Wall Street Journal

A Convict Freed By DNA Evidence Tries to Find a Life After 24 Years in Prison
Mr. Williams Needs Help; A Stranger to His Family
By ANN ZIMMERMAN

October 30, 2007

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Michael Anthony Williams took a road trip through the Southeast recently, looking for a place that felt like home.

For more than half his 43 years, Mr. Williams had lived in the infamously tough Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He had been convicted of raping and beating his school tutor when he was 16 years old. Only his family believed him when he said he was innocent.
DNA testing finally exonerated him, and he was released in March 2005. But since then, Mr. Williams has lived in a different kind of prison. After 24 years of estrangement, he says his six brothers and sisters want nothing to do with him. He has little education, no job skills and few friends.

"It's been lonely," he says. "Very lonely."

Michael Anthony Williams
Mr. Williams is one of a growing number of convicts -- more than 200 so far -- who have been freed from prison after DNA testing proved them innocent. After years of fighting to clear their names, they're emerging into a changed world, with not much help to find their way. A 2003 study of 60 exonerees imprisoned an average of 12 years by Lola Vollen, founder of the Life After Exoneration Program in Berkeley, Calif., found that nearly half suffer from depression, anxiety disorder or some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Exonerees are like torture victims or political prisoners, given the psychological trauma they've suffered," says Vanessa Potkin, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, a New York nonprofit organization that used DNA to help clear Mr. Williams. Ms. Potkin says, "Michael is one of the harshest cases, because he was so young and his prison experience so horrendous, but he also represents the challenges and obstacles shared by many exonerees."

To be sure, some of their problems are common to anyone, guilty or innocent, confronting the world after serving a long prison sentence. But experts say the issues are often worse for exonerees, who have the added emotional and psychological burdens of having been wrongly locked away, as well as having comparatively fewer services available to them when they are released.

The Innocence Project and other groups' efforts to help inmates after they've been freed have been hampered by a shortage of both programs and funds.

Twenty-two states currently compensate the wrongly convicted. The funding varies from $20,000 total to $50,000 a year for every year of incarceration. Advocates argue that much more than money is needed. Exonerees need help with housing and health care, and access to education, life skills and job training so that they can become self-sufficient.

Mr. Williams had to persuade a Louisiana state representative to write a bill on his behalf to appropriate funds for his compensation. He was finally paid $150,000 this past summer -- about $6,300 a year for each year of his imprisonment.

Mr. Williams was just a high-school sophomore when he was tried as an adult for the rape of his 22-year-old tutor. The woman's head was covered during the attack, but she testified that she recognized the teenager by his voice. Despite a lack of physical evidence, Mr. Williams was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

When he arrived at Angola, he says, a guard shackled him to the cell door and left it open, exposing him to attacks from other inmates. As he spoke, his fingers traced a scar on his elbow, left when he attempted to fend off an inmate who came at him with an ice pick.

Mr. Williams was just another convict claiming innocence until 1995, when he learned about DNA testing by watching the O.J. Simpson murder trial on a prison television. Tests conducted by three different labs determined that the semen collected from the rape victim in Mr. Williams's case could not have come from him. The man who actually attacked her has not been found.

When Mr. Williams was freed, he had nowhere to go. Ms. Potkin tracked down several of his siblings, but after 24 years, they barely knew him, and refused to take him.

Guilty or Damaged
"When you are in prison for as long as I was, people either think you must be guilty or at least damaged," says Mr. Williams.

He didn't know how to drive. He had never used a cellphone, or left a message on an answering machine, or typed on a computer. He says that what surprised him most was the automatic flush toilets at Wal-Mart.

Even adjusting to the sounds of his new world was difficult. He says that being locked up all those years had made his hearing particularly sensitive. "In prison, your ears are your eyes," he says. "You know everyone's footsteps." Even now, he can't get used to sleeping in the dark, and has to leave the lights on.

The Innocence Project finally tracked down a younger sister, Kay Jackson, an Army surgical technician in Virginia.

She felt she owed it to Mr. Williams to let him live with her and her teenage daughter and fiancé, a retired Marine. But it was tougher than she had expected. "He was a 43-year-old man trapped in a 17-year-old brain," she says.

The smart, mischievous boy she remembered had become a distrustful, awkward, self-absorbed man. He was angry, unemployed, and passed his days shopping and eating fast food. His habit of taking long showers and sleeping with the TV on ran up her utility bills, she says, but he resented it when she complained. He says he offered to pay.

Trouble Conforming
Mr. Williams went back to Baton Rouge but returned to Virginia within a few months. He had a series of jobs -- unloading trucks, stocking shelves at Target, laying tar on roadways -- but he had trouble conforming to rules, and none of the jobs lasted long. Mr. Williams offers different reasons for losing the jobs. While laying road tar, Mr. Williams, who weighs 300 pounds and has high blood pressure, says he suffered heat stroke.

Between jobs, Mr. Williams liked to sit in a lounge chair in front of his sister's house, where he became a magnet for neighborhood kids who loved to hear his prison stories. The local homeowner's association sent out a letter forbidding "loitering" in the neighborhood. He left for good about a year ago.

Mr. Williams still hasn't been able to find steady work here. He used $27,000 of his state compensation to buy a new car -- a Toyota Camry with a V6 engine and twin exhaust. He invested some of the remaining money in an annuity and is living on the rest.

Two weeks ago, he lost most of his possessions when his electric oven caught fire and ruined his apartment. The next day, Mr. Williams got hugs and sympathy from fellow parishioners at the nondenominational Miracle Place Church in nearby Baker, La., which was started by a former drug dealer. Regulars include several Angola inmates, a former prison guard and the local police chief.

Community of Exonerees
In a few weeks, Mr. Williams will return to Atlanta to look for a place to live. There, he hopes to join a small community of other exonerees he met through the Innocence Project.

Mr. Williams believes that with a little more help, he could make a better life for himself. "If I could go to school for computers. And get a place of my own," he says defiantly, sitting in a lawn chair outside his charred apartment. "If I could see a future...."

Write to Ann Zimmerman at ann.zimmerman@wsj.com


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