Almost monthly, Black men are let out of America’s prisons after years and years for crimes they did not commit. Wrongful convictions are a tragedy that only those who have experienced it can relate—and accurately express the range of emotions that come with such an injustice and eventual proof of innocence.
Herman Atkins spent 12 years in some of California’s most notorious prisons for a rape he did not commit. He was exonerated in 2000 when DNA evidence proved what he had said all along. He spends his days now in law school in San Diego, working to become an attorney to represent the disenfranchised who are arrested under questionable circumstances.
Atkins tells his emotional and heart-wrenching story in a three-part series to Atlanta Blackstar.
Part III: The Fear of Freedom, by Herman Atkins
(as told to Curtis Bunn)
Ironic in all this is that my father, Elmer Clark was the ultimate law enforcement official, a California trooper. But it was hurtful, to say the least, that he accepted the misinformation and outright lies Riverside police called “evidence” against me.
He launched his own investigation, but was basically rebuffed by the police and told to go back to his jurisdiction. Before telling him that, they told him they had evidence that put me in the city of the crime two weeks before the alleged rape, evidence that was totally contrived. Made up. But being the ultimate law enforcement guy, Pops believed them. He needed to believe in his profession.
Needless to say, this destroyed my mother, Florita Atkins. Pops’ position and my conviction combined to send my mother into a despair that eventually claimed her life. She could not fathom the man she loved not siding with her about her son’s innocence, and she could not bear me going to prison for forty-five years for a crime she knew full well I did not commit.
The morning of my release, a group of family members was at the prison to take me home. Eventually, I went into this room where the group was waiting. I hugged my sister Dina first, and I looked over her left shoulder for my mother, for this woman with the bright smile and lively spirit.
Then, finally, there she was, the one person I wanted to see the most. But it was alarming. She was a frail woman who looked weak and withdrawn. Her eyes told of years of hurt and pain. Every wrinkle told a story of despair.
There was no excitement from her. She was meek and just standing back, waiting her turn to hug me. I hugged her and she was so small in my arms. The smile that lit up a room had turned into a smirk. She was used to not having a reason to smile.
She had not only been heart-broken, but she was ill. Throat cancer. She complained of pain in her throat and was taken to the doctor not long after my release. A few days later, the doctor called to tell her to return with family members, which was not a good sign.
They found lumps the size of marbles in her throat. They said the cancer had been ravaging her body for a year. It was like she held on long enough to see me come home as a free man.
Within 18 months, she was gone. And all that time was spent caring after her, taking her to the doctor. We never got to enjoy each other the way we had before my wrongful conviction.
At her funeral, Pops was crushed. He stood at the head of her casket for about forty-five minutes. He was devastated, deeply hurt. He regretted siding with the so-called evidence instead of the love of a child. That crushed my mother.
So he stood there trying to make some peace with her. But he knew my mother went to her grave disappointed in him.
Before this, before I got out, I was mired in fear on a number of levels. When I heard back from the Innocence Project about my case, there was no reason for me to feel like I would ever get out. I still had no trust in the justice system. But a burden was lifted. I felt relief that someone would be looking into my case, something I had been doing for some time, but from inside prison.
I received another letter from Mr. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project along with Peter Neufeld— explaining how the organization worked and that students would do the research and that I would be hearing from a student, which I did. They were very organized and made it clear that the only way to really make a case was through DNA evidence.
The woman had alleged that her assailant forced her to perform oral sex, had sex with her and wiped himself off on her sweater and threw the sweater to the side.
So, the key to everything was finding the sweater. That was the Innocence Project’s total focus. I went through many students who worked on my case. Finally, four years after writing the Innocence Project, I received a letter from a student named Stacy Goldstein that asked me to call her immediately. A clerk at the courthouse, on her lunch break, scurried through thousands of pieces of evidence in the basement of the building and found the sweater.
When Stacy told me, “we have the evidence in our possession,” my next words to her were: “OK. When am I going home?”
I knew what the DNA results would be. By then I was well-versed in DNA evidence. I had even seen a lot of programs on television about men being exonerated, some on the Phil Donahue Show.
Stacy was so excited. “It’s been a long and arduous road to get this evidence,” she said. It was longer for me than she could conceive.
The Emergence of Hope
And that’s when hope re-entered my spirit for the first time since being locked up. I could sense my freedom was on the horizon because I knew the tests would reveal I was not a rapist. Still, I did not trust the justice system. The court should have gotten it right the first time, so I could not really get overly excited that they would get it right that time. But I did deem it as a possibility.
Still, there were roadblocks. Because the Innocence Project was located only in New York at the time, we had to locate an attorney in California to present the new evidence in court. Believe it or not, but it took two full years to find a lawyer with the strength and courage to take the case. That man was Douglas Myers, who was not afraid of the district attorney’s office and made a compelling case to the judge who agreed to release the evidence in 1999—two agonizing years after it was found.
It was through the grace of God that the D.A. who had so vehemently argued against releasing the evidence, was somehow unable to attend this hearing. Douglas Myers outwitted the substitute D.A., made an eloquent case and we were on our way.
Why someone would not want to help an innocent man get free is beyond me. But in October 1999 the testing was done, showing that the specimens left behind were not mine. I only would have been surprised if they told me it was my DNA. I knew what the result would be because I did not rape that woman.
You’d think that would be it, right? Rather, the district attorney challenged the results and refused to let me free. Their side wanted a second opinion, a second test, to be done at California Berkeley, which would have taken another six weeks.
It took my family a month to raise the $5,000 necessary for the first test. And Barry Scheck had had enough. He suggested the FBI do the test. It was an independent, reliable source. While Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld were on a book tour, the Riverside district attorney called the FBI for the results, and was told the FBI test proved I could not have committed the crime.
To try to save face, the DA did not inform the Innocence Project of the findings and had issued a court order for my immediate release.
That week before this happened, I saw a show on television where a man in Louisiana had been released after something like twenty years of wrongful imprisonment. And something in my spirit told me that I would be next.
So a few days later, before the afternoon count, my counselor at the prison came in and told me to step out of my cell. “You have an emergency call,” she said.
In her office, when the call came through, the first voice I heard was the late great lawyer Johnny Cochran, made famous by his successful defense of O.J. Simpson. He introduced himself and Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jane Green, the director of the Innocence Project at the time.
Jane Green went through the news of the test results finding that I was “factually innocent” of that crime. Then she said, “However.”
The first thing that came to my mind was: “Here comes the nonsense.”
I was conditioned to believe the worst. She went on to tell me about the need for a second test. Johnny Cochran seemed less concerned and told me that I needed to start making preparations to come home.
Now, hope became excitement. But excitement was quickly extinguished when the reality of going home set in. My cellmate could sense my concern. He said: “Man, you’re not the average inmate. I know you have a game plan for when you get out.”
Facing Fear: Freedom With No Game Plan
He was right that I was not the average inmate. But he was wrong that I had a game plan ready for re-entering society. I had been gone for so long that I lacked confidence to be a success or even comfortable in the free world. I started thinking about my sons, who were just little guys when I went in but were now teenagers. We didn’t know each other. My wife had abandoned me. Many people I thought would be there for me were not. Many I didn’t think would be there for me were—and I could count them on two hands.
I started wondering and worrying about where I would live; where I would get money to purchase basic necessities. I had no means of transportation. I had no housing, no income. Worst of all, I was several steps behind in the ways of the world. I had no idea how to use a computer. I knew nothing of cell phones. I was behind.
These were some of the thoughts that flooded my mind upon hearing the voice of Johnny Cochran, Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jane Green.
Things changed after that phone call. I could not sleep. And I was nervous. One day, the associate warden came into the kitchen, where I worked. She was a Black woman and there were other officials and enforcement with her. I had never seen or even knew this woman existed. I was introduced to her.
She said, “I just had to put a face to the name with all the paperwork that has come across my desk.”
She said everything to me short of, “We apologize.” I wasn’t particularly interested in meeting her, but for her to have an innocent man in her prison, she wanted to meet me.
In any case, when February 18, 2000 came, I was scared. Yes, I wanted to get out of that hellhole. But I didn’t know my people anymore. I knew of them. I didn’t have many visits in my 12 years. My father, who was a police officer, never visited me. His position was as a law enforcement officer his job was to put people in prison, not visit them there. My mother, for reasons I never discovered, was never allowed on my visitor’s list. Most of my visits came from my ex-wife. She’d share photos of the family and I would take photos for her to share with everyone. That was the extent of my encounters with the outside world.
The reality of what to do with my freedom put fear in my heart. It wasn’t the same kind of fear I felt being in prison. It wasn’t like I wanted to stay where I was. But the fear of the unknown was strong. I knew the world had changed; I hadn’t changed.
When you’re locked up for extended periods of time, you stop growing intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. If you take a man who was 21 and let him out when he is 34, he is still 21 mentally. Even if he tried his best to stay sharp and grow, he did so in a prison environment. That’s how I was.
People think that I am about 35 by my look. I hear that a lot. But they don’t realize that age difference is right in line with the 12 years I was in prison.
Playing catch up after my release was a real challenge that would take more than 12 years. I dealt with a serious illness with my mother and family issues. I ended up living with my grandmother. Not only that, here I was a grown man sleeping in the same bed with my grandmother when I first got out. But that’s what was necessary at that time.
What Does a Computer Look Like?
The idea when I got home was to get a job. I figured working would give me a daily purpose while also making a way for me to provide for my kids. And it looked promising when my father convinced a buddy to grant me an interview for a real estate company he owned.
The job was filing and answering phones; office work. I went on the interview and it went great—until the guy asked me if I could operate a computer. Shoot, I hadn’t even seen a computer. And when I did see one, I didn’t even know how to turn it on.
And that’s when I knew it was time for me to go to college. I had to play catch up.
So, I attended a junior college for two years. And I didn’t just attend college, I also played on its football team.
As a much younger man, I was an athlete. Football and baseball. I found that playing with those young men 12-to-15 years younger than me served as therapy, in a way. To be a part of a team and participate in an activity I loved soothed me.
It was something I needed to do, something that gave me a sense of accomplishment that helped with my self-esteem. Coach knew of my story and asked me to share it with my teammates, which I gladly did. It was a proud time for someone who needed his pride uplifted.
Once the season started, I broke my wrist in the third game and was out for the year. That was disappointing. But school continued, and I worked hard to earn good grades and my associate’s degree in two years.
Two years later, I earned my bachelor’s in psychology—something I hardly ever entertained when I was incarcerated. Another proud moment for someone who thought he would die in prison.
In prison, I met a young man whose full given name I cannot remember. His last name was Arrington. But he went by Muata Hondo Nantamby Diop. He was a dynamic guy, and he and I came to be known as “Warrior Scholars.”
He was in prison on a fluke. Muata was a student at prestigious Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He came home to California on spring break. As it was told to me, while hanging out, a fracas erupted and Muata was caught in the middle. By the time the air was cleared, he was arrested and eventually convicted of assaulting a police officer. He was sentenced to six years.
Muata was smart and focused and through discussions with him I thought of college. And when I got out, I did what Muata had instilled in my mind. And school opened up my mind. My professors were engaging and—even though I struggled with advanced Math like Algebra and Statistics—I studied hard enough to pass with Cs. Those were the hard classes for me. But Psychology, English, History and Humanities were classes I loved and helped me blossom.
I took school very seriously. Not as just a means for an education, but also as a means for letting people know I was serious. Through school I was saying: “Yes, I finally got out of prison, but I’m not out here playing around.”
I was wronged in a horrible way, but I was not going to be out a free man playing the victim role, saying “Woe is me.” To make something happen for myself I had to do for myself.
Still, getting my education was not just for me. It was for my family that was torn down by my wrongful conviction. It was for my mother who never got to see me graduate. It was for all the other men who were exonerated. It was for Peter Neufeld, Barry Scheck, the late Johnny Cochran and everyone at the Innocence Project who believed in me. It was for the clerk at the Riverside courthouse who went beyond her duty to search for the evidence—and found it. It was an example for anyone who has something to overcome, which is just about all of us.
I was proving to the district attorney who prosecuted me—and the officers that contributed to my conviction—that they got me all wrong, as I had told them when they built a contrived case against me. They labeled me a rapist. They did not have the integrity to say they were wrong when it was proven I was not. But I was going to make sure I did everything in my life to let them know they were wrong through my actions and accomplishments.
I earned my degree in Psychology in 2005. But when I went through two civil trials, my career goal changed.
Studying Law To Help Free Others
I wanted to be a lawyer.
It was at my two civil trials—the last of which I was awarded a $2-million settlement—that I learned how elaborate the scheme was the police executed to have me convicted and who was responsible. The corruption and lack of integrity was staggering. The disregard for my life was mind-blowing.
The more I looked at it, it was evident that the victims of this kind of evil corruption, plucked from the tree of life, all came from the same poor or disadvantaged communities. It was then that I knew I had to do something, and the most effective way was to be in that courtroom representing them with passion and an understanding of how far the evilness will go to send you away.
I saw this thing from three sides: I wanted to work with Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, the co-founders of the Innocence Project. They are life-savers. They saved my life and hundreds of others. That’s a powerful thing, to save someone’s life. When I was sent me to prison, I was convinced I would never get out. But then here came those guys and their team of smart, committed students and . . .
I have to give back. I have to save lives. Peter and Barry are fighting. I want to join the fight.
The other side was that I enjoyed the process of learning from great legal minds. I’m so into learning, and to learn the law, considering where I have been, is important to me.
Lastly, when I was a kid, I would see the older guys in the neighborhood, but suddenly, one-by-one, they would disappear. I never knew what happened to them. They were just gone. Then I went to prison and I discovered that’s where they were. Somebody has to stand up for the community and stop this madness. Some of them committed crimes, yes. But some were unfortunate souls in the wrong place, apprehended by corrupt cops, tried by do-nothing lawyers and convicted by juries that cared too little.
It’s unconscionable that dirty cops can come in and pluck our people and a flawed system can convict us with so much ease. I have to be a part of the solution.
At this point, I am close to completing law school at Western Sierra University near San Diego. I am on my way. The grand plan is to open up a law firm with the Innocence Project where we investigate for ourselves and not rely on law enforcement. We will work with the community. Like Johnny Cochran called me, I want to call young people whose lives are in jeopardy when they should not be in jeopardy.
And here’s the thing: Going to school and doing for others is what I would have done if I were not wrongfully convicted. I was waiting to take the exam for the Air Force, where I wanted to serve and go to college, when I got arrested. They took that from me.
But here I am, a lot later than I wanted, but making my way nonetheless. Twelve years in prison remain a part of my DNA. Everyday, no matter what, I make purchases, even if it is just a pack of chewing gum, make sure I get a receipt and look into the store’s surveillance camera as a way of having proof that I was not where a crime was committed. Yes, I’m that paranoid.
But I know it could happen again because it happened once—and is happening right now to innocent men somewhere in the United States.
How can I not fight against this?
(To read the first two parts of the series, click below)