Jan 02, 2010

After 12 Years, Wrongfully Convicted Men Go Free

Two men spent 12 years in Texas prisons after being convicted of murder. Now they’re free — not because they’ve finished serving their time, but because they never should have been behind bars in the first place.

Both were innocent men.

Work by UT students in the Law School’s Actual Innocence Clinic led to their release and we have two reports. Reporter Kaitlin Lawrence, who participated in a new partnership between the School of Journalism and the clinic in fall 2009, filed this video story–an article from Robin Schwartz is below.

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By Robin Schwartz

Claude Simmons rolls up in a green Volvo. It’s a 1997 — the same year his luck took a turn for the worse. It’s chilly in Dallas, and the sun battles to break through the clouds on this fall day in 2009. Simmons is sporting an easy grin, dressed in subdued shades of brown and gray, nothing flashy or fancy except some sleek black eyeglass frames. The glasses give him a slightly sophisticated air. He seems like he could be everyman, but Simmons’ past robs him of that freedom. It makes him different from almost everyone.

In 1997 Simmons and his friend Christopher Scott were convicted of murder and imprisoned. On Oct. 23, 2009, after 12½ years in prison, they were found to be innocent and let go. The two men were officially exonerated on March 3, 2010.

On their release date, Scott, 39, and Simmons, 54, were catapulted into a new life, one that they hoped would be instantly and exponentially better. But it sometimes seems as if they’ve traded one type of prison for another. It’s as if the world is still judging them, but it can’t quite place them — “We ain’t bad and we ain’t good,” Simmons said.

Each man is supposed to receive a lump sum payment of $960,000 from the state and will receive about $80,000 per year, tax free, for life. That’s the value of 12 years of life under the state’s rubric for time served. But by mid-April, neither man had received a dime. The state law governing the compensation has the lump sum and yearly payouts coming from the Texas Comptroller’s Office–but $10,000 in reintegration money is supposed to come from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Since neither agency had budgeted for this payout and since the money is coming from two places, the confusion has delayed the payments.

Both have been offered a number of loans from people hoping to share in their eventual wealth, but for now they’re not working and are relying on help from social service agencies and churches. “I think that them getting out, the things that we have to go through to help them is way worse than the investigation,” said Natalie Ellis, a criminal justice student at the University of Texas at Arlington who explored Scott and Simmons’ case and helped them in earn their freedom. She has her eyes on entering law school when she graduates in two years.

Their release from prison was just half the battle. On the outside they abruptly landed in a world that had moved on without them. They are vulnerable and unprepared in the face of fresh technologies, economic instability, and family and friends who have passed on or are too busy to help them. “It’s kind of like this: The day they get out, the whole courtroom is packed full of people,” Ellis said. “The next day nobody is there — nobody is around. It’s tremendously frustrating.”

Ellis has moved on to another case, but she also adopted the role of social worker. “I am not going to let someone in my ‘family’ suffer,” she said of the two men. “Whatever needs to be done, I’m going to do it.” The interim between October and April has been difficult. Simmons and Scott were still officially felons, and they lived in a purgatory of sorts—ineligible for social services, unable to get jobs. “We (are) just like hobos trying to live,” said Simmons, “no money for transportation, no clothes.”

Simmons and Scott are part of a growing number of exonerees being released into a world that is unprepared or unwilling to help them. The rise in exonerations across the U.S. is fueled by scientific advances, law enforcement reforms and newer areas of law that allow people to claim and fight for their innocence. Texas has produced more exonerations, close to 40, than any other state, most of them since 2001. That’s the year Texas began allowing the use of DNA evidence to revisit criminal convictions. Dallas County alone has had 22, including those of Simmons and Scott—the most of any county in the country. Dallas County actually accounts for more DNA exonerations than either California or Florida.

In 2009 the state enacted the Tim Cole Act, increasing payments to the wrongfully convicted from $50,000 to $80,000 a year. Tim Cole died of an asthma attack in 1998 after 12 years in prison — and a decade before DNA evidence exonerated him. He was wrongly accused of committing a rape near Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Simmons smiles and his upper lip dips asymmetrically, thanks to several missing teeth. He’s not fond of being interviewed, because of his teeth and because he’s just shy. But he’s polite: He opens doors and respectfully answers reporters’ questions. And on a freezing December day in 2009 that I spent with him and Scott, he offered to let me warm up in the car while he stood in the cold waiting for Ellis. “You want to meet with Natalie at 11, you better tell her 10,” he said with a raise of his eyebrows.

Finally Ellis drove up in a silver SUV. Her plates read 1-ALIBI. Ellis is a 34-year-old undergraduate at the University of Texas at Arlington. Friends call her tenacious. Her spiked hair is a deep reddish magenta that matches her furry purple jacket and energetic personality. She has a pack of Marlboro Lights stashed in her car that fly to her lips like clockwork every time she reaches a destination.

Ellis is always on the run. When she needs to fill the tank, she doesn’t bother to kill the engine. “I heard, on the news, they’re going to outlaw that,” Scott said. “Yeah, my grandma always used to yell at me to turn off the car,” replied Ellis, grinning with a mischievous squint.

Simmons and Scott seem to know that they’re lucky to have the fireball Ellis on their side. “Natalie, you the Kobe Bryant of investigation,” said Scott, comparing her work to the basketball star. “That’s why we like having you in our life.” Through the day they frequently reminded her how much they like her.

Simmons, Scott and Ellis live in different cities outside Dallas. Ellis’ car is their makeshift office. Ellis talks constantly, pausing only to answer the phone or make another call. At one point she had one hand wrestling a child seat into the trunk to make space for another passenger, the other holding the phone, while intermittently puffing on a cigarette. Her car is effectively an operations center for a renegade welfare agency. “If we didn’t have Natalie we wouldn’t have an office,” Scott said.

Ellis tossed the phone she’d been cradling into the back seat for Scott. He told the woman on the line his clothing size and made an appointment to meet with her the next day, which is when Simmons also plans to go. “You can’t go everywhere I go,” said Simmons. “We go together, two birds with one stone,” responded Scott. “This woman is for Claude,” interjected Ellis. “Bullcorn,” said Simmons, “Natalie, you get to talking too much.” “Bullcorn? That might have been cool when you went in—but you got to get a new word,” said Ellis. Everyone laughs.

I asked them what other changes have caught them by surprise. “Everything looks different—all the highways and buildings,” Simmons said. In the neighborhood where his family has lived since the 1960s, it looks “like all the trees grew up.” “I would say the kids that were kids when I went in were grown when I came out,” Simmons said. “My baby boy was 14.” Now two sons are full-fledged adults, and Scott’s two others are almost out of their teens.

Simmons and Scott also remember when people used pagers and VCRs. They tell me the cost of living has skyrocketed. “Cigarettes when I left were $1.95, now they’re $6,” Scott said. Some exonerees were in since before cell phones and computers.


The four and a half months between their release and exoneration were unpleasant. Still felons on paper—or in state databases, from which all decisions come—the men couldn’t work and struggled to qualify for public assistance. The day I spent with them came during this legal limbo.

Sugar-frosted flakes? Yes. Peanut butter? Please. Canned yams and canned beans ranch style? … Yes sir. Yes. Yes. Our mouths water. It was already 3 p.m. and we skipped lunch to make it to Holy Trinity Catholic Church, which teams with Dallas homeless shelters and other churches to offer groceries and other charity services. Both men were low on food. Time seemed abundant earlier in the afternoon, but after trying to track down a utility bill and lease agreement for Scott, documents he needed to qualify for the food assistance (he had failed to qualify once before), the minutes flew by all too quickly. But the rush bore fruit: both men got their groceries.

Food is just one need in a long list. After almost 13 years, “Everything you had is gone,” said Simmons. Photos, birth certificates, high school diplomas, all of these things vanish as the years go by. Getting them back together takes time, but the men “are not equipped with patience,” Ellis said. And nothing Scott and Simmons do to restructure their lives takes just one try. At the Social Security Administration, a clerk refused to accept Simmons’ inmate card as an ID. She said it didn’t look like him. But Simmons needed his Social Security card before he could get his driver’s license.

“The twisted part is that there are actually more services for people who have just gotten (paroled) out of prison,” Sparks said, but exonerees don’t qualify for these programs. “Claude’s big problem is that he is having a really bad time with his teeth,” Ellis said. They found a dental clinic that is willing to help them, but he has to wait two months for an appointment. “When I was in prison I didn’t care how I looked,” Simmons said. His relatives were the only people that visited him, and he figured by the time he qualified for parole he’d be in his 80s and it wouldn’t matter. His unexpected release changed everything. “I told Natalie I wouldn’t do any more interviews on camera until they fix my grill,” Simmons said. “In prison they’ll take them out but they won’t put any back in.”

But the housing situation for exonerees eclipses their other needs. Simmons says that after living with 5,000 male roommates, he’s ready to be by himself. But there’s no place for him to go, so he considers himself lucky to be living with his sister. But his sister’s family is going through hard times too; “They’re behind on all their bills,” Ellis said.

Scott would stay with his mom, but she already lives with his son and two brothers in a two-bedroom house. “Scott would have had to live on the floor,” Ellis said. Another exoneree told Scott he could stay at his apartment. But it’s like “the blind leading the blind,” Ellis said. About a week ago their power got shut off, and neither could afford to pay the bill.

Getting a job for Simmons or Scott is a whole other beast. They “have a 12-year blank that can’t be filled in,” says Bill Allison, a lawyer and one of the directors of the Texas Center for Actual Innocence. To compound the problem, the men, like most exonerees, “committed several crimes before they got locked up,” said York. And Scott never held a job before he went to prison. And “It is much harder to enter the work force now,” York said.

“I was talking to someone about employment and they asked me what kind of job I wanted,” Simmons said. “I’m 52. This is no time to start a career. … I was like, why don’t you tell me what jobs are available and I’ll pick the one I like most.”

“We just looking for some money, whatever job pay money,” Scott said.

According to the Web site for the Innocence Project of Texas, 27 states have laws that compensate exonerated inmates. “Before the compensation act, people didn’t get anything—here’s a bus pass, good luck,” Sparks said.

Nonetheless, because there is no federal compensation and the decisions are left up to the states, exonerees in Texas are luckier than those in other states. “Texas is relatively progressive in this area of the law,” especially since the passage of the Tim Cole Act, Allison said.

The money won’t solve all of their problems, because the past can never be completely erased. “He’s still got a conviction for capital murder,” Allison said. “That record stays until there is an expunction file. If he is stopped for speeding it is going to come back for capital murder. If he ever tries to leave the country he will be stopped at the border.”

Scott and Simmons are candid about how hard life has been since their release. “I’m not happy about it — I’m mad about the situation I had to go through, or just sad, or hurt,” Simmons said.

“I’m not going to be angry, but you always think about it,” Scott added.