Herman Atkins is still trying to pick up the pieces 10 years after he was freed from imprisonment on phoney rape charges.
Herman Atkins Sr. keeps every receipt. About this, he is meticulous. For every bottle of water, every pack of gum, he will ask the cashier for a sales slip. Each day, he brings the slips home to his wife, Machara, who files them in chronological order, a separate folder for each month.
When Atkins is out of the house and realizes he has not bought anything for a few hours, he sometimes swings by a minimart to make a purchase so he can get a receipt. If the store has a surveillance camera, Atkins will make sure to walk by.
If he is on the road and cannot stop somewhere, he will call Machara. The cell-phone statements are not as good as receipts, which pinpoint a person’s location at a specific time on a specific date, but they are better than nothing.
Atkins is building an alibi for a crime he has not committed.
“Herman is never driving in the car without talking to someone on his cell phone,” Machara says. “He understands he has to have a record of every minute of the day of his life because when he couldn’t prove that he was somewhere else at a certain minute of the day, his freedom was taken away from him.”
Twenty-two years ago, when he had no receipts or bills or surveillance cameras to establish his whereabouts, a jury sent him to prison for a rape and robbery in Lake Elsinore, a place he had never been.
He received a sentence of 45 years and served about one-fifth of it before a DNA test proved his innocence and he was released.
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“A lot of people will tell him, ‘That’s bull; it doesn’t happen like that,’” Machara says. “But you can’t tell a man who’s been through it that it doesn’t happen like that.”
For the innocent who are locked away, no apology, no amount of money, can replace the lost years. While imprisoned, the world outside moves on. Children grow. Loved ones die. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, births, graduations—all are missed.
When an innocent man is freed, the world sees his release as a resurrection. The media is obsessed with recounting his good fortune. He is driven, intent on reclaiming his life. Opportunities open to him seem limitless.
But the reality of exoneration is ugly and complicated. After the media frenzy comes a reality the public doesn’t see: The trauma of a wrongful conviction isn’t only the years it claims, but it’s also the way it changes you forever.
Spend time with Atkins, and you see that he is struggling. He is nervous; suspicious; and leery of women, law enforcement and strangers of all kinds. He describes himself as distrustful.
“People tell me, ‘Herman, you’re too hard. You’re not approachable.’ I don’t want to be approached,” he says. “Even today, I admit that I’m not so open-minded with dealing with people. I don’t like people.”
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