telling his story.

"God does not want to put out my fire," the one-time gang member shouts as calls of "Amen" float back from the pews. "He wants to harness it. He has called me to stay like I am, with a warrior spirit -- and tell you about it."

Holland walked out of Cook County Jail and into the arms of family members in June, after DNA evidence helped clear him of a 1993 rape and a judge acquitted him of a related attempted murder in a retrial. While serving 10 years of his 90-year sentence he began leading Bible studies, and now he wants to minister to those who are still incarcerated, and those who are restarting their lives.

Most people do anything to stay out of the jail once they leave, but Holland went back to talk to inmates on Thanksgiving.

Stay faithful, and let God demonstrate that he can take care of you, he tells the congregation. He knows that in many ways, he is still preaching to himself.

A few days later, he is trudging up an alley in Englewood carrying a small propane tank. He will deliver it to a garage nearby where an "alley mechanic" is working on cars and trying to give Holland tips on the trade.

He's done some seasonal painting but has been turned down repeatedly for jobs ranging from driving an airport van to pushing packages around for UPS. Holland beat his big case, but has a 1986 armed robbery conviction that continues to slow him down.

He has a civil suit pending against the state, but for now, he is living with a brother in Roseland and can't pay a steady rent. "I just want to put some money in my pocket," he says of the prospect of working for the mechanic. "But he can only use me when he needs me. I have to respect that another man has to feed his family."

A few minutes later he is leaning on the hood of a car that has been squeezed into the garage. Utility lights hang overhead as Sean Raglin shows Holland how to prepare for a brake job and fill out paperwork.

This won't be easy either. Raglin estimates it could take a year working there before Holland can pick up enough to become certified as a mechanic.

Holland keeps things in perspective by thinking of what he has faced, and the fact that he now gets to see his son and daughter -- who are just entering their teen years -- almost every day. When he gets depressed, he thinks about times like the other week, when he was sitting in a school auditorium watching nervous children perform a program.

"You have to remember my story," he is fond of saying. "They told me I was never coming out. I knew God is patient and he would provide.

"I'm truly blessed."

A short time later just a few blocks away, Michael Evans is wrapping up a shift at a Harold's Chicken Shack.

He has spent the day taking orders in the restaurant behind bulletproof glass. Two legs, two thighs, two wings and two breasts for $8, the sign says.

The smell of fried catfish fills the air as he shuffles between a table where bags are being stuffed with food, and a customer at the window.

"This is all together right?" he says to a young woman standing on the other side of the partition, as he counts her money. "OK, thank you. Have a blessed day."

The job is what he could get. His 30-year-old son is an assistant manager there.

But as he walks past vacant storefronts on Ashland Avenue, he says he's thankful for it.

"I know it's nothing to write home about," he says. "But it keeps your mind positive, and lets you concentrate on doing the right thing."

Evans and Paul Terry left the Criminal Courts Building in May after more than 27 years in state prison for the 1976 rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. DNA testing of samples taken from the victim and her clothing excluded them.

Being wrongly accused of a crime so unimaginable hurt Evans deeply, but the man prison guards called "smiley" says he realized that hate would tear him apart if he let it. Now that he's free, he continues to try to comprehend how he was "kidnapped from society," and what he lost.

"I believed in the American dream," he says. "But I had to think, `How could this happen?'

"I haven't accepted it, but I realize I have to be a man about it," he says. "I've got to accept right now the realization that it actually happened. It took a long time to be delivered, but it's better late than never."

Evans, now 46, often takes the bus back to his home, which is a well-kept brick house near Midway Airport. Waiting for him on most nights is his fiance, Wanda Jean, his "schoolhouse sweetheart" who bore him a son when they were teenagers.

He often winds up in his basement on a recliner after dinner, catching up on almost three decades' worth of movies or watching an NBA game. He used to love to play chess in prison, now he faces off against a computer.

Among the knickknacks and books stacked neatly on shelves is one he knows better than the rest. It's the black, chain-reference Bible with yellowing pages.

Evans credits his faith for helping him through the tough years, and says it will help him go forward. He has a chance for a financial windfall through state restitution or a civil award, but he wishes for a better job and a chance to be an activist for criminal justice reform. "As Christ forgave me, I must forgive," he recites.

There's another saying he also repeats:
"I take one day at a time," he says. "If I take two, I might trip."

One of Paul Terry's seven sisters died in 1981, five years after he was imprisoned, but his family didn't have the heart to tell him until he'd been home for a few days last year.

Grinding time behind bars was taking enough of a toll on him, leaving his remaining sisters telling themselves that their brother was slowly dying. He was withering physically and retreating mentally.

When he learned in May that his sister had not lived past age 24, he spent several days in his room, weeping.

"I stood up to it," he says.

Now Terry, 46, sits on a Baroque-style couch in his mother's flat in the South Chicago neighborhood, morning sun reflecting off a large mirror behind him. It's the same couch where on the night he was arrested, a 17-year-old Terry had left freshly ironed blue jeans so he could quickly put them on the next morning on his first day of work for Sears.

He is mostly quiet these days, receiving counseling as he recovers from his long ordeal. His family still has not permitted him even to walk to a store alone.

Terry's communication skills are clearly diminished, though his sisters say they have seen flashes of a sharp mind that remains. For years in prison he was given medicine that he says made him see things.

For a while, he would not walk through closed doors in the house until someone opened them for him, and he wouldn't take food out of the refrigerator on his own. "It's like he was brainwashed," his sister, Doris Johnson says.

Now he is improving, playing video games and keno with his family, listening to Jimi Hendrix records. He has gotten a public aid card that will help with basic medical expenses, , and he has started cooking.

He also could eventually be compensated financially for what happened, but his sisters and mother shudder to think about his life if they were not there. Not every former prisoner has a gaggle of mother-hen sisters to care for him.

"Where would he be? On the street," Johnson says, touching Terry's hand. "All the friends he grew up with, they had their families and they have their business or their gone. He wouldn't have had clothes to put on his back."

Growing up the family's baby boy, Terry was always spoiled, and now that he's home, that hasn't changed. His Christmas presents filled the family's living room, and it took a day for him to open them all.

There were boxes and boxes of clothes and more clothes, a jacket, a bookshelf for his things, cologne.

The sisters call it a miracle that their brother is reborn in their midst -- very nearly the dead among the living. But whether he will ever fully emerge from the shadow of what happened remains to be seen. For now he will rest in the house just a block from where the girl he was accused of killing was kidnapped.

His sisters have talked to him about computer classes, but there's no hurry. A trip somewhere may be first, maybe to one of the shimmering Las Vegas hotels Terry has seen pictures of.

"I'll go there," he says, with the hint of a smile.

Holland and Evans will be telling their stories again soon, this time at an annual statewide forensic conference co-sponsored by the Illinois Department of Human Services' Division of Mental Health and Northwestern University.

Dr. Freeman invited them to talk about their experiences for mental-health advocates, state workers and professors after speaking with their lawyers from Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Terry won't be speaking, but his family says Freeman is looking into his counseling help.

One topic at the conference at the university on Friday will be the difficulty that exonerees have in reconnecting to society, Freeman said. Their numbers are small, but they can struggle with mental-health issues and substance abuse and trouble finding work, he said.

Holland and Evans will be asked about what resources they found -- or didn't find -- once they were released, and about the impact their wrongful incarceration had on them personally.

They'll undoubtedly have plenty to say.

"I can tell you what happens," Evans said after zipping up his coat over his red Harold's T-shirt. "Nothing. There's no apology and no job.

"It's like, `shush,' keep it quiet."

Life After Exoneration
Truth in Justice