When he was first sent to the federal prison in Lorton, Va., for a crime he did not commit, Kirk Odom was warned never to tell other inmates about his rape conviction. If he did, the information could make him prey to inmates seeking vengeance.
It was 1982 when a fellow inmate walked up to him and whispered, “I know what you did,” Odom recalled. Two days later, Odom was raped in his cell. It would be the first of more than a half-dozen sexual assaults Odom would endure during two decades in prison.
Some 15 years later, Odom took an HIV test. It was negative. Months later, a fellow inmate again sexually assaulted Odom. After that attack, he took another HIV test. This time, it was positive. “I was devastated,” Odom testified Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court.
Over two days on the witness stand, Odom has been recounting his time in prison, his sexual assaults, his suicide attempts, his depression and his estranged family relations; all of that is attributed, he says, to his false imprisonment for a 1981 armed robbery, burglary and rape conviction. He is suing the District for emotional and physical pain and distress from his time at the Lorton prison.
After a charge led by the D.C. Public Defender’s Service, and joined by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Odom, 52, was exonerated in 2012. Prosecutors acknowledged that new DNA evidence proved that another man committed the crime for which Odom served 20 years in prison before being paroled in 2003.
About a year ago, Odom settled a lawsuit against the U.S. government for about $1.2 million — the maximum allowed by the government in restitution for false imprisonment.
Now, Odom and his attorneys are seeking additional compensation from the District related to the conditions at the Lorton prison, which closed in 2001.
Odom’s case is the first of what is expected to be a handful of new civil actions against the District by former prisoners who have been exonerated through DNA evidence. Since 2012, there have been at least three additional exonerations of former inmates. The first of the D.C. exonerations took place in December 2009 for Donald E. Gates, then 58, after DNA results cleared him of a rape and a murder for which he had spent 28 years in prison. Since then, D.C. Superior Court judges have exonerated two other men, Santae A. Tribble and Kevin Martin. A third murder conviction of Cleveland Wright was vacated, and his attorneys with the Public Defender Service continue to ask the court to declare him innocent of his 1978 murder conviction.
In Odom’s case, lawyers with the D.C. attorney general’s office argued that while they sympathize with his plight, Odom has already been compensated by the federal government and should not receive additional compensation. Addressing Odom’s HIV status, lawyers for the District noted that Odom admitted to having a consensual sexual relationship and getting a tattoo while in prison.
Odom speaks low and softly, at times befuddled. While attending D.C. public schools, he had a learning disability. During the hearing, Judge Neal E. Kravitz often reprimanded Odom’s New York-based attorney, Peter Neufeld, for leading Odom in his answers as he spoke, an effort to direct Odom to focus on the question at hand.
Odom told the judge his cell at Lorton was overrun with rats and roaches. He spoke of being afraid to fall asleep at night, worrying that he would be attacked.
He talked about his suicide attempts, saying he once tried to hang himself. Another time, he said, after an appeals court declined to take his case, he set his mattress on fire.
In 1987, after the suicide attempts, Lorton officials transferred Odom to St. Elizabeths, the District’s psychiatric hospital, for evaluation. Odom testified that while there, he scribbled a letter to then-President Reagan — on toilet paper — hoping that the president would look into the case. Odom said he was “upset” that St. Elizabeths staff refused to mail it. “It was my letter. It wasn’t threatening. Whether it was written on a leaf off a tree, it should have been mailed,” Odom testified.
He watched other inmates be attacked and killed. He testified that he rarely took showers and stayed out of the prison’s recreation yard and TV room, which he said were often scenes of attacks by other inmates. “I tried to stay alive,” he said. “Each and every day, I feared for my safety. I had to stay awake at night. I didn’t know what would happen next.”
Odom now lives in Southeast Washington with his wife, Harriet, whom he met at an HIV-support group. She offered hope. “She told me, ‘If I accept you, don’t worry about anyone else,’ ” Odom testified. The two own a landscaping and painting company, which employs six workers.
Odom continues to take medication for depression and for his HIV.
In addition to his physical and emotional injuries, Odom said his wife, who is from South Africa, had been denied U.S. citizenship by the Department of Homeland Security. He said he was told it was because of his rape conviction.
It was a trip to Botswana to visit his new in-laws where Odom said he embraced his new freedom. “I didn’t want to come back here,” he said. “There was so much family and friends there, I just didn’t want to come back to D.C.”