MILWAUKEE– It wasn’t the 23 years behind bars that made Robert Lee Stinson’s prison sentence so agonizing. Nor was it the humiliating treatment by prison guards.
What really tormented him was watching his youth slip away as he served time for a murder he didn’t commit.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project helped free him last year, and now the 46-year-old Milwaukee man wants to make sure no one else has to endure what he suffered. Stinson is seeking $115,000 from a state claims board this week, a settlement that could help him afford a criminal-justice degree.
“We want to shoot for $5,000 for each year,” the soft-spoken man told The Associated Press. “That’s not nearly enough to compensate me for spending 23 years in prison. But it will really help me purchase a vehicle and pay for tuition.”
The claims board is scheduled to consider his claim Thursday. Wisconsin regulations limit compensation for wrongful imprisonment to $5,000 per year or $25,000 total, but the board can ask state lawmakers to approve a higher amount.
“In one sense the money will really help him rebuild his life,” said Heather Lewis Donnell, Stinson’s attorney. “On the other hand, to put a figure on the loss he suffered is really difficult.”
Stinson was the victim of bad timing and questionable testimony.
He was 21 when he was convicted in the 1984 slaying of a Milwaukee woman whose nearly naked body was found bloody and beaten in an alley near her home. Police canvassed the area the morning after the killing and arrested Stinson because they said he couldn’t adequately explain his whereabouts the night before, Innocence Project lawyer Byron Lichstein said during a 2009 interview. An odontologist determined that Stinson’s bite matched those on the victim.
That was a ridiculous claim, Stinson said. His ongoing lawsuit against the city, two police officers and a dentist who testified at trial says he was missing a tooth where the bite marks indicated a tooth should have been, and he had an intact one where the perpetrator didn’t.
Still, he was convicted after two forensic odontologists testified that his teeth were a match.
The Innocence Project, which works to clear wrongly convicted inmates, convinced a judge to overturn Stinson’s conviction in 2008. The group raised questions about the dubious bite-mark testimony and released newer tests showing that DNA from saliva on the victim’s sweater didn’t match Stinson’s.
Stinson’s lawsuit, which is separate from the claims board request, seeks $1 million for each year of incarceration.
Stinson, who has always maintained his innocence, was outraged in the early years of his sentence.
“You become very angry but you don’t want to react because if you do there would be consequences,” he said. “You don’t want to jeopardize the opportunity of getting out. So it’s just something you have to endure.”
His family’s unwavering support helped him maintain his sanity. He also learned to let go of his anger rather than let it consume him. Bitterness, he says, only gets in the way of enjoying life.
It’s been almost two years since he walked out of the prison gates. The adjustment since then hasn’t been easy.
“I had trouble being in a crowd where a lot of people were surrounding me,” he said. “I had a fear something bad will happen. It took me about a year and a half to get past that.”
He had an early spell of nightmares. He also found himself reacting whenever he heard a bell, hearkening back to the bells that prisons use to direct convicts to the cafeteria or elsewhere.
It was his childhood sweetheart who helped him get past the early adjustment challenges. She contacted him soon after his release and they rekindled their romance. They’re now engaged.
She reminded him how sweet freedom can be. Together they traveled around the U.S., visiting college events in Tennessee and seeing the bright lights of Las Vegas.
But sometimes Stinson still needs his solitude.
“Every once in a while I’ll drive around the neighborhood at night by myself,” he says. “Just doing a lot of thinking.”
His worries include his job prospects. He applies for every janitorial and kitchen job he can find but he hasn’t gotten a single interview. He’s concerned that prospective employers come across his conviction in online court records but, for whatever reason, overlook his exoneration.
Things will be different, he says, once he gets his criminal-justice degree through a program he starts next month. When he finishes he hopes to get a courthouse job handling DNA evidence to make sure it doesn’t get compromised in any way.
“There are too many wrongful convictions,” he said. “I just want to make sure that by handling the evidence properly the correct person goes to prison instead of an innocent person.”
It wasn’t always easy to picture himself working for the justice system. After all, this is a system whose flaws cost him his youth — and while he’s set aside his bitterness at the conviction, he’s still bitter toward the system that enabled it.
Helping other innocent defendants may help ease the pain but a hint of bitterness will always remain.
“Do I trust the system?” he says, exhaling slowly and pausing for a few seconds. “No, I can’t say that I can. I was an innocent man and I was convicted of a crime. Who knows, it could happen again.”