Michael Williams of New Orleans tries to make the best of his situation and is pursuing litigation to help others. (Credit: Otisha Paige)
Michael Williams of New Orleans tries to make the best of his situation and is pursuing litigation to help others. (Credit: Otisha Paige)

By Otisha Paige | LSU Student

The Innocence Project of New Orleans is responsible for 22 exonerations in Louisiana and Mississippi since its founding in 2001. The staff's time, patience, and diligence have resulted in these individuals getting back their freedom and a second chance in society.

However, exoneration is not sufficient to restore what once was. Missed opportunities, struggles with gaining employment, and timely compensation top the list of difficulties with rejoining and readjusting to society.

No amount of money can compensate for the time spent in prison, says Kristen Wenstrom, a staff attorney at Innocence Project New Orleans.

Some of the exonerated have found their way back into society in spite of various obstacles. A few have even been able to help others.

John Thompson of New Orleans was wrongfully convicted in 1985 of eight counts of armed robbery and murder. Thompson was sentenced to death, but was exonerated in 2003 just days before he was to be executed after an assistant district attorney confessed on his deathbed of illegally withholding evidence during trial.

Along with Shareef Cousin, Thompson founded the Resurrection after Exoneration (RAE) program, a non-profit organization, in 2007 because of a delay in assistance to exonerees. This program focuses on helping the recently exonerated readjust to society by offering housing, job skills training, computer training and other forms of support, says Wenstrom.

The corrections system does not explain that to those freed, however. Programs like RAE sound good in theory, but in reality the issue centers on the effectiveness of the program, especially when it comes to governmental assistance.

Michael Williams of New Orleans possessed a steady, well-paying career working with on offshore oil rigs during the early Nineties. His life with a wife and son resembled a typical middle-class family. His world turned upside down in 1996, however, after being wrongfully convicted of second degree murder.

Fifteen years later, on November 18, 2011, he was released from Angola prison after the eyewitness admitted to lying about seeing Williams at the scene of the crime. Williams acknowledges to being a different person upon release after thinking of the loss of opportunities. "It is difficult mentally upon release to come to terms with everything that has happened" says Thompson.

The time in prison taught patience, forgiveness, and diligence, says Williams. He was able to utilize these virtues when it came to waiting on assistance.

During an interview conducted by correspondent Jesse Chanin that was posted on the website Public Radio Exchange (PRX), Derek Jamison told of being given a life sentence in 1985 for armed robbery and aggravated murder. Jamison was exonorated in 2005. He has yet to receive compensation and he has struggled to find employment. It's difficult to adjust to technologies of today and that adds another hurdle to overcome, says Jamison.

In spite of these obstacles, he refuses to be bitter about his situation. He works with RAE and speaks in various forums regarding education and the death penalty.

Shareef Cousin of New Orleans was convicted wrongfully in 1985 at the age of 16 of aggravated robbery and murder and became the youngest person in Louisiana to be sentenced to death. During an interview with PRX, Cousin said exonerees have to come to terms with their years behind bars in order to move forward.

Regaining employment marks the first hurdle due to preconceived notions harbored against those who have been in prison. "People don't want to take the chance to hire you even without a record because of the gaps in employment," Williams says.

"Many men don't want to include the training and jobs they performed while in prison," says Wenstrom. Sometimes, the convictions still come up on background checks and this leaves exonerees in a difficult position.

It becomes a problem of explaining your case to hiring managers and how you were released. A person has been exonerated still is placed in the same category as a convicted felon because of a lack of work history, says Thompson. He also points out that one still has to check "yes" on application forms to being previously convicted.

Carole Walker, a corrections officer from 1993-1997, agrees that finding employment for those exonerated can be difficult. "Society can be very judgmental, even after someone has been exonerated" says Walker.

Some don't even know what exoneration is, notes Thompson.

Compensation for exonerees depends on the state. In Louisiana, they can receive up to a maximum of $250,000. They are not given a lump sum, rather annual payments of $25,000 over a 10-year payment, regardless of the years spent in prison – the bare minimum to survive when you are unemployed and lack any other source of assistance or income, says Williams

Before receiving compensation, the exonoree has to hire a lawyer to draft a legal petition for the money and represent them in court, says Wenstrom. This petition has to be approved before the state will release any funds. Exonorees then become eligible for loss-of-opportunity compensation of up to $80,000 if they are able to show proof of medical, job training skills, or higher education expenses, says Wenstrom.

However, exonerees are unable to take advantage of such funds because they still are waiting on the $25,000 a year. Therefore, they are unable to pay for anything.

Problems with expediency in compensation payment exist, as well. The state requires exonerees to present receipts of expenses in court before any money can be given, says Williams.

Terrence Meyers, a friend of Williams, was wrongfully convicted of second degree murder in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison. He was released in 2010 and died before he received compensation. If the exoneree dies before receiving the money, it is awarded to the exonoree's next of kin, says Williams. Meyer's experience further provided Williams with the motivation to pursue litigation for expedient compensation.

Wenstrom and Thompson agree the state should initially provide housing and transportation for the individual. Without basic necessities, it makes progression much more difficult, especially if still unemployed and awaiting state compensation.

Exonerees expect government programs to fill these voids by offering assistance, but they say these programs prove ineffective for them. "The reality is that the State has no obligations to help with readjustment. People have to actively seek aid themselves," says Thompson.

The Louisiana Workforce Commission allotted $67 per month to Michael Williams in spite of being unemployed at the time. This program bases the amount allowed on the combined income in the household. Williams lived with his mother at the time, so her income was factored into the eligibility amount.

The Emergency Unemployment Insurance program requires documentation of work history every three months. However, those exonerated lack a consistent work history since they were previously incarcerated. These individuals don't qualify for this program because of their absence from the work force. "These restrictive requirements aren't reasonable and the system is supposed to work for you, not against you," says Williams.

Finding these programs depends on one's persistent research. Walker says there are nonprofit organizations as well as programs within the penal system to help with readjustment to life outside prison. Exoneration is the same as innocence to the judicial system, but it doesn't necessarily equate for general population, says Walker.

Since society doesn't distinguish between who is innocent and who becomes exonerated due to inconsistencies during the investigation or trial, the exonerated are given an extra obstacle to tackle in order to prove themselves, points out Walker. In spite of the unfortunate position that they are placed in and the lack of sufficient assistance, Williams and Thompson have used patience and determination to readjust to society.