Innocent Texans spend decades in prison, await reparations

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About 40 former Texas inmates cleared by DNA evidence are looking forward to a big payday on September 1st.

Texas leads the nation in DNA exonerations. According to The Innocence Project – a legal organization that handles these cases – 241 prisoners have been cleared nationwide in the past 20 years. Thirty-eight were convicted in Texas. Now, the state is trying to make up for their lost time.

The last time Jerry Evans was in a courtroom was 23 years ago when a jury sentenced him to life in prison for sexual assault. But this summer DNA evidence cleared him.

“Had these test results been available at the time of the trial, you would not have been convicted in this case,” the judge said at his exoneration hearing.

Evans walked out of prison a free man – cleared of any wrongdoing.

“Now that I look back at it,” said Evans, “I wonder now how in the hell I did 23 years in prison.”

But Evan’s journey to freedom – back to everyday life – has been a challenge. After all, he’d been locked up for more than two decades. But there is one place he can turn to.

Evans is now a member of the most exclusive club in Texas: a group whose members spent years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. They are men who’ve been exonerated by DNA evidence.

Men like James Giles who spent 10 years locked up for a crime he didn’t do. Giles gives every new exoneree a $100; the prison system gives them nothing upon their release.

“It’s survival,” says Giles. “When you get out after 15-20 years, it’s all about finding a means to survive.”

Evans discovered a common complaint among exonerees. After 23 years in prison, he was given only an ID with ‘offender’ in bold letters.

“How come they don’t have our social security card for us?” Evans asked.

Steven Phillips is another who spent half his life behind bars. DNA proved his innocence, but like the other exonerees, he’s still trying to clear his name.

“There was a great fight for justice on my part and I fought that everyday,” said Phillips.

The state of Texas is trying to help by giving exonerees $80-thousand dollars for every year they were wrongly locked up and $50 thousand for every year they spent on parole.

But the men say it doesn’t make up for what they missed the most in life: freedom.