Because of his physical resemblance to a killer, David Quindt was wrongly convicted of a murder, faced life behind bars and was twice driven to attempt suicide while in custody.
After 14 months in jail, he was exonerated. Four years later, he still has to steady himself against the aftershocks.
He could have used help finding a stable job. He still could use debt counseling, health care for his young family, eyeglasses he can actually see through, some dental work. He could use, he acknowledges, a bit of psychological retuning to manage the anger and despair that infected him during his time in jail.
"What I went through was the biggest nightmare anybody could ever have," said Quindt, a lanky, articulate man of 27 whose right forearm bears tattooing from his days as a teenage rowdy. "I'd been doing so good. I had a good job, made good money. I'd really turned my life around. Now, I don't feel like I'm part of society. I feel like I'm sitting off in the corner -- alone, scared."
No state provides services to what are sometimes called exonerees -- the nationally growing number of former prison inmates who, thanks to DNA technology, recanting witnesses and other exculpatory forces, are being found not guilty of involvement in the crimes for which they were convicted.
Although a small number may eventually obtain the monetary compensation some states offer, exonerated prisoners get nothing on release but pocket money. They are left to deal unaided with shattered lives, the enduring suspicion of others and their own festering resentments.
On the other hand, those who never had their convictions overturned -- parolees -- can receive free employment counseling, housing referrals, and physical and mental health services through parole agents charged with helping them rejoin society.
"People don't really recover from this," said Lola Vollen, a physician and co-founder of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Life After Exoneration Program, a year-old organization dedicated to helping the exonerated after they are released.
"When you struggle to make a living or to find an apartment and people look at your work record and see this big gap, even though you're innocent, you're damaged goods," Vollen said. "Exonerees get overwhelmed. They don't know where to start."
Across the United States, as many as 35 projects work for the release of the wrongfully convicted. Life After Exoneration is believed to be the first to focus exclusively on the needs of such persons after they are freed.
Recently fortified by a $100,000 grant from the Oakland Federal District Court, the group envisions a national network of exonerated people aided by volunteer "case managers," who help the former prisoners reassemble their lives.
Vollen, a former operative of Physicians for Human Rights, pioneered the effort to identify Bosnian massacre victims through DNA analysis. As director of the DNA and Human Rights Center, she came to realize that innocence projects were not equipped to help the exonerated after getting them out of prison.
A University of Michigan Law School study released in April identified 328 exonerations nationwide between 1989 and last year. The study focused on prisoners freed because of "factual innocence," as opposed to those whose convictions were overturned for technical legal reasons.
The study gleaned figures primarily from media reports because no official registry of exonerations exists. It found that they averaged a dozen a year through the early 1990s, but have increased to 43 per year. The prisoners included in the report spent an average of 10 years behind bars.
The expunging of their criminal records does not erase the reality of what they face on the outside. Life After Exoneration recently surveyed 58 such former prisoners and found that 40 percent struggled with depression (80 percent reported having been physically injured or attacked in prison). A third were financially dependent on family or friends.
David Quindt's plight is illustrative. Amid intense Sacramento media coverage, Quindt, then 21, was convicted of first-degree murder in the October 1998 shooting death of a teenage boy and the wounding of a teenage girl during a drug robbery.
A man from whom Quindt had legally bought two guns the day before the killing spoke to the surviving victim and suggested that Quindt might be responsible. The wounded girl, who had never seen Quindt, provided police with a sketch that bore a marked resemblance to him (and, it turned out, to one of the killers).
Quindt was working as a yard foreman for a rental company and, like about half of those exonerated, had no previous criminal record. From the day he was charged, he vociferously protested his innocence; he fell into a deep depression while awaiting sentencing.
He tried to commit suicide by attempting to leap through a closed window on the eighth floor of the jail, but only injured himself when he bounced off the thick glass. While at the University of California at Davis Hospital for treatment, he tried again, this time crashing through a fourth-floor window and injuring his head and torso.
Before Quindt could be sentenced, an informant led authorities to the killers. Quindt was released after 14 months in custody.
He received $17,200 in compensation from the state, but it quickly went to buy used cars for him and his wife, Christy.
Quindt lost jobs as a fast-food restaurant manager and warehouse forklift driver after employers performed background checks. They accused him of lying on his employment application about never having been convicted of a felony.
Because of a court error, his murder conviction had not been expunged. Even the subsequent expunging and an explanatory letter from the prosecutor who had convicted Quindt failed to persuade either employer to reconsider.
For a long time, Quindt struggled to support Christy and their two small children on sporadic earnings from painting houses. The family received no public assistance.
Only recently did he find promising work, supervising a 56-unit apartment complex in Sacramento. Even though Christy, too, has landed a job in a nursing home, Quindt must contend with $8,000 in accumulated debt and with credit that's "all screwed up."
Only 18 states, plus the federal government and the District of Columbia, compensate the exonerated.
Claimants in those jurisdictions must meet strict standards to prove they had no involvement in the crimes for which they were convicted.
At $100 for each day of incarceration, California's compensation is among the most generous. But of 47 claims submitted in the last 23 years, only 10, including Quindt's, have been approved. (In accordance with the compensation law, Quindt's award covered only the time he spent in a state facility after conviction, not the approximately 10 months he was in a county jail awaiting trial.)
The California law, like those of other states, requires that the applicant do more than just prove innocence. A claimants must show that he did not "intentionally or negligently contribute to the bringing about of his arrest or conviction."
The high standard explains why relatively few claims have succeeded, said California Deputy Attorney General Michael P. Farrell.
A proposed bill would address what advocates for the exonerated see as shortcomings in the present law. The measure would require the state to notify exonerated former prisoners of their potential eligibility for compensation; provide interim health, housing and other services for as many as three years; and fund a case-management agency, such as Life After Exoneration.
Vollen estimates that 20 percent of the exonerated people she knows have lawsuits pending against authorities. Legal action, however, is not a promising tactic, given that those who sue must prove intentional misconduct by authorities and given that prosecutors enjoy broad immunity.
Quindt's prospects brightened in January when he got a phone call from Vollen, who had found his name on a list of California's exonerated.
She provided him with a laptop computer for his fledgling painting business, arranged a security deposit he needed to move his family into a sufficiently spacious apartment and connected him with a volunteer case manager. The volunteer, retired Berkeley social worker and union official David Aroner, is helping Quindt qualify his family for government health-insurance coverage.
For his part, Quindt has been speaking out about his experiences. He spoke to the residents of a delinquent boys' home where he once lived and before a federal judge in support of the $100,000 grant that Life After Exoneration eventually received.
Such societal reconnection, Vollen said, is vital if the exonerated are to fully resume their disrupted lives.
"Exonerees need to know society understands," she said. ". . . It takes a community to welcome someone back into the community."