I Spent 34 Years In Prison For A Crime I Didn’t Commit. Here’s How I Coped
On July 30, 1976, I went to Cherry Tree, Pennsylvania, to visit friends. I got there around 8 p.m. and didn’t know that at 4 p.m., a local girl had been abducted.
The next morning I heard about her on the news. She was raped and murdered.
Five and a half years later, I was arrested for that crime after a schizophrenic man in a mental hospital was put under hypnosis and the hypnotist brought up my name.
I went to jail in March 1981. My son was 8 months old and my stepson was 4.
If you do as much time as I did, the whole damn world has changed. Everything that you were used to no longer exists.
Being in prison was very difficult. A man in the same cell got less time than I did and he actually did the crime. It pretty much destroyed all of my faith. It seemed like the more religion I had, the worse things became.
I started to do artwork to take my mind off of things. One thing that helped was painting. Time goes by so fast when you paint.
I taught my cell partner how to paint and he wrote to me and said that he had never realized how relaxing painting can be. He is schizophrenic and it calms him down. He loves to paint now.
In prison, we were allowed to sell our paintings at art shows a few times a year. But the guards wanted to sign them and sell them on eBay as if they’d made them. They paid us $35 for a painting, put their name on it, and sold it for $500.
The other thing I did to cope was fight to keep my case active. I did all the legal work I could. I sent in my paperwork to the Innocence Project in 2004. I knew that my DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene, but back in 1981 they didn’t have DNA testing.
The Innocence Project finally took my case in 2007. They had so many other cases to go through. Also, the DA's office in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, was reluctant to help me. They wouldn’t call the witnesses or show the evidence they needed to prove my innocence. That put me at stage one again.
After 11 years of fighting to be exonerated, I finally got released this August.
No one could understand how I had made it all that time. I just programmed myself not to show feelings and never to give up. That was the main thing. There were times I wanted to give up, but if I did that, then they’d win.
I’ve been trying to find a job, but at 64 years old, no one wants to hire me.
Life isn’t too bad now. I get to see my youngest son quite often. He’s working in Pennsylvania. I get along with him and his wife and his daughter. Even his in-laws have been there for me. I’m proud of the family he picked.
My wife and I have a strained relationship. When I was in prison, she’d write me once every few months or once a year. There were about 15 years when I didn’t hear from her. We’ve spent some time together to see if it can work. But I think there’s too much resentment on both sides. I just can’t forget it. When those feelings come back up, it ruins the occasion. She said that if we do split up, she wants to split up as friends because we have two kids.
The food is much better out here than in prison. In prison, you had to eat one product, sometimes twice a day. I still can’t eat chicken. I got so sick of it.
I’m trying to get my life back together, but until I get compensation, there’s no way I can. Pennsylvania is one of 20 states that doesn’t offer any compensation to people who were wrongly convicted. There has got to be some kind of assistance to people who did time for something they didn’t do and then are released.
If you do as much time as I did, the whole damn world has changed. Everything that you were used to no longer exists. It's like being dropped on another planet.
They stick you out here and you have no one; you have nothing. You have no income. No way to actually survive out here. So I live on a day-to-day basis, sometimes minute-to-minute.
I’ve been trying to find a job, but at 64 years old, no one wants to hire me. At some places, what I was accused of makes people not want to hire me. Also, I don’t know how to use computers, which blocks me from a lot of jobs.
Even at places where you order sandwiches, they use computers! About a week ago, my phone shut off on me. I had to wait for my daughter-in-law to get home and ask her what to do. She just told me to turn my phone back on.
Right now, the Innocence Project is paying my rent. They help me with everything I need for my house. If I buy something, I get reimbursed for it.
If I need to go somewhere, I walk. Often I walk on the highway. Sometimes I get a ride if somebody isn’t working that day.
Another thing that’s really different is the cars. I hate how cars are made now. They’re all run on computers. I used to work on my own car and be pretty good at it. Now I have no idea what cars do.
Painting is something I’ll always do. That’s one way I've kept myself from going crazy. And I’m still fighting for justice. I’m so deep into it that after 34 years of fighting I can’t stop.
I’m doing everything I can to help the Innocence Project and have conversations with people who have been wrongfully convicted. Some of the people I meet with went through the same thing, or their families did. I’m relieved by that.
I have an appointment soon to meet with Sen. Donald Right in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to discuss creating a statute in Pennsylvania for reimbursement.
We need to get a statute passed so people who were wrongfully convicted can get money for a certain amount of time to rebuild their lives.
Most people who get out of prison after a long period of time end up back in prison. They have no income, no way of getting income, and no support. They turn to crime to survive. They should have some opportunities to try to rebuild their lives.
The best advice I can give anyone who’s going through a really difficult or unfair situation is to keep true to yourself and don’t give up. As long as you keep fighting, there’s still hope.
As told to Kerry Shaw
Photo courtesy of the author