What do you say to someone who has spent 10,950 days — 3 decades and his last 30 birthdays — wondering if today would be the day he would be put to death for a crime he did not commit?
“They give you a $20 debit card and say, ‘I’ll be waiting on you,’ ” said John Thompson, who spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them on death row, wrongfully convicted of murder.
On March 11, Thompson welcomed home fellow exoneree Glenn Ford, Louisiana’s longest-serving death row prisoner. Ford was released from death row and exonerated after an informant told police that the real killer — one of the original suspects — confessed to the 1983 murder.
“I was playing chess, when they came and got me to leave,” said Ford, spreading out his many pencil drawings, a testament of how he spent his time locked up, on a wooden table at the Resurrection After Exoneration (RAE) House on St. Bernard Avenue. Ford is a senior citizen now, battling high blood pressure and moving slowly because of bad knees. “My lawyer told me I was going to get out a few times before, but I wasn’t really believing it.”
Ford is the 144th death row inmate to be cleared of all charges and the 10th in Louisiana. It didn’t matter that the forensic evidence was tainted. Or there was prosecutor misconduct. Or perjury. Or that he received an inadequate legal defense. For three decades, Ford sat on death row in Angola, one of the most sadistic maximum-security prisons on the planet, one that harkens back to the days of chattel slavery, a modern-day plantation nicknamed “The Farm.”
“You go inside that wall and it’s another world,” Thompson said. “How you put me in this cage and make me defend myself against the worst people in society – murderers, robbers, rapists … and then want me to come out and do what?”
Thompson founded the nonprofit organization, Resurrection After Exoneration (RAE), a residential program in New Orleans to offer exonerees and returning long-term prisoners a place to live as well as various other supports to help them successfully transition into life post-penitentiary.
Thompson watched at least 12 men be executed during his imprisonment at Angola and Ford saw as many as 15.
“I know they suffer from extreme anxiety, depression and stress,” said Thompson. “Sometimes I call the living room the ‘day room’ like I’m in jail, and it’s 10 years later.”
The trauma that torments the wrongfully convicted is inconceivably wretched. Their immediate needs are the obvious food, shelter and medical care. Healing — anger management training and counseling — rank high too. So does compassion.
Thompson poses the question: “What is a man worth?”
According to Louisiana statute, not much. People like Ford are eligible for $25,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned with a 10-year cap, plus $80,000 for “loss of life opportunities.” Yet, this money isn’t guaranteed. There’s a lengthy, cumbersome application process and still the chance the state could appeal this disbursement for any number of reasons.
Thompson said these calculations are a slap in the face, especially the “loss of life opportunities” sum. The formula, he explained, is rooted in the belief that since most of the wrongfully convicted come from a low socioeconomic background and are black that had he or she not been incarcerated, his or her life would not have exhibited much potential or promise anyway. This person’s freedom is valued at a low-wage job, what the $25,000 a year payment amounts to. Most exonerees leave prison old men with broken bodies – and spirits – from years spent doing hard time.
The average time of imprisonment before exoneration is 11 years.
From 1989 to 2012, 38 people in Louisiana have been exonerated, according to The National Registry of Exonerations, joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
Fourteen of those case have been in Orleans Parish, 10 in Jefferson, three in St. Tammany, and one in Caddo, where Ford was tried.
“Justice as a concept historically, I’m not talking American history, I mean in the history of civilization, was a fluid one. It was a concept rooted in truth finding, fairness and equity. Unfortunately, this country’s justice system’s sole purpose is to punish at all costs,” said Ameca Reali, co-founder and executive director of the Justice and Accountability Center for Louisiana.
“Thusly it’s blemished by error, repeatedly producing unfair outcomes for people based on race and socioeconomic status. Until we take a deeper look at systems-level changes we will continue to hear tragic stories of injustice like Mr. Ford’s.”
Death penalty exonerations continue at a high rate. Of the 1,281 individual exonerations from 1989 to 2013, 92% were men and about 62% of those were people of color. Twelve defendants received posthumous exonerations.
As a group, these wronged men and women had spent nearly 12,500 years caged.
Now free, Ford plans to reunite with his sons who live in California. He’s looking forward to the quiet. Well, that’s not when he’s babysitting his 11 grandkids.
Thompson has started the paperwork.
jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.