It has been 20 months since Ronald Keith Williamson was exonerated and freed from death row in Oklahoma, where he spent the better part of 9 years pacing back and forth in his 9-by-11-foot cell, screaming that he did not rape and kill a young woman in a town called Ada. Ravaged by mental illness and the anguish of his time in prison, he is unable to hold a job and lives in a group home in Oklahoma City.
The state made no reparations for the mistake that turned him from a high-school baseball hero into a condemned man, No. 134846, other than to mail him the standard $50 check given to all inmates who are destitute upon release.
Now Williamson recreates his old prison boundaries in the group home by pacing back and forth in his room. His one solace is playing the guitar. Death row, he says, taught him how to play the blues.
There are 3,682 men and women on death row in America. While 98 people were executed last year, only 88 men and one woman have ever been exonerated and released because of evidence of their innocence. Almost half of these exonerations have occurred since 1993, and nine of them were a result of DNA testing.
This modest surge in exonerations has prompted a new awareness about the risk of executing innocent people. Several states have ordered their legislatures to study the death penalty. Illinois went so far as to declare a moratorium on executions. Other states have expressed confidence in the efficacy of the system. Texas, for example, has executed more than three dozen people this year. But while the death-penalty debate has intensified, the fate of those freed from death row has gone largely undiscussed.
The men who look out from these pages [R. Tabak note: There are photographs of these men in the NY Times Magazine] have all had very different lives, but they have all shared a particular experience. All have been condemned to die and have spent years on death row waiting, day after day and night after night, to be executed. They have watched as other men, some of whom they had come to think of as friends, were led away to be executed. Some have come so close to execution themselves that they have heard judges or prison officials read aloud their death warrants, naming the exact date and time when they would face lethal injection or the electric chair. They have filled out prison forms giving instructions for what they wanted done with their bodies.
For the men in these photographs, the burden that they have lived with for so long has been lifted. The system that ordered them to die has given them a chance to live. But another burden has been put in its place. Whether they have been out of prison for less than 2 years or for more than 10, these men and others like them have struggled to carve out a stable existence. They have fought to reclaim normality after the isolation of death row, the fear of execution, the confusion, disbelief and rage of having once -- and falsely -- been labeled an unredeeemable murderer. They have also confronted broken marriages, job discrimination and deep suspicion from neighbors, employers and colleagues. And they have undertaken their new lives with remarkably little help; the governments that spent millions trying to execute these men have offered little or no financial restitution or support.
Oddly enough, these men are the lucky ones. Unlike most death row inmates, they were fortunate enough to have access to DNA testing. They were helped by lawyers who took their cases pro bono and brought them media attention. They are exceptional not only because they are alive, but also because they have survived their freedom. Jerry Banks killed his wife and then himself shortly after he was released from Georgia's death row. "Everything in this world I have has been taken away," he wrote in his suicide note. Fred Macias, who was a heroin addict before he was sent to death row in Texas, died of a drug overdose three years after his release. The list of the dead goes on. Others are back in prison.
"This thing completely destroys a person's life," said Kirk Bloodsworth, one of the freed men. "Every rock, every branch, every grain of your existence is picked up and thrown down into a heap. You have to rebuild, and some people don't make it. They will never be the same again."
Earl Washington, Virginia
Exonerated and pardoned October 2000.
Scheduled for release Feb. 12, 2001.
Washington, 40, spent 9 years on death row for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old woman in Culpepper, Va. Though he has an I.Q. of 69 and the mental development of a 10-year-old, Washington was convicted because of his own confession -- a confession that had been coached by police officers and that he later recanted. In 1985, he was days from execution when his death sentence was commuted to life after a DNA test raised the possibility of his innocence. This fall, following new DNA testing, Washington was granted an "absolute pardon" by Gov. James S. Gilmore III. He remains in prison serving out a
sentence for an unrelated burglary and assault conviction from 1984. Washington is scheduled to move into a residence for the mentally handicapped in Virginia Beach.
''You could hear the humming of the chair every time they cut it on, like an air-conditioner cutting on. My daddy came to see me, he said, 'What's that noise?' I said, 'The chair.' It was terrible. The way they put it, they got to test the chair.
''On Sept. 5, 1985, I was supposed to be executed. They want to know what I wanted to do with my property, who I wanted to send it to. Do I want someone in my family to pick it up? I knew what was going to happen when I went to the basement, 500 Spring Street.
It was cold, dirty; it stank, it had roaches in there. I call my mama every day. She did all the talking. I just had to listen.
''The first thing I'm gonna do -- I'm going to Virginia Beach. I'm going to take me a hot bath. Then I'm going to get me something to eat. I'm going to be nervous. I ain't been out there in a long time. I'm nervous about the streets. . . . I'm still mad at Virginia for what they did. But I gotta stop getting mad at the State of Virginia. I take it one day at a time. Otherwise, I'd go crazy. They took 17 years of my life.''
Kirk Noble Bloodsworth
Bloodsworth, 40, spent 2 of his 9 years on death row in the Maryland State Penitentiary for the rape and murder of a
9-year-old girl. A former marine with no arrest record, Bloodsworth was convicted on the basis of erroneous eyewitness identifications. In 1993, DNA tests of a previously undetected semen spot on the victim's underwear revealed that Bloodsworth could not have committed the crime. He was then officially pardoned by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Bloodsworth, who is married, is now working as a crab fisherman on Maryland's eastern shore.
''When I got out, I couldn't get any work. It's just difficult for somebody to be institutionalized that long. I was living in my truck for a year, going from job to job, trying to find a place. . . . I had a nervous breakdown in 1997. I didn't know where to go and what to do with myself. This whole case was my life for years. I had nothing else to do. My father, he couldn't afford to have me work with him because he wasn't making enough money to feed himself. I tried several jobs.
''When I got out of prison, I went to work for a funeral home. I felt that I had a sense of empathy for people who go through this ordeal. People in town didn't like the idea of me working there. The funeral director told me I had to go. They were losing business. People just didn't feel comfortable with me working around their loved ones.
''I worked at Black & Decker. When I went there, they made me bring my pardon. I had to take it there and copy it. People there wrote anonymous things in the dirt by my truck, and left notes on my windshield -- child killer, murderer. . . . I couldn't work in a place that didn't have any windows, which is one of the reasons I went to the water. I'd never seen a night sky for 9 years.
''No matter what happens to you, you are constantly put under this eye of distrust that you can never shake. I walked into a supermarket in town, and a lady picked up her child. The little girl said, 'That's the man who was on the TV, Mommy.' She rushed over and grabbed her child and said, 'Don't go near him.' I just left my stuff and walked out.
It never, ever ends. It never ends. It never ends. It never will be ended.''
Rolando Cruz, Illinois
Cruz, 37, spent 12 years in prison for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl in a Chicago suburb. A gang member with a minor arrest record for criminal trespassing, Cruz made up a story to the police that he had information about the girl's murder because, he said, he wanted to "mess" with them. A year and a half later later, under pressure to solve the case, the police arrested Cruz. Despite the eventual claim of a convicted sex offender that he, and not Cruz, had committed the crime, and despite DNA evidence that appeared to clear him, Cruz remained on death row. It wasn't until a police detective came forward and admitted that he had given false testimony that Cruz was acquitted and released. Cruz lives in the Chicago area and is married with stepchildren. (He is pictured here with his stepson Lucio Ziezca.) He has worked in a metal factory and as a youth counselor. In September, he and two other men were awarded a $3.5 million settlement from Du Page County for damages.
''You gotta remember, everybody's changed, over a decade of time has gone by, everybody treats you differently not necessarily because you're released from prison, but because of time going by. . . . I've been separated from my wife since the last week of August. We're married 2 years this Dec. 13. It's just me; it's not her. I tell everybody that. I love her. She didn't do anything. I've tried therapy. I didn't open up to the doctor. I tried to, but I can't.
''Life is sort of messed up right now. I feel like I'm in prison right now. My wife would ask me: 'Where are you going? When are you going to be home?' It was like she was the warden. She has a right; she's my wife. Chronologically, I'm 37; psychologically and most of time I'm older than that. But sometimes, like when I go out, I'm only 25 years old -- I didn't lose those 12 years; they took those years. My point of view is when you have time like that taken from you and come back into society, what is so-called normal society, you tend to automatically go back to that age you left behind. You're living at that age again, you're catching up to the world. It's like life has stopped.
''A lot of people thought I'd be back in prison in five years. I read this book, 'In Spite of Innocence,' by Michael Radelet; a lot of those guys died within five years. I got real scared. I've said this to a lot of people. They brush it off. I really did think that I was going to die. I've gone past the 5-year period. I worry about this 'cause it's happened to so many people released from death row. . . . They're like, 'Man, you just want to kill yourself.' I'm like, 'Yeah, that's why I fought all those years.'
''People tell me I owe it to the death-row inmates to speak out. I don't owe anyone. People have the audacity to tell me I owe -- who do I owe? Let them take 12 years, 3 months and 3 days of your life.''
James Richardson, Florida
Richardson, 65, was convicted of killing his seven small children by poisoning them with insecticide. After Richardson was imprisoned, a lawyer who took his case learned that a baby sitter who made lunch for the children had been convicted in 1955 of killing her 2nd husband. Confronted with the lawyer's information and affidavits from people who claimed the baby sitter had confessed to the murders, Janet Reno, then the Dade County district attorney, re-examined the case and concluded that Richardson should be freed. He now lives in Wichita, Kan., with his wife, Theresa (pictured here). To support his family, he takes care of his landlord's daughter, who has Down syndrome.
''When the charges were dropped against me, I thought they were going to send me back to prison or the electric chair. When the judge told me I was free, I was sitting there wondering, 'Is I really free?' After I realized it was true, I had another worry: How was I going to survive?
''People wouldn't hire me because I had open-heart surgery and I had been in prison. They look at my record. I fill out the a pplication. They saw I had been in prison and I had open-heart surgery and I couldn't do heavy work, I had to do light work. They'd say, 'We're sorry, Mr. Richardson, we can't hire you.' It was very hard. . . . When I got out of prison, I wanted the things I always hoped for -- a church of my own, to tell people God is so real and how they can survive by not getting themselves in so much sin and difficulties in this world. They can be free. I wanted that and I wanted a home and I wanted some transportation to move around in. I didn't hope for $10 million or $15 million. I was just hoping I had just enough to survive. I didn't get nothing. I was in prison 21 1/2 years. When you go through figuring the time you be in there, it's a hard situation. It was kind of rough out here when I got out. I took it one day at a time. I'm still trying and praying that someone will help me to overcome that I can get me a home. Maybe I can get me my own church.''
Ronald Keith Williamson
Williamson, 47, spent nine years on death row for the rape and murder of a young woman. Williamson, who suffers from manic depression, was convicted on the basis of testimony from a questionable witness. He was also represented by a lawyer who had never tried a capital case and who refused to be left alone with his client. In 1997, federal courts overturned Williamson's conviction on the basis of ineffectiveness of counsel. DNA tests confirmed that he could not have committed the rape. Williamson lives in a group home in Oklahoma City. He earns extra income playing guitar in coffeehouses.
''I just wanted out of Oklahoma. I was afraid of the people there. They said I raped and murdered Debbie Sue Carter, and I didn't do it. They took me to trial in a town where I had grown up, been an honor student in my school, married my hometown beauty-pageant-contest winner, where I was a second-round draft choice of the Oakland Athletics. As a man who's been charged with a sex slaying, I don't trust anybody. If something happens in my community, I'm getting hold of my lawyer. They'll lie and they'll make up stories about you.
''I don't ever talk about my case with people here. There's some people that found out inadvertently how I arrived at harbor here, how I arrived from prison. I choose not to talk about it at all. I don't want any unsolved crimes coming my way. . . . I'd rather die than go to jail again; that's how painful jail is. It was like hellfire. I thought it was possible that this may be the eternity that I suffer. I became so depressed that I thought I could end my life. I took a sheet and I stood up on my commode in my cell, on my toilet. I tied the sheet above where the vent was and then I pulled it tight, and then I put the sheet around my neck, and I thought to myself, if I were to jump right now, I would die. I experimented.
''I prayed a lot. That's what got me through. And my music. I learned how to play the blues. I haven't felt like practicing. I haven't felt like doing nothing. Every day there are times when I feel like I'm in prison again. I have flashbacks. Sometimes I feel like I'm in prison for hours at a time. I know I'm not, but I can't stop feeling like I'm in prison. I'm not sure I still want to live, but I'm not suicidal.''
Walter McMillian, Alabama
McMillian, 59, spent six years on death row in Alabama for the murder of an 18-year-old store clerk, a white woman. A career criminal who was seeking a deal with prosecutors and two other witnesses testified against McMillian, while the jury ignored more than a dozen black witnesses who said that he had been at a church picnic. McMillian was released after a lawyer who specializes in death-penalty cases and who had taken his case turned up a tape recording on which the chief prosecution witness told the police that McMillian had nothing to do with the crime. McMillian lives in Monroeville, Ala. In 1995, he broke his neck cutting a tree. He lives on partial disability and works part time hauling in junk cars for scrap metal.
''Sometimes I just want to leave here and never come back. A lot of people tell me, 'Man, I'd leave.' I tell them: 'This is my home. I'm innocent.' If I leave, first thing people say is: 'He's guilty. He left.' I don't see no reason I should leave my hometown. . . . At times you get angry -- you just can't help it. You're just tthinking how lowdown the system is. Then you just have to get over it. I get on my bicycle and ride it -- anything to throw your mind off it. II try to play ball, anything to get your mind off it.
"I never got an apology. I see them -- the cops -- all the time. I see them on the street, at the fruit stand, they say, 'Hey, Johnny, how ya doing?' They'll wave, just as good as anybody, like nothing happened. Every time I see one, I speak to them just like they speak to me. Ain't no sense in me being mad.
It's best to just be cool, keep going, try to live.
''Eight people were executed while I was there. You know your brother down there, you play ball with, go to church with, get like a brother to you, just real close, and then they say to him, 'Your day come up.'"
"Prison gave me about $100 for being best prisoner. I never had any problem: nary a guard, nary an inmate, warden, not a disciplinary action in years. The warden said he forgot I was in there."