USA TODAY, May 5, 2014
By Yamiche Alcindor
Video available at http://usat.ly/RdYRVC
NEW YORK — Jonathan Fleming is finally getting some rest, even if he’s sleeping on a cousin’s couch in Brooklyn after spending 24 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Fleming, 52, was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder in New York. He walked free on April 8, 2014.
More than a dozen news cameras crowded into and around the Brooklyn Supreme Court building to capture the moment. Nine days later, Fleming, minus the fanfare, stood in line to collect food stamps. He hopes to find a job and is looking for a permanent place to live.
And, it could take years before he receives any lawsuit settlement payments from New York, even though it is one of 29 states with compensation laws.
“It’s very hard, because they just pushed me out,” Fleming says. “I had a few people who gave me a couple of dollars so I can have some spending money, but it doesn’t go that far.”
A stranger set up an Indiegogo fundraising campaign that has collected more than $45,000 for him. It’s open for donations until May 9.
Fleming will live on that money and a loan against the compensation he expects to get from the city and state of New York. His lawyers say they are aiming to get him at least $6.4 million after another New York City exoneree received that amount recently.
In the meantime, Fleming is living in the vulnerable period that dozens of others face. It takes an average of three to seven years for the wrongfully convicted to receive compensation, experts say.
A record-breaking 90 wrongfully imprisoned people were released from prison in 2013, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. This year, already 31 exonerees have been set free.
People who were guilty of crimes sometimes get help from parole officers who will monitor them after release and access to social services including counseling, temporary housing and job placement. Yet, the majority of exonerated people are freed without any kind of support system, experts say. Some are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder without insurance for mental health services. Some struggle to explain decades-long incarceration to wary employers.
Since 1989, 1,362 wrongfully imprisoned people nationwide have been released, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Most are men, and most of them had been convicted of murder and sexual assault. Around the country, states have been changing their laws to help such people.
In New York, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wants to extend compensation to people who falsely confessed but were later cleared. Schneiderman’s proposed New York state bill, the Unjust Imprisonment Act, would also extend the amount of time someone has to file a claim from two years to three.
According to the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating people, 29 states have compensation laws for people who were wrongfully imprisoned. But, the amounts vary. In Texas, it is $80,000 per year locked up. Louisiana provides $25,000 for each year, capped at $250,000.
Even in a state that offers compensation, getting it can take years, because prosecutors will challenge cases even after a conviction is overturned, says Justin Brooks, a professor at California Western School of Law, San Diego. He is the director of California Innocence, a law school clinical program where students and attorneys work on exoneration cases.
“It’s not right that by virtue of where somebody is born or where somebody was arrested and incarcerated that they come out of prison to absolutely no support, with nothing in their pocket and no place to live,” says Karen Wolff, a social worker with the Innocence Project.
She works with 30 to 40 exonerees each year. She helps them find housing, medical care and jobs, or to enroll in college or a vocational program.
Meanwhile, Fleming is free because of a hotel receipt stamped August 14, 1989 9:27 p.m.
It is a Quality Inn phone bill he paid in Florida four and half hours before the murder of Darryl Alston in Brooklyn, N.Y. Fleming was celebrating his son’s ninth birthday with four family members at Walt Disney World when someone shot Alston to death.
However, when Fleming returned to Brooklyn, he was arrested for Alston’s murder. Fleming insisted he was innocent and told the New York City Police Department officers that he had been at the amusement park. Fleming’s mother, Patricia Fleming, now 71, also supported her only child’s alibi. But authorities ignored their pleas.
On July 20, 1990, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
For two decades, Fleming wrote letters from prison to anyone he could find. Eventually, he connected with attorney Anthony Mayol, who now runs his own practice. Later, Taylor Koss, another attorney of Everett & Everett, and private investigators joined in his defense. The receipt, which had been in Fleming’s pocket at the time he was arrested, was eventually located.
In the last three weeks, family members have given him clothes, a friend gave him a cellphone and his lawyers put him up in a hotel the first few days he was free.
“I’ve been just taking it one day at a time,” said Fleming, in a deep calm voice. “I’ve been incarnated a long time, so the adjustment is not going to be easy.”
Thursday, Fleming–with salmon, coconut rice, strawberries, champagne and two cakes– celebrated his first birthday in decades as a free man.
“This is the best birthday I have ever had,” he said, flashing a toothy grin as he wore a paper cone hat, opened gifts and read cards.
But, memories of prison remain with Fleming. He still wakes up at 6 a.m., the time hot water was delivered to his cell every day. The men he left behind are also on his mind.
“There are a lot of innocent men in prison who a lot of people don’t know about,” he says. He hopes to start a foundation to help them.
Jeffrey Deskovic, 40, has done that.
Deskovic spent 16 years in prison in New York for a murder and rape he didn’t commit. In 1990, police coerced him into a false confession by interrogating the then teenager for hours. Authorities told Deskovic a polygraph test showed he was lying when he denied killing his Peekskill High School classmate.
Later, DNA linked another man to the crime. By then, Deskovic was no longer the baby-faced 17 year-old who went into the system. He had become a man traumatized by incarceration, but set on helping others.
It took him five years to get more than $13 million in compensation because the municipalities he sued took time to negotiate settlements.
Deskovic says most innocent people in prison think they will be helped as soon as they get out.
“We think that society will compensate us rather quickly,” he says. “We think there’s a safety net. The challenge of having a place to go to immediately, food, clothing, basic necessities — that never dawns on us. We just think that it will be provided to us.”
He used some of his compensation to start the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice. The organization works to free wrongfully incarcerated people and owns a New York apartment where some of the exonerated can live.
Innocent people shouldn’t have to fend for themselves when they’re released, but it’s important to be sure someone is really innocent, not released on a technicality, before granting them compensation, says David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Several prosecutors have started conviction integrity units since the initial one began in January 2007 in Dallas, Texas, LaBahn says. Such groups look into cases brought to them by defense attorneys and when the integrity of things like police practices or crime labs standards are questioned.
“It’s really a case-by-case system,” LaBahn says. “We don’t think people should be compensated because their defense lawyer didn’t do a good job.”
Jarrett Adams, 33, of Chicago, disagrees. He says his attorney did little to defend him against charges that he raped a girl while visiting the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with two of his friends.
His attorney called no witnesses. Adams’ trial lasted a day and half before he was convicted of second-degree sexual assault, he says.
Later, while he was in prison, Adams learned a young man had told police he was playing video games with Adams during the time of the alleged rape. Even with this new evidence, for eight years a number of courts in Wisconsin denied his multiple appeals.
Eventually, the seventh district court of U.S. Appeals ordered him retired or released.
On January 28, 2007, after nine years in prison, Adams was sent home wearing orange prison shoes. A week later, he got a check for $14, the amount left in his inmate account minus $18 for his prison footwear.
Adams went home to his mother’s couch in Chicago. He worked odd jobs doing yard work and cleaning gutters. He has arthritis in his left foot because he dropped a large gardening stone on it. Without health insurance, he walked around for a year with a fractured foot before seeing a doctor, he says.
In 2009, the state of Wisconsin denied his request for compensation, saying he needed to prove himself “absolutely innocent,” Adams said.
“If I wasn’t absolutely innocent I wouldn’t be in front of the claims board,” Adams said. “My case wasn’t overturned on a technicality. It was overturned because there was evidence that had it been in front of a jury I would have been found not guilty.”
Since released, he has had to pay $9,000 in dental work out of pocket and remains in $4,500 in debt because of tickets his car received while he was locked up.
Adams also struggled with emotional problems.
“It took me so long to realize that I didn’t have to stand up for count,” he says, meaning he often woke up thinking he had to stand so guards could see him.
Now, Adams is a law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and works as an investigator for the federal public defender’s office in Chicago. He and another exoneree, Antoine Day, started Life After Justice, a non-profit organization. It aims to open a center to help exonerated men and women by offering among other things job training, therapy sessions and dental services.
More such efforts are needed, says Amy Shlosberg, a criminal justice professor who teaches a course on wrongful convictions at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Exonerees often struggle to find work because their records may not be automatically expunged, according to a study by Shlosberg and other experts. Some people turn to crime and end up back in prison. Some commit suicide, buckling under the pressure of an abrupt entrance into a changed world.
Martin Tankleff, who wrongfully spent 17 years in prison for killing his parents, is a success story. He was released in 2007 from a New York prison and within weeks was enrolled in college. He is now a law student at Touro Law School.
The state of New York settled his lawsuit for $3.375 million. He hasn’t received any payout yet but says his family’s support has been crucial to rebuilding his life.
The lost time continues to plague him.
“Every day I think, ‘Where did 17 years of my life go?,’ ” says Tankleff, 42. “It’s missed youth. It’s trying to regain stuff that you love and trying to feel like a kid again and go back to a time before all the madness started.”
Lonnie Soury runs a public relations firm,Soury Communications, that works with exonerees to raise public awareness about life after exoneration. “That’s the only way we make change,” he says.
Fernando Bermudez’s case has been in the news since 2009, when he was released after serving 18 years for murder. Wrongfully convicted in New York, he tells his story to groups and has been vocal about his struggles.
“I felt like I was surrounded by prison wires when I was walking the dog,” says Bermudez, 45, who lives in Danbury, Conn. “I actually got dizzy at a department store and grocery store because all of the colors and selections overwhelmed me.”
Bermudez sees a psychologist every week. He has filed a $30 million lawsuit against the the city and state of New York but court battles continue.
His wife, Crystal Bermudez, 39, a mental health counselor, says she and their three children still cope with her husband’s post-traumatic stress disorder.
“A smell can remind him of a time he saw a guy get stabbed,” she says. “It’s a shame that four and half years later, we are struggling and telling our kids we can’t have McDonald’s even if the menu is 99 cents.”
They struggle to pay their $1,500 rent and recently ended their 8-year-old son’s tutoring because they couldn’t afford the $280-a-month cost.
The experience has created even more stress for a family that used to dream of being together.
“You’re in the newspaper for one day and then nobody cares,” Crystal Bermudez says. “Life after prison is horrible, too.”