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Exonerations Continue Across the Country -- But Are Innocent Prisoners Ever Truly Free?

On May 21, after nearly 26 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, Michigan prisoner Walter Swift was finally released. But is he really free?
 
 
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What does it take to be freed from a wrongful conviction?

In the case of Walter Swift, who was found guilty in 1982 of a rape and burglary in Michigan, an air-tight alibi, exculpatory forensic evidence, and a clearly clueless defense attorney who would later lose his license weren't compelling enough reasons to spare him from conviction. And for years, they were not enough to get him cleared for a crime he did not commit.

Swift, who is African-American, was convicted based solely on an eyewitness identification by the victim, a pregnant white woman who described the man who attacked her as a black teenager, clean-shaven, with braids and "poofs of hair" on his head. Yet, when presented with a police line-up that included Swift -- well over 18 years old, with a mustache, long sideburns, and short, unbraided hair -- she chose him, telling the police she "believed" he was the man who had assaulted her. The police officer in charge expressed doubts, saying she seemed unsure of her selection, but Swift's fate was as good as sealed. The accuracy of her identification was never questioned in the courtroom.

False identification is one of the leading reasons innocent people are thrown in jail. When it comes to cross-racial identification, the problems are especially pronounced. Decades' worth of research has found evidence of bias when the accused is of one race and the accused is of another. Swift's case is a classic example.

In prison, Swift maintained his innocence for years. When he became eligible for parole in 2000, it was repeatedly denied, due to his refusal to admit to his guilt. After more than 15 years behind bars, Swift contacted the Innocence Project, who decided to take his case.

"Over the course of a decade, each layer we pulled back led to more evidence that Walter Swift is innocent," said Olga Akselrod, a staff attorney, in a news release. "We also began to work with people throughout the criminal justice system, some of whom were directly involved in convicting Mr. Swift, who were becoming increasingly convinced of his innocence. It's highly unusual to have the original prosecutor, the police officer who investigated the case and the lab analyst who handled the case all come forward to support an innocent prisoner -- but that's exactly what happened in this case."

With the team of people who first imprisoned him now behind him, Swift was exonerated and released from prison on Wednesday, May 21st. He spent almost 26 years behind bars.

Incredibly, the prosecutor's office will not go so far as to admit to his innocence. "Our position is not that Mr. Swift is innocent," prosecutor Kym Worthy told reporters yesterday. "Our position is that there were some irregularities and some things that should not have happened during this trial."

Still, leaving Detroit's Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, Swift told reporters he was not bitter. "I might just take a walk," he said. "I've been craving to take a walk."

His 27-year old daughter, Audrey Kelly Mills, however, who has not seen her father since she was a baby, expressed anger at the injustice of his incarceration for a quarter century. "I'm angry that this is supposed to be a justice system, and it's nothing even close to a justice system," she said.

As with so many stories of innocent prisoners who are exonerated after being locked up for years, news reports show images of a joyful Swift, eager to enjoy his second lease on life. But reality can often be cruel wake-up call.

Earlier this week, CNN did a two-part report on life after a wrongful conviction. Concentrating on Dallas County, Texas (the unofficial exoneration capital of the country) and with a focus on prisoners who were cleared thanks to DNA evidence (only a fraction of exonerations), it tells the story of Wiley Fountain, a 51-year old black man who, five years ago, was freed from prison after a decade and a half, only to find himself homeless.

"What happens to these men in the months and years after their release is an often overlooked story," writes CNN reporter Ed Lavandera. "These men find themselves starting life at middle age."

"Some men have married and had children … Others came out of prison so jaded and changed that it ruined marriages and relationships. A few have had repeated troubles with the law. And almost all of them talk about how the ghost of their past follows them wherever they go."

In Fountain's case, according to CNN, "Just as the headlines of his release vanished from the front pages of the newspaper, Fountain, 51, has disappeared."

"And so have his hopes for a fresh start after spending 15 years in prison for an aggravated sexual assault he did not commit."

Swift is 47 years old, just about the same age as Fountain was when he was released. "I know it's a beautiful time right now, but life will start to get back to reality," he told the Detroit Free-Press . "This is a million light-years from where I was … I can't describe the distance and time."

For CNN's two part series, "DNA cleared them, but they'll never feel free," go here.