Exoneration erases only part of the debt

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 12:19 PM

The state of Virginia gave Thomas Haynesworth one heck of a birthday gift Monday.

After 27 years in prison, the commonwealth set him free. On his 46th birthday. How sweet.

The problem is, that's only the beginning of what the government owes this man, even though Haynesworth may not see that yet.

"This is the best birthday. Nothing can compare to this," Haynesworth said to reporters as he left the Greensville Correctional Center.

Of course you're thrilled the day you walk out of that place, say others who have made the same walk to freedom that Haynesworth did.

"You're so happy, you can't imagine being mad at anyone that day you get out," said Victor Burnette, who remembers the sheer joy of the day he finished an 81/2-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit.

"The thing is, when you first get back out, you think it's all over with," Burnette said in his soft Richmond drawl.

"But it's not."

For nearly three decades, Haynesworth had been telling everyone he was innocent, that he didn't commit the rapes he was convicted of in 1984. And at last, after DNA testing cleared him of one of the charges, the state's highest officials are finally agreeing with him.

But it's not just those 27 years that were taken. In a way, the prison sentence continues.

Once freed, these exonerated men get turned down for jobs. Their friends have moved on, and so has the rest of the world. Everything feels alien: ATMs, cellphones, the very concept of a Super Wal-Mart.

All these wonders await Haynesworth, the other men said.

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