Crime and Punishment How Appealing Innocence

Herman Atkins and the Weight of Innocence

Before exoneration, 54 DNA exonerees claimed ineffective defense counsel. Appeals courts threw out 81% of those claims.

–courtesy of the Innocence Project

With 697 people awaiting execution in our fair state, California has the largest death row population in the nation.

Despite this pile up of the condemned, the CDCR’s attempt to restart executions after a four year hiatus, was temporarily derailed on Tuesday by a Marin County judge because, the judge said, the state’s new lethal injection procedures were still problematic and may constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

(I’ve written a bit about this issue in the past on WLA. Suffice it to say that we—along with various other states—used to use a cocktail of drugs that American veterinarians have long eschewed as too cruel.)

Attorney General Jerry Brown will challenge the ruling.

Now, as we wait to see if the courts will permit capital punishment to be jump started here, the LA Weekly’s cover story on Chet Atkins, one of California’s Innocence Project exonerees, seems like just the right thing to be reading simply as a reminder of what can happen when the judicial system misfires and mistakenly convicts the innocent.

The story is by Charlotte Hsu .

Here’s how it opens:

Herman Atkins Sr. keeps every receipt. About this, he is meticulous. For every bottle of water, every pack of gum, he will ask the cashier for a sales slip. Each day, he brings the slips home to his wife, Machara Hogue, who files them away in chronological order, a separate folder for each month.

When Atkins is out of the house and realizes that he has not bought anything for a few hours, he sometimes swings by a mini-mart to make a purchase so he can get a receipt. If the store has a surveillance camera, Atkins will make sure to walk past it.

If he is on the road and cannot stop somewhere, he will call Hogue. The cell phone statements are not as good as receipts, which pinpoint a person’s location at a specific time on a specific date. But they are better than nothing.

Atkins is building an alibi for a crime he has not committed.

“Herman is never driving in the car without talking to someone on his cell phone,” Hogue says. “He understands that he has to have a record of every minute of every day of his life, because when he couldn’t prove that he was somewhere else at a certain minute of the day, his freedom was taken away from him.”

Twenty-two years ago, when he had no receipts or bills or surveillance cameras to establish his whereabouts, a jury sent Herman Atkins to prison for rape and robbery in Lake Elsinore, a place he had never been.

He received a sentence of 45 years and served about a fifth of it before a DNA test proved his innocence and he was released.

“A lot of people will tell him, ‘That’s bull, it doesn’t happen like that,‘ ” Hogue says. “But you can’t tell a man who’s been through it that it doesn’t happen like that.”

For the innocent who are locked away, no apology, no amount of money, can replace the lost years. While they’re imprisoned, the world outside moves on. Children grow. Loved ones die. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, births, graduations — all are missed.

When an innocent man is freed, the world sees his release as a resurrection. The media is obsessed with recounting his good fortune. He is driven, intent on reclaiming his life. Opportunities open to him seem limitless.

But the reality of exoneration is ugly and complicated. After the media frenzy comes a reality the public doesn’t see: The trauma of a wrongful conviction isn’t only the years it claims. It’s also the way it changes you forever.

Spend time with Atkins and you see that he is struggling. He is nervous, suspicious, leery of women as well as law enforcement and strangers of all kinds. He describes himself as distrustful.

“People tell me, ‘Herman, you’re too hard. You’re not approachable.’ I don’t want to be approached,” he says. “Even today, I admit that I’m not so open-minded with dealing with people. I don’t like people.”

Atkins says he prefers not to dwell on the past. He has seen the way that some exonerees allow bitterness to consume them. He won’t be like that.

He insists he will not be devoured by history, obsessed with transgressions impossible to reverse. But the truth is, the past stalks him anyhow….

Read on.

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