Freedom no cure-all for those wrongly convicted
Jobs and respect often remain elusive
Sunday March 30, 2003
By Michael Perlstein
Gene Bibbins sat at the formal dinner table with a big smile, decked out in his nicest silk shirt, his bald head shaved and shiny, soaking up the atmosphere of the swank fund-raiser at the Audubon Tea Room: the roving violinist, the caricature artist, the waiters with wine and hot dinner rolls, the auctioneer prodding the patrons to step up the bidding.
On the stage in front of him was a full-sized oil painting of himself, a fancy piece by an acclaimed artist, valued at $10,000. When the auctioneer turned to the painting, Bibbins hushed his fiancée, sister and cousin. "Shhhh. He's talking about me," he said.
The portrait, the auction master explained, was commissioned shortly after Bibbins was released from Angola State Penitentiary, where he served 16 years for rape until DNA evidence proved he was innocent.
The bidding was slow, but eventually Bibbins' appeal attorney, Laurie White, offered a winning bid of $3,500. The crowd of more than 200 people, mostly defense attorneys and others who work to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates, applauded politely.
Bibbins, 46, didn't know how to react. He was pleased for the New Orleans chapter of the Innocence Project, the organization that was hosting the fund-raiser. He was also pleased for White, who promised the painting would be displayed in a prominent place in her downtown office.
Even though strangers were congratulating him, patting him on the back and calling him a hero, Bibbins felt out of sync. He still didn't have a job, money or plans for the future, the same predicament he found himself in when he was released from prison in December.
Amid the hoopla, Bibbins ducked outside to get some fresh air, to talk to some of the other ex-prisoners in attendance and share a cigarette with White. She seemed to sense what was on his mind, and asked, "How you doing about getting a job?"
"Well, I got two interviews," he said. "I don't know. Maybe I'll go to Virginia to visit my oldest brother. He's in the military."
'Taint of incarceration'
At the fund-raiser Thursday night and throughout the third annual Innocent Network conference held this weekend at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel in New Orleans, Bibbins, of Baton Rouge, and six other exonerated inmates shared their stories with defense attorneys and legal experts from throughout the country -- stories that seemed triumphant until they revealed the ordeals of prison and the difficulties of freedom.
The exonerees shared the conference stage with Innocence Project founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, as well as four-year Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who oversaw the exoneration of 13 death row inmates in his state.
The number of people freed by Innocence Project offices nationwide now exceeds 125 and more than 100 additional inmates have been exonerated by other groups. Neufeld said the plight of the exonerated is becoming one of the front-burning issues for the organization.
"Their first 15 minutes of fame is exhilarating," Neufeld said. "But after that, these people experience depression, trouble getting a job, trouble getting simple things like clothes and housing and health insurance. They don't even get access to the programs that are available for parolees."
At the New Orleans conference, the exonerees popped in and out, central characters in the growing movement to free innocent prisoners, but somehow out of place among the more than 200 attendees.
Among the exonerees was Jeffrey Hornoff, a former Rhode Island police officer who was convicted of killing a woman, then freed when another man confessed; and Dwight LaBran, a New Orleans man convicted of first-degree murder in 1996 and exonerated last year in the first appeal handled by the two-year-old Innocence Project-New Orleans.
Of all the ex-inmates, James Newsome of Chicago seemed most at ease. After serving 15 years for armed robbery, Newsome was freed in 1994 when long-overlooked fingerprints were matched to another suspect. Newsome, who won a multimillion-dollar court judgment to compensate him for his loss, works as a director for the Center for Wrongful Convictions.
A trained paralegal, Newsome was highly visible at the conference, attending seminars, taking notes, asking questions and explaining to anyone who would listen, including other ex-inmates, that the "taint of incarceration" is a hurdle that has to be vigorously attacked.
"It's not your fault, but it creates a stain," Newsome said. "One thing you can do is take advantage of your 15 minutes of fame. When the cameras are on when you walk out, ask for clothes, ask for a computer, ask for a job."
Rebuilding a life
Sabrina Porter, who served six years on Mississippi's death row, drove five hours from Columbus, Miss., to attend the conference with her husband and three children. Released in 1995, Porter viewed her overnight stay at a nice New Orleans hotel as part sacred mission, part family vacation.
"When they ask me to come, I don't hesitate," said Porter, who was convicted, then exonerated of killing her nine-month old child. "If I can help somebody else in the same situation, I'll do everything I can. I want to get my story out because when all this happened to me, nobody would hear my side."
At a glance, Porter seemed to have a relatively easy transition from prison. Upon release, she married a prison guard who believed her story when nobody else would. She is now a housewife, raising a newborn daughter, a 5-year-old son and, from an earlier marriage, a 16-year-old son.
In their New Orleans hotel room, the family looks happy, with Porter feeding her baby from a bottle while her 5-year-old plays with his Space Rangers and her teenager reads X-Men comic books. Her husband reclines on one of the twin beds, channel-surfing.
But when Porter goes deeper into her story, the hardships and the anger come out. Because of their romance, her husband was fired from his prison job. Porter tried to find work, only to be shunned, despite her exoneration. She said she is hounded by child welfare workers to this day and generally treated like an outcast in her tiny hometown.
"When it happened, I had cameras in my face every day," Porter said. "When I was exonerated, there were a couple of cameras. Now, there's nothing. People just forget about you or turn against you. That's the killing part."
Another exoneree, Albert Ronnie Burrell, drove to the conference from Center, Texas, with his sister. A mentally handicapped man who served 13 years on Louisiana's death row for a double murder in rural Union Parish, Burrell was released two years ago when attorneys showed all the testimony against him and a co-defendant was fabricated.
Burrell, who can't read or write and doesn't talk much, makes a powerful statement by his mere presence. Resplendent in a 10-gallon cowboy hat, an ornate bolo tie and a brightly colored print shirt, Burrell said he is doing fine, living with a roommate in a double-wide trailer, making $10 an hour as a laborer.
He's never been compensated for the 13 years he lost, but he said he doesn't care much about that. He does, however, bemoan the loss of the 40-acre auto wrecking yard he owned and operated outside of Monroe when he was hauled off to prison. "I lost everything," he said. "What they did us was wrong."
As the conference turned to more technical topics late Saturday, some of the exonerees took time to walk around the French Quarter, grab a bite to eat or relax. Burrell carried his camera throughout the day, planning to sightsee, but somehow never made it outside the hotel.
Some people sought out Bibbins, but he was nowhere to be found Saturday. He left for home early, rushing to address a few family issues, fretting about his upcoming job interview and disappointed that a planned television interview never materialized.
"He's a good man," his fiancée Anna Thibodaux said, "but he gets disgusted sometimes about not having a job."
Michael Perlstein can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3316.
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