As an inmate in West Virginia’s prison system, Jimmie C. Gardner had to fight to keep from being killed by other inmates, and at the same time work to prove his innocence. He succeeded, but only after spending 26 years of a 110-year sentence locked up before being released last year. Now he’s fighting another tough battle — trying to win compensation for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.
You’d think that he’d be mad as hell.
I recently met Gardner, 51, at his lawyers’ office in Washington, curious about news reports that he was actually grateful that the judicial system had worked. “It’s unfortunate that it took so long, but it worked,” said Gardner, who lives in Woodbridge, Va.
How do people spend decades behind bars for crimes they did not commit and come out smiling, as if they’d been to Disney World?
What happened to Gardner was particularly egregious. The injustice did not occur as a result of some mistaken identity or even incompetence, as is sometimes the case. Rather, it was the result of false testimony by a state police forensic scientist, who was also found to have manipulated evidence to exclude a more likely culprit.
“I went through periods of having anger,” Gardner said. “But I had to channel that anger. I had high blood pressure, so I had to find a way to stay calm. I had to breathe differently. I had to maintain my health, stay humble and positive. And give praise to God. Or else I’d probably die in prison.”
In 1984, Gardner had been drafted as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. He had been in Kanawha County, W.Va., playing with a farm team when police learned that two women had been robbed and sexually assaulted. The suspect was described as a light-skinned black man with a narrow nose and about 6 feet tall.
All of the black baseball players were questioned and some fingerprinted, including Gardner. He was eventually arrested when Fred Zain, the serologist who examined blood for the state police, alleged that the DNA and fingerprints found at the crime scene matched Gardner’s.
Count his arrest as one of those times he got angry.
“I knew he was lying, because I knew I hadn’t committed the crime,” said Gardner, who was just 23 at the time. Gardner has a dark complexion and stands 6 feet 4 inches tall.
After spending three years in prison, Gardner learned that Zain was under investigation for fraud. The West Virginia Supreme Court would eventually issue an opinion saying that Zain had a “long history of falsifying evidence in criminal prosecutions” and that “Zain’s pattern and practice of misconduct completely undermined the validity and reliability of any forensic work he performed or reported.”
Any inmate whose trial included Zain’s testimony or evidence handled by him was entitled to a hearing to determine whether the case should be retried or dismissed, the court declared.
“I was excited,” Gardner recalled.
In 1994, while still in prison, he did an interview with USA Today in which he talked about “getting ready to get released.” He called his parents to share the good news.
But, astoundingly, Gardner would spend another 23 years in prison before getting a hearing. Three times court dates were set, but Gardner either wasn’t allowed to leave the prison to attend the hearings or the hearings were postponed or canceled.
During that time, he wrote hundreds of letters to various court and elected officials — including President Barack Obama. He appealed for help from human rights activists in Canada and Germany. And he did it all while managing the horrors of prison life.
“Slavery,” Gardner called it, where inmates made license plates, soap, auto inspection stickers and other goods that profited the prison.
Threats from other inmates who spent their days fashioning all manner of weapons kept him wary. “I had to fight, but I couldn’t do anything that would risk my efforts to get out,” he said. “I would come back to my cell sometimes and just cry, and then pray and pray and pray.”
He saw scores of inmates die — killed in fights, shot by prison guards, succumbing to untreated diseases and committing suicide. Few lived long enough to die of old age.
Then, in 2013, one of his appeals caught the eye of U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin. There were striking inconsistencies in the case against Gardner, the judge found. For instance, the perpetrator of the sexual assault reportedly had Type O blood. Gardner’s was Type A. As for Gardner languishing in prison for more than two decades without getting a court-ordered hearing, Goodwin called the delay “egregious and inordinate” and declared the judicial process “a miscarriage of justice.”
He then overturned Gardner’s conviction and vacated the sentence.
For several months afterward, though, county prosecutors threatened to retry Gardner. They still claimed that Zain’s tainted DNA evidence would prove him guilty. But by then, Gardner had a new defense team in place, including a DNA expert who was prepared to demolish the evidence that had been cooked up by Zain.
The prosecution backed off, and Gardner went free.
In March, his lawyer, A. Scott Bolden, petitioned the West Virginia Court of Claims to pay “damages in an amount sufficient to fairly and reasonably compensate him for the injuries suffered based upon this wrongful arrest, wrongful conviction and incarceration.”
Usually, the state tries to cap such payments at $1 million — and rarely gives that. Just the thought of getting so little should be upsetting. But not to Gardner.
“I really just feel that no amount of money can bring back the years,” he said. “That’s in God’s hands. Just being out, here with my family and loved ones, is what I’m focused on right now.”
Being freed, he said, brought him “such a feeling of relief that is indescribable. I was not guilty, and I was able to prove it.”
But that’s not how the criminal justice system is supposed to work. And even if Gardner is not angry, somebody should be.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.