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Exonerated Ex-Inmates Struggle to Shed Stigma

By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 28, 2008; A01

CHICAGO -- Tabitha Pollock was asleep when her boyfriend killed her 3-year-old daughter. Charged with first-degree murder because prosecutors believed she should have known of the danger, Pollock spent more than six years in prison before the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the conviction.

"Should have known," the high court ruled, was not nearly enough to keep Pollock behind bars.

Five years later, Pollock remains in limbo, freed from prison but not free from the snags of a wrongful conviction that upended her life. With a felony record, she cannot become a teacher, as she wants. She cannot collect damages from the Illinois government. On a trip to Australia, where customs officials questioned her when she arrived, she learned that the murder conviction always follows her.

To fully clear her name, Pollock -- as well as a dozen or so other former Illinois inmates who have been exonerated -- needs an official pardon, which only the governor can give. She applied in 2002 but has received no word.

"I was raised to believe America is a wonderful country, but I have serious doubts about Illinois now," said Pollock, 37. "This whole experience has taught me not to have any hopes or dreams."

A spokesman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) said last month that the governor is flooded with petitions and has not had time to focus on Pollock's case.

Pollock's predicament is becoming more common across the country as more people are exonerated. The New York-based Innocence Project has tallied 215 wrongful convictions in the United States that have been reversed on the basis of DNA evidence.

Many of those former prisoners are seeking redress from the governments that mistakenly jailed them -- but they are kept waiting, whether because of the slow pace of bureaucracy or a lack of procedures or political will to handle their cases.

When the authorities do not certify innocence, "in effect, the sentence just goes on," said Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project. Noting that legislators are recognizing "the lingering problems" of the exonerated after their release, he said 22 states and the District provide official compensation in one form or another.

"A recent trend is not only to compensate at a monetary value per year incarcerated, but also to provide immediate services upon release," said Saloom, who said the project's clients spent an average of 11 years in prison. Advocates say the exonerated need help making the transition back into society, especially finding a job.

"It's not enough to let the person out of prison," Saloom said.

Alabama pays exonerated ex-prisoners $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated. New Jersey pays $40,000 or twice the inmate's previous annual income. Louisiana offers $15,000 a year plus counseling, medical care and job training, according to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

In Illinois, to regain a certifiably clean record and collect compensation -- a lump payment of $60,150 for five years or less in prison, or $120,300 for six to 14 years -- an exonerated inmate must obtain a "pardon based on innocence" from the governor. A 15-member state review board interviews the petitioners and makes a recommendation, but the governor is not obligated to make a decision.

"The governor is not acting on them," said Karen Daniel, senior staff lawyer with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which is pressing Blagojevich to decide on Pollock's case and others. "In most of these cases, it's really not a hard decision. Sometimes there's still some controversy left after the conviction is thrown out, but in most of these cases there is no disagreement."

Illinois law gives exonerated former prisoners fewer services than paroled convicts. A bill recently passed by the Illinois House and now under consideration by the Senate would change that, while allowing cleared inmates to receive a "certificate of innocence," which would have the same power as a pardon, without going to the governor.

Robert Wilson's experience with the Chicago courts was a case of mistaken identity. He spent nine years behind bars for another man's crime, and it haunts him still.

On Feb. 28, 1997, someone slashed June Siler, 24, with a box cutter as she waited for a bus on Chicago's South Side. The next day, at the same bus stop, police arrested Wilson. Interrogated for nearly 30 hours, he signed a written confession and was charged with attempted murder.

Wilson pleaded not guilty, but Siler pointed him out in court as the man who cut her face and throat. What the jury did not know was that five other victims -- all white, as Siler was -- were attacked and slashed at Chicago bus stops in the two weeks after Wilson's arrest. The slasher was caught and confessed, but police never asked him about the Siler case.

Nine years later, on an appeal filed by the Northwestern team, a court ruled that the jury should have been told about the other cases. Siler came forward and said she had fingered the wrong man.

Wilson, at long last, was free. Yet he left prison with few prospects and deeply in debt because he was assessed child support for his three boys while behind bars. These days, his boys are teenagers and he is "barely making it."

"I feel so bad, I figure I would be better off back in the penitentiary," said Wilson, 52. "Whenever I apply for a job, they see the criminal record and say no. I'm not asking for welfare or a handout; just give me what I deserve."

Marlon Pendleton is also bitter. In 1993, a rape and robbery victim picked him from a police lineup. His attorneys believe that the victim was influenced by seeing Pendleton in handcuffs before she viewed the entire group. Although he repeatedly asked for DNA testing, he was told it would be impossible.

In 2006, a DNA test established his innocence and Pendleton went free. But he has not been pardoned, has not received compensation and has not seen the conviction wiped off his record. Unable to meet the mortgage, his family lost his late mother's home in Gary, Ind. He says his children are suffering.

"I can't get a job," Pendleton said. "Every time I fill out an application, it comes up. What can you do with a prison record and a not very good education? Life has been a living hell."

Daniel, the Northwestern lawyer, said the number of exonerated inmates "probably seems small" in a nation with 2 million people behind bars. "But to me, it's important."

"It's just an enormous wrong we've inflicted on these people, not necessarily intentionally," Daniel said. "His possessions are gone, job is gone, family members are often gone. There's little worse a government can do to a person. We can't in good conscience have a so-called criminal justice system unless we make people whole when we screw up."

One of Daniel's clients is Marcus Lyons, a former Navy Reservist and aspiring computer programmer who spent three years in prison on an erroneous sexual assault conviction.

Lyons was so distraught that after his release in 1991, he tried to nail himself to a cross outside the DuPage County Courthouse.

DNA evidence cleared him last year. He is still waiting for the Illinois government to make amends.

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