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Exonerated, then What? Life after Death Row

Juan Melendez, who served 18 years of a death sentence in Florida for a crime he did not commit, shared his story at the First Baptist Church in Plainfield, New Jersey on April 19. He is a passionate activist in the fight against capital punishment, and has spoken at more than 50 churches, community centers, and colleges in 2004 alone.

At 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, 2004, Nicholas Yarris walked out of the Pennsylvania state prison at Greene after serving 22 years of a death sentence for a crime he did not commit. Although he celebrated that moment with triumphant hugs and tears of joy, Yarris quickly realized that his world had changed dramatically since he left it for death row in 1982. "My community is gone," he said a few weeks later. "I am a ghost in my own life."

Although freedom came as a long-awaited victory for Yarris, his exoneration and release brought on a new set of challenges—from the social and financial obstacles in his future to the prevailing nightmares of his past. "I don’t sleep well," he said, "only about four hours a night. I think it’s sensory overload. It’s not easy with all the things that have been happening."

Indeed, Yarris, now 42, has weathered an unseemly storm. Between 1982 and August 2003, he watched five DNA tests come back inconclusive, went 14 years without touching another human being, and missed the funeral of his younger brother, who died of a drug overdose. Then, in September 2003, a sixth DNA test, which examined evidence taken from a glove found at the murder scene, came back conclusive and proved his innocence. A few months later, Yarris, like most other exonerated inmates, left prison with nothing more than the clothes on his back, forced to start from scratch in a completely unfamiliar world.

Although this man’s journey from death row to freedom seems strikingly unique and tragically bizarre, he is the 112th individual to experience that fate. From the reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s to the eve of Yarris’s exoneration in January, 111 people in the United States had walked off death row due to innocence. Upon leaving prison, most of these people received no compensation from the states that took away large portions of their lives. And even though all were eventually found innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted, they all still carry the stigma of having been sent to death row.

Once on the outside, most of the former inmates have condemned the system that wrongfully convicted them and expressed their opposition to capital punishment. Beyond that, some have then attempted to work their way back to anonymity, hoping to put the nightmare of death row behind them forever. Many others, however, have found confronting the past to be their key to the future and have thus refused to abandon the issue that has so deeply affected their lives. For some, activism against the death penalty has become a form of therapy.

Relying on their personal experiences to highlight the troubling flaws of the justice system, former inmates such as Juan Melendez, Ray Krone, and Delbert Tibbs have become some of the nation’s leading activists in the crusade against capital punishment. And fresh off of death row, Nicholas Yarris, too, has begun to speak out for the abolition of the death penalty, making four public appearances in his first 46 days in the free world.

Last month at the First Baptist Church in Plainfield, N.J., Juan Melendez spared few details as he described his epic journey. He explained his arrest, trial and conviction, and painted a vivid picture of his 18 years on death row in Florida.

"In the winter," he said of his prison cell, "it would get cold at night. And when it got cold, the rats would also get cold, so they would crawl up into my blanket. But I had to keep my eyes closed because I was trying to sleep. So when I felt a rat getting close to my face, I’d just shake the blanket, and then hear the rat hit the floor."

The people in the audience, mostly churchgoers and curious locals, naturally found his descriptions disturbing. But then again, they had not come to hear a pleasant story. They had come to hear a tale even more horrifying than the rat account—a tale in which the state of Florida sentenced a man to death for a crime to which someone else had already confessed.

As Melendez, dressed in casual attire, worked through his speech at the church, he expressed his unequivocal opposition to capital punishment. "I dream that I will live to see the death penalty abolished," he said. Like many of his counterparts, though, Melendez did not become an activist the moment he gained his freedom.

When he walked away from death row in January 2002, Melendez returned to his hometown of Maunabo, Puerto Rico, where he received a festive welcome home. Dozens of family members and friends piled into school buses to meet him at the airport, and then led him through the streets in a celebratory parade. Melendez savored the remarkable support he felt in Puerto Rico—an island that abolished the death penalty in 1929—and basked in his long-awaited freedom.

Not long after he returned to Maunabo, he found a job on a local farm, growing plantains and teaching children "to work the land the old-fashioned way." But during both his days in the fields and his evenings plagued by "nightmares about death row," Melendez thought back to his tenure on Florida’s cellblock. "Before I got out," he later recalled, "all I wanted to do was speak against the death penalty."

Less than a year into his newfound freedom, Melendez began returning to the United States to speak out against capital punishment. He has since shared his story at countless churches, community centers, and colleges across the country, from Connecticut to Alaska.

Although speaking tours have forced him to spend several months at a time away from his family and friends in Puerto Rico, Melendez has continued to book events, citing a sense of responsibility for those he left behind on Florida’s death row. "To me this is personal," he said. "Good people are in there. They taught me to read, write, and speak English. Some are innocent, and some are guilty. But nobody has a right to kill them."

In October 2002, Melendez delivered one of his first major addresses at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Chicago. There he met a man named Ray Krone, another recent exoneree and newly established activist against capital punishment. Krone went to death row in Arizona in 1992 for the murder of a Phoenix bartender, but a decade later, DNA evidence proved that another man had committed the crime. So on April 8, 2002, Krone received a phone call at the Arizona state prison at Yuma from Alan Simpson, his Phoenix-based attorney, and had this conversation:

Simpson: "Ray, what do you want to eat today?"

Krone: "What are you talking about? Whatever’s in the chow."

Simpson: "No, really, what are you hungry for? You want Mexican food? What would you like?"

Krone: "What’s going on?"

Simpson: "I just got off the phone with the prosecutor’s office, and they just got back from the judge’s chambers. And they’re cutting the paperwork, you’re going home today."

Just like that, off Krone went—from inmate to free man in a matter of hours. A few days later, he spoke at a press conference to thank God, his family and his attorney, and to put the case to rest. He explained how he had read the entire Bible three-and-a-half times during his decade behind bars, and credited his Lutheran faith with carrying him through the toughest of times.

But then, as Krone wrapped up his press conference and prepared to move on with his life, a reporter called out the toughest question he had ever received: "If God loves you so much, why did he leave you in prison for 10 years?"

With no answer prepared and no experience discussing theology in public, Krone wished he could simply disappear. But then an answer came to him—one that not only satisfied the reporter, but also defined the next decade of Krone’s life.

"Maybe it’s not about the 10 years that I’ve been in prison," he said. "Maybe it’s about what I have to do for the next 10 years." That day, Krone dedicated himself to the abolition movement and began traveling the country full-time to speak about his experiences and advocate against capital punishment.

Exonerated inmates, of course, had begun speaking out against the death penalty long before Melendez and Krone began sharing their stories in 2002. Delbert Tibbs, now a Chicago-based poet, was one of the first to make the transition from inmate to activist in the modern era of capital punishment.

In 1974, Tibbs, a theological student traveling through the South, found himself under arrest in Florida for a crime he knew nothing about. He soon learned he had been misidentified by a witness and accused of double murder and that the state had decided to prosecute him. After standing trial before an all-white jury, receiving a death sentence and spending three years behind bars, Tibbs gained his freedom from the Florida Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction based on the weight of the evidence. To close the book on the charges against Tibbs, the attorney who prosecuted him vowed to appear as a defense witness if the state attempted to retry the case, admitting that the original investigation had been tainted from the beginning.

Soon after his release in 1977, Tibbs began to criticize the death penalty—from the practice itself to the biases inherent in the system. "To put it in simple moral terms, I think the death penalty is wrong," he said recently. But he also framed it as a civil rights issue, arguing that "racist, classist, and political" motivations plague the capital punishment system. With those factors in mind, Tibbs became active in abolition work, which he calls "the work of love."

For some of these former inmates, speaking tours have provided therapeutic experiences. Krone, despite the nightmare he endured in Arizona, has shown no anger or vengeance toward the individuals who prosecuted him. Explaining his lack of animosity in a recent interview, he said calmly, "I don’t have time for that." Similarly, at the podium, he has displayed an impressive ability to control his emotions and even lighten the mood through humor, illustrating just how comfortable he has become in rehashing his decade of horror.

Others, however, like Gary Gauger—who spent three years on death row in Illinois for murdering his parents—have struggled with the painful memories that speaking engagements inevitably trigger. "I tend to dread speaking," Gauger said recently, "especially when it comes time to explain the night of interrogation," when he was coerced into falsely claiming he’d killed his own parents. After one event a few years ago, Gauger became disoriented for a week. "It was almost like I had a stroke," he said. Nonetheless, the former inmate, who now grows and sells vegetables from his family’s farm in Richmond, Il., has spoken in public frequently since his release in 1996.

The strain of repeatedly rehashing a story of this kind is undoubtedly difficult to overcome. As Melendez notes, "Every time I speak I have to put myself back on death row." He further suggests that the mere thought of having to articulate such terrible experiences probably steers some former inmates away from activist work.

Beyond the emotional trauma, there are other factors—most importantly, money—that make careers in activism few and far between for former death row inmates. In fact, even without taking the time to speak out against capital punishment, the task of earning enough to afford basic necessities presents a significant challenge.

For the most part, these individuals reenter the free world with nothing to their names. As Jeff Garris, the director of a state abolition group in Pennsylvania, recently pointed out, in terms of help from the government, most inmates proven innocent actually "would have more support if they’d been guilty." While employment programs and support systems monitor and help released prisoners as they transition back to society, they rarely, if ever, include those exonerated due to innocence. "The reality is that [former death row inmates] get dumped out into the street with nothing," Garris said.

Some states have laws that compensate wrongly convicted death row inmates for the money they could have earned during the time they spent in prison. For instance, Kirk Bloodsworth, a former death row inmate in Maryland who spent nine years behind bars before DNA evidence proved his innocence, received $300,000 from the state. After leaving prison, he bought a modest boat—which he named "Freedom"—and began crabbing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Most states, however, including Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania, provide little more than a pat on the back to wrongfully convicted inmates. In general, states’ policies toward exonerated inmates, as Bloodsworth says, "are embarrassing."

Melendez, who spent nearly two decades behind bars in Florida, essentially received nothing upon his release. "I got no help," he said. "They gave me a new t-shirt, a pair of pants, and $100." That, of course, was not even nearly enough to cover the travel costs for Melendez to get back to his family in Puerto Rico.

Clarence Brandley, who served a stint on death row in Texas for a murder conviction scarred by prosecutorial misconduct and blatant racism, encountered nothing short of a financial crisis when he walked out of prison in 1990. Despite Brandley’s inability to earn any money during his nine years on death row, the state saddled him with a huge debt for child support back-payments, and also tacked on the interest that had accumulated during his incarceration. Incredibly, the Texas Attorney General’s Office claimed that "special circumstances"—namely, that Brandley was sentenced to death and in prison for a crime he did not commit—did not supercede his responsibility to make the payments.

Brandley, who frequently has spoken out against the death penalty in Texas over the past 14 years and now works for the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Houston, said he had no problem giving money to his children, who are now grown. But he could not help but point out that the state had robbed him of nine years of income, and given him no compensation upon his release. "The state is still garnishing my wages," he said in March, "and it’s just not right. I still owe $22,364."

As for the money these former inmates had earned before entering the legal web that landed them on death row, most spent every last dime on defense and appellate attorneys. "I had lost my job, my home, my property, everything I had," said Krone, an Air Force veteran and former mailman, about his financial status upon leaving prison. Recognizing that starting over in Phoenix with no job and no money would have been nearly impossible, he returned to his family in Pennsylvania.

As for the speaking tours, those who do them earn close to nothing and move from town to town with only the cheapest accommodations, like Motel 6 rooms or local activists’ houses. As Krone said during a recent swing through New Jersey, "There’s no living in this; you just can’t." Thus, even among those willing to share their stories about journeying from death row to freedom, only a small percentage can actually afford to do it full-time.

"I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have a lot of overhead," Krone said of his current set-up in Dover, Pennsylvania, the town he grew up in during the 1960s and ’70s. "I’m living in a place with a low cost of living, friends look after me, [and] I get clothes from second-hand stores," he continued. He also noted that when he takes breaks from speaking, he earns money by doing odd jobs like mowing lawns and washing cars.

Melendez, who has spent most of his touring time traveling with Abraham Bonowitz, a Florida-based activist, has not exactly pulled in a fortune either. As Bonowitz explained, "When you divide up the budget for food and travel expenses, there’s not much left over."

Of course, money and the ability to earn it were not the only things that these former death row inmates lost during their years on the cellblocks; they lost time, missing out on countless experiences and opportunities. "When I got out," Melendez said, "I wanted to do the things people take for granted every day." Indeed, he wanted to do the things death row inmates simply cannot do, like stand on grass instead of concrete, a sensation he had not experienced in nearly two decades. "I didn’t want to go to Disney World," he later recalled. "I wanted to see the moon and the stars. I wanted to hold a baby in my arms. I wanted to talk to some beautiful women."

Just six months after his release in 2002, Ray Krone, who spent 10 years on death row in Arizona, addresses a death penalty abolition rally in Chicago, Il. Photo by Matthew Strada for NCAD.

Krone also missed a number of opportunities during his time in prison, including dozens of national darts and pool tournaments, as well as his last chance to play the outfield on his recreational softball team. "I’ve lost a step," he said, discussing his current ability on the diamond. "And in softball, the difference of a step is the difference between an out and a base hit." Now, at age 47, he plays first base, but has begun to consider giving up softball for good. "This might be it," he said nostalgically about the upcoming season, "we’ll have to see." Of course, he had a number of good years ahead of him when his 1991 season ended, but instead of enjoying them in the outfield, he watched them pass by from a fenced-in recreation area not much bigger than a dugout.

Bloodsworth—who has been very active on the death penalty issue, especially with regard to supporting legislation—missed some of the most important events of his life during his stint on death row. In January 1993, he experienced the horror of sitting in his cell as his mother suffered from a heart attack. She died before DNA tests proved his innocence later that year, and thus never saw her son walk out of prison a free man. "I’ve resolved a lot of my personal things," he said of his ongoing struggle to accept the time he lost. "But I see a reminder of those years every time I look in the mirror."

Despite their exonerations, some former inmates have encountered discrimination in the outside world, primarily fueled by suspicions that they still might be guilty. "People don’t understand that if you’re out, you’re 100% not guilty," Tibbs says. "They think, ‘Well, you were there,’ as if you volunteered to be on death row."

Not long after his release, Tibbs ran into Father George Clements, the pastor of Holy Angels Church in Chicago. Clements, a longtime friend of Tibbs, offered to help the former inmate get back on his feet. He gave him the phone number of a parishioner who managed the local branch of a major soft-drink company, and told Tibbs to seek employment there—and that he would put in a good word.

Tibbs sent his resume and followed up with some phone calls. "Every time I tried to contact him, though, I never got him," Tibbs recalled. "It was always something. He was in a meeting. He was in Peru. His secretary could take a message. But I never talked him."

About a month later, Tibbs saw Clements again, and the priest asked optimistically, "How’d that work out with the job?" When Tibbs told him the story, Clements was puzzled. "You know," he said, "you’re the only person I ever sent there that didn’t get a job."

Bloodsworth, despite the DNA evidence that exonerated him, experienced even more blatant discrimination. In the months after his release, he received prank phone calls, dirty looks, and snide comments about being a rapist and a murderer. In 2003, though, the state of Maryland identified the man who committed the crime for which Bloodsworth was convicted and sentenced to death, finally silencing the doubters and critics. "It seems you really need that," Bloodsworth said. "It’s a crying shame."

Some former inmates have reacted to discrimination and their desire to avoid it by keeping small social networks, thus minimizing the possibility of bad experiences. Gauger, the former Illinois inmate, has spent much of the past few years keeping away from people he does not know. "I used to be a pretty gregarious person," he said, "but now when I see customers coming at the vegetable stand, I walk the other way. When the phone rings, I don’t want to answer it. The only people I really talk to are people I know." Gauger attributed the changes in his social demeanor to the trials and tribulations of his years in prison, as well as the stigma associated with former death row inmates. "It’s all part of the process," he said.

Fortunately for Juan Melendez, he has had mostly positive experiences in his post–death row life—partly, of course, because of his surroundings in Puerto Rico and the nature of his audiences in the United States. "It’s kind of the reverse for Juan," Bonowitz said as he and Melendez rested between stops on their tour through California in February. "He gets treated kind of like a hero in the abolition movement."

Indeed, as Melendez neared the conclusion of his speech in Plainfield, he gave a stirring description of his last walk down the cellblock. On the night of his release, Melendez—speechless, with tears streaming down his face—stopped briefly at each cell, accepting congratulations and words of encouragement from his fellow inmates. Then the cheers began to erupt, first on his block, then throughout the entire facility. "Officers told them to stop," Melendez recalled. "But they didn’t stop."

At the church in Plainfield, the people in the audience could almost hear the rousing cheers of the inmates as Melendez explained the scene. And as they watched him finish his speech with a call for abolition of the death penalty, they knew he had not forgotten the men he left behind.

In his first few months of freedom, Nicholas Yarris has shown a strong desire to speak out against the death penalty and has assumed the motivations and philosophies of some of his predecessors. Like Juan Melendez, Yarris has committed himself to fighting for those who remain on death row, guilty and innocent alike. "I try to speak for the people back there that need help," he said.

Mirroring Ray Krone, Yarris has refused to surrender his positive perspective. Of the prosecutors who put him on death row, he said, "I will not allow them to own a day of my life in bitterness or anger." And echoing Delbert Tibbs, he has broadened his criticism of the justice system so as to include the large-scale problems of classism and discrimination. "I had always believed in the system," he said. "But I found out I was naïve."

Beyond his connection to the death penalty issue, Yarris has also begun to face, and in some cases overcome, the challenges of his new life. Not long after his release, he obtained a job at Budget Rent-a-Car near the Philadelphia airport. Over the last few months, he has managed to acquire a car and find a place to live on his own. But, of course, he has also endured some difficult experiences, from waking up with nightmares to looking back on the time he lost.

Earlier this month, while sharing his story with a group of law students at the University of Pennsylvania, Yarris said, "I know what it’s like to live without being alive." But now, by the grace of scientific evidence, this man, who during his 22-year tenure on death row had both escaped and later begged to be executed, has finally grasped the free life again. Of course, as the tales of the others indicate, Yarris will face many more obstacles as he continues to move forward into the free world. Regardless, he is excited to see the sunrise of each new day, and more importantly, happy to experience the unthinkable—a life after death row.


Patrick Mulvaney

Patrick Mulvaney is a writer based in Toms River, New Jersey.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2004

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