The rash of exonerations we’ve seen over the last 20 years is a unique phenomenon in modern U.S. history. It’s the product of an especially punitive era of criminal justice policy that began in the early 1980s, combined with the DNA technology that came long about 15 years later. Parole has been around for a long time. There have been studies of parolees and the psychology of leaving prison, and many states have programs to help parolees integrate back into society. But we know very little about exonerees and their psychology, which is probably quite a bit different than that of someone who served time for a crime they actually committed.
In fact, in some states exonerees are ineligible for the job training and reintegration programs that are available to parolees. Which means that in some ways and in some places, we treat innocent people who have served large amounts of time in prison worse upon their release than we treat guilty people. (And we still don’t even treat the parolees all that well.)
Over at The Intercept, Liliana Segura has written a piece about William Lopez and Jeff Deskovic, two wrongly convicted men who became best friends after their release from prison. It’s a vivid and moving illustration of the challenges faced by exonerees. Deskovic was released first, then started an advocacy organization that helped win Lopez’s release. Both men suffered from anxiety, confusion, and loneliness outside of prison. But they battled their demons in starkly different ways.
On a snowy evening in late March, just over a year after walking out of prison, where he had spent 23 years for a crime he didn’t commit, William Lopez entered a CVS in the Bronx and did something inexplicable. After paying for a prescription at the pharmacy counter, he paused to grab some other things — two sticks of Old Spice deodorant and some allergy medicine. Then, without paying, and in full view of a security guard, he walked out. Police were called and Lopez was arrested.
Lopez told his lawyer he had been preoccupied and took the items by accident. This actually made sense; navigating his new-found freedom posed a daily challenge for the 55-year-old Lopez, and he was often distracted. “His mind was not all there,” his lawyer recalls. “He was anxious about a lot of things.” But Jeff Deskovic, Lopez’s closest friend, heard a different explanation, one that disturbed him. To him, Lopez confessed, “he committed a petty theft to get reincarcerated.”
Deskovic was stunned. Just a few weeks earlier, The New York Times had published a long profile featuring both of them, showing Lopez moving on with his life — singing karaoke and bonding with other former New York inmates who had been released after wrongful convictions. “It’s kind of like we get together for treatment or something,” he told the Times, “like we have the same disease.” If casting himself as sick might have been a signal that Lopez was struggling more, not less, as time passed, no one read it that way. No one could have guessed he would sabotage his freedom by shoplifting thirty dollars’ worth of stuff.
Lopez’s actions seem inexplicable to most of us. But then, most of us haven’t served decades in prison for a crime we didn’t commit. Segura lets Deskovic explain his friend’s state of mind:
Lopez was “in a dark place,” Deskovic says. And to a certain degree, he understood. Himself exonerated in 2006 after spending 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit, Deskovic had fought his own demons after being released. But not only did he survive, in 2012 he founded the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, with the mission of finding and freeing others like himself. Lopez was the organization’s first success story—Deskovic proudly walked him out of Brooklyn Supreme Courtin January 2013. Then, he refused to leave his side. Deskovic knew too well how hard it is to emerge from prison to, as he puts it, “a world that you don’t belong to.” He wanted his foundation to ensure that new exonerees did not struggle as much as he had. So Deskovic tried to provide Lopez with all the things the state had not: a temporary apartment, some money to get by, and guidance on everything from cell phones to the subway. In the process, the two became fast friends. “I saw a lot of myself in him,” Deskovic says, “even though he was a lot older than me.”
On the day he walked into that CVS, Deskovic says, Lopez had no desire to go back to prison — quite the opposite. But he had become convinced that it was inevitable and wanted to control how it happened. Lopez was convicted in 1990 of shooting and killing a drug dealer in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, despite a complete lack of credible evidence. The federal judge who released him called his case “rotten from day one,” lambasting prosecutors as “overzealous and deceitful,” and urged the state to apologize. Yet Lopez’s ordeal was far from over. Veteran Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes refused to drop the charges against Lopez, instead filing an appeal to reinstate his conviction. Never mind that “the prosecution’s evidence was flimsy to begin with,” as U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis wrote, “and has since been reduced to rubble by facts arising after trial.” Hynes wanted to send Lopez back to prison anyway.
So, even as Lopez celebrated his first year of freedom over lasagna and wine this past January, the fear of prison haunted him. As court dates in the appeal approached, “it started to play a larger and larger role in his mind,” Deskovic says, “to the point where he was mentally preparing himself to be reincarcerated.” Lopez’s arrest at CVS came just over a week before oral arguments were scheduled to start.
“There was an element of me that was angry at him,” Deskovic recalls. But he knew Lopez was driven by fear. Both men had seen people sent back to prison because prosecutors did not want to admit to a wrongful conviction. For Lopez, the dread was too much to handle. “He said, look, Jeff, If I’m gonna go back, why wait? Let me get used to it.” His original sentence had been 25-years-to life; he thought he would have a shot at getting out on parole. However irrational it seemed, for Lopez, it felt like a way to control his own destiny.
Lopez didn’t go to jail for his shoplifting. He was later cleared by newly elected Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson, who ran on a campaign to clean up the mess that Hynes had created. Sadly, just a couple months after his name had finally been cleared, Lopez died from an asthma attack.
To Deskovic, this reality is far more cruel than what the headlines claimed. Had Lopez become financially stable more quickly, maybe he would have been less burdened. Maybe he would still be alive. “Why does it need to be this long drawn out process? It doesn’t seem fair or just to me,” he says. “It typically takes less than a year to wrongfully convict people. Why does it take so much longer to compensate them? Is it because the defendant in one case is a regular person and in the other defendant is the state?”Segura then explores the friendship between Lopez and Deskovic, who bonded over an experience that few others could possibly imagine. Lopez’s death left Deskovic confused and despondent.
Lopez’s situation isn’t unique. At a time when these people need not only compensation, but mental health treatment, housing assistance, life training, and medical care, too often the state instead is fighting with them in court, attempting to shield itself from any liability for their incarceration.
Segura also looks at how prison accelerates the aging process, a problem that also probably hits the innocent quite a bit harder. A few years ago I interviewed Richard Paey, a paraplegic who served time in a Florida prison after he was caught with a quantity of pain medication forbidden by Florida law. Paey was on the medication to treat his multiple sclerosis and the lingering effects of a car accident and subsequent botched back surgery. He was later pardoned by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Paey told me some terrible stories about prison, but one story was particularly haunting:
I didn’t do very well in prison. Fortunately, one of the prison doctors was very kind to me. He said he saw in me what he called “the consciousness of innocence.” It’s very dangerous. He said if you bring it into prison with you, you will have the most horrifying experience that a human being can possibly have. You won’t survive. You have to acclimate and accept your situation and not resist. You can’t keep holding on to your innocence. You have to let go of it and start acclimating.
But I wasn’t doing that. Apparently, he’d see this “consciousness of innocence” every now and then in a prison patient—people who clung to the idea that they were innocent, and might eventually get out. He said it will do more damage to you than any disease.
We owe these people more. Read Segura’s entire article here.