‘That’s When I Knew I Was Free’: 8 Exonerated Prisoners on Their First Week on the Outside

Fernando Bermudez. Photo: Wayne Lawrence
“That’s When I Knew I Was Free”
Eight exonerated prisoners on their FIRST WEEK ON THE OUTSIDE.
Photographs by Wayne Lawrence
Fernando Bermudez

What does it feel like to get out of prison after serving decades for a crime you didn’t commit? Since 1989, 1,655 convictions have been reversed nationwide. Over the past two years, New York State — and the city in particular — has become a focal point of efforts to exonerate and pay restitution to the wrongfully imprisoned. In 2014, the city was ordered to pay $41 million to the Central Park Five, who went to jail as teenagers for allegedly raping a female jogger in 1989. Like most exonerees, they were black and Latino males. Around the same time, Brooklyn’s district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, launched a unit to review more than 100 convictions suspected of being faulty, many linked to the former NYPD detective Louis Scarcella, who allegedly coached and coerced witnesses to testify against innocent men and reportedly forced and fabricated confessions. So far, 14 men have had their convictions overturned by the unit, of 34 exonerated by the state in that time. Many of those freed had become their own legal experts and advocates, often with the support of organizations like the Innocence Project, which currently represents some 250 inmates. Their release has sometimes hinged on uncovering a single shred of exculpatory evidence — a time-stamped receipt; a lost, untested rape kit — or making use of advances in DNA testing. But exoneration is only the beginning. These eight men, all of whom were wrongfully convicted of capital crimes, tell stories of their first days of freedom that expose both the depths of what was taken from them and the challenges of rebuilding the lives they once had.

Freed: SEPTEMBER 20, 2006
Imprisoned for:
Jeffrey Deskovic, 41
Jeffrey Deskovic. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

In the morning, when they opened my cell, they told me they were transferring me. I knew that that meant I was going to court. I remembered something that another person had told me a long time ago. He had said if he won his appeal and would be going home, it would be like somebody else in there hit the lottery, because he was going to leave all of his possessions to somebody else. There was a guy I met there that was just starting out his prison sentence, and he didn’t have anything, so I ran down there and I left him a bag. And I made three trips like that.

When it was time to leave, the guards wanted to put the handcuffs and the chains and all the manacles on me. And I asked them, “What are you doing all that for?” That’s when they told me, “Well, the judge might change his mind.”

They brought me to the holding area in the courthouse in White Plains. Doubts start coming into my mind. They gave me this brown-bag lunch, which had like an apple and terrible sandwiches in it. One of them was just a dry cheese sandwich and the other was like a bologna sandwich and you could tell that things had been made early that morning so the bread was soggy. I initially put the thing aside. But as more time is going by, I start thinking, Well, damn, I might need this, actually. I might be going back to the prison afterwards, and by the time I get there, lunch is long since over. So I ate the damn sandwiches.

The hearing happened really fast. It was too much, psychologically. I got up, and suddenly the enormity of the moment hit me. I sat back down for like 20 minutes. My lawyers were talking to me, but my hearing was kind of going in and out. Then I got up to leave, and every step that I took, nobody stopped me. I went outside. I remember the sky was blue, and there was the sun. The first thing I said in the press conference when it was my turn to speak was, “Is this really happening?”

A Town Car took me to my aunt’s house. And that’s when real life begins, you know, when the cameras leave. We were sitting around the table having coffee, talking. The table was set to eat, and that felt weird — to have knives present. Steak knives! You could do damage with that! Even the forks. I mean, you eat with a spoon in prison, not a fork. You have to eat pasta with a spoon. 

I couldn’t relate to the people in the house. I felt out of place. Not just in her house but out in the world, period. At times I wasn’t quite sure whether I really was out and free. I felt like a finger was tapping me on the back and saying, “What are you doing? They belong out here, but you don’t. They don’t really realize that you don’t.”

So I just did something that I wanted to do for a long time: I wanted to sit outside in the nighttime and not have to go inside. I sat by myself from six o’clock to ten or 11. I could see a few stars and the lights on in some of the other houses. It was just a minor thing that had been taken away from me.

Deskovic was 16 when he was arrested for raping and murdering a classmate. DNA evidence from the scene did not match his. In 2006, the DNA was retested and linked to an imprisoned convicted murderer.

Freed: SEPTEMBER 29, 2005
Imprisoned for:
Barry Gibbs, 67
Barry Gibbs. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

When I heard the announcement on the radio, I was in my cell. I heard that two prominent detectives got arrested in Vegas. One was Detective Eppolito from Brooklyn, New York. I said, “Eppolito! There is a God!” I called up the Innocence Project, and the first thing they said to me was “Congratulations!” I said, “See, I told you that cop was crooked!” I would have still been in jail today if it had not been for the discovery of Eppolito and his partner. I already set myself that I was gonna die in prison, you know? I had a cemetery plot. I had a life-insurance policy. I gave a friend of mine power of attorney over my body.

They asked me, “Barry, what would you like when you get out?” I said, “I would like a bath, and I would like a lobster tail stuffed with crabmeat.” So they took me to my lawyer Barry Scheck’s house. They opened up the door, and I saw a dog on the other side of the room. I’m looking at this dog, and the dog’s looking at me. I just couldn’t move. I was in shock when they got me out, I was really in shock. I hadn’t seen a dog in 19 years, and as I started bending down, the dog started walking over. I stretched myself all the way down on the floor, and the dog came up to my face and gave me a kiss on my face, and that’s when I think I broke out of shock. I started crying. The dog was named Murray, I think. I’ll never forget that. When the dog kissed me, that’s when I knew I was free.

Gibbs was a postal worker when he was framed by corrupt mob cop Louis Eppolito for the murder of a prostitute in 1986. His conviction was overturned when the eyewitness recanted his testimony, claiming Eppolito had threatened his family.

Freed: APRIL 8, 2014
Imprisoned for:
Jonathan Fleming, 53
Jonathan Fleming. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

The first thing I did, after I hugged my lawyers and my investigators, I went straight to my mother and gave her a big hug. It took a lot out of her, knowing that her only child is in prison for something that he didn’t do. She suffered just as much as I did. She said, “Thank God for Jesus. My boy is finally home.” She was crying. We both was.

My lawyers took me and my fiancée, Valerie, to a hotel for a few days. The hotel was in Queens. I was on Jamaica Avenue one day, and it seemed like everything was moving too fast. People was so close to you, walking and passing. A few times I told Valerie, “Listen, hold up.” I would just lean on the wall, let some of these people pass. That was something I always did when I was in prison. I would never stand in the middle of the yard. I’ve seen people get stabbed and cut in prison, just being in a crowd. I got stabbed when I first got arrested, my first year. That’s why I felt that way on Jamaica Avenue, watching my back all the time.

In the morning, we went to eat breakfast in the hotel lobby. There was this lady from Atlanta, her husband, and her two kids. She came right over to us, and she said, “Isn’t you the guy that was on the news that just got out of prison?” I said, “Yes, I am.” She said, “God bless you, I’m sorry for what happened to you.” And she went in her pocket and she gave me $50. She told me, “It was meant for me to see your story.”

Being able to see my mother and spend time with my boys was the best part of that first week. I’ve got four boys, and two grandsons, and I just had a granddaughter in January. It’s really hard, trying to have a relationship with my kids, because when I went away they were so young, but they’re grown men now. I feel like maybe I failed them because I wasn’t there. One of my sons is incarcerated. He’s been in prison since he was 17. If I didn’t go to prison, I don’t believe that he would be in prison today. He’s spent half of his life in jail.

In 1989, Fleming was convicted of murdering a man in Williamsburg. In 2014, a receipt proving he was in Florida at the time of the murder was found in the detective’s case file.

Freed: NOVEMBER 20, 2009
Imprisoned for:
Fernando Bermudez, 46
Fernando Bermudez. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

We drove to Danbury, Connecticut, which was where my wife, Crystal, was living, to pick up our kids. Then we headed to Washington Heights to see my parents. All the news was there. They’ve got vans, people on the fire escape holding banners, screaming in Spanish, “¡Justicia! ¡Verdad! ¡Libertad!” People were hugging me and shaking my hand, putting money in my hand. I made it inside, and my mother started feeding me Dominican food — baked chicken, rice and beans, and plátanos.

I started feeling claustrophobic. It was, “Listen, let this guy eat!” And then, “Let’s get this guy dressed.” Fashion had changed so much. They had given me a pair of what’s called skinny jeans. I was hopscotching in them, as if it was a potato-sack race. It just felt like my butt was ballooning more than it should.

We went back to Connecticut that night, and Crystal’s parents were staying with us. In the middle of the night, we were finally able to make love for the first time being free. So that was an interesting part, to finally be in the same room with Crystal. See, within the conjugal visits, it was a moment of anticipation and excitement, because I had been deprived for so long in between, so right there, when I see her, well, it’s on! We would have great experiences. Whereas now, all of a sudden, I’m scared! Not just because her dad is in the next room, and I feel like he’s gonna patrol or something, do a round. But because it almost feels like it’s not allowed, like I’m not supposed to be out. It’s almost embarrassing that I felt like that —  that I am free, yet I don’t feel like I have permission. I woke up the next day still feeling like I was incarcerated, with my heart beating fast.

We went back to my parents’ house that day. The first thing I did, I went running in Inwood Hill Park, the lower part of the field where Columbia University has that big rock, where I had all these childhood memories of wanting to be a geologist. I used to pick rocks and collect insects before I became less of a nerd and more a person in trouble. I’m coming off my run, and I’m doing something I had sorely missed: I’m looking at a tree, and I’m just admiring it. I had been deprived of nature for so long, I’m looking at the tree as if, like, I’m Joyce Kilmer writing a poem. Goethe spoke about how nature is the living, visible evidence of God’s of creation. I finally got to feel the bark. I was crying hugging the tree.

Bermudez was 22 when he was arrested in 1991 for gunning down a young man outsidea Greenwich Village nightclub. All five eyewitnesses recanted their testimony.

Freed: JULY 6, 2006
Imprisoned for:
Alan Newton, 54
Alan Newton. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

I was at the Wyoming Correctional Facility way up around Buffalo, New York. I’d have been satisfied if they had just let me out in Buffalo — I’ll walk home from Buffalo. All I could think on the bus ride to the city was, Oh, they cuttin’ a brother loose! I was prepared to do the whole 50 years. I never knew when I was coming home because I refused to admit to my crime. I never said that this motion here’s gonna be the one.

Everybody was in the courtroom. You would’ve thought it was a celebrity trial going on. I was trying to stay even keel. I was long past anger. You can’t carry that emotion for 20 years. I didn’t cry in court. I did that too much in the loneliness of my cell. I wasn’t numb. I was just quiet. Walking out, I’m thinking, I made it. I made it. Without DNA, I would still be in jail.

After the press conference, we went to Amy Ruth’s restaurant to get something to eat. I think I ate some steak, and it was kind of funny because I wasn’t used to the seasoning, because I was so used to the bland food. But it was good, tasting real food again.

Sex wasn’t the biggest priority when I got out, but it was an important one. All men come out of jail horny. You want to see your parents and see your children, then it’s like, “Okay, I’ll be back in an hour. I gotta go take care of something.” I came home on Thursday. I took care of that Friday. It was better than the conjugal visits because I wasn’t on any restrictions. Conjugal visits, you only got 44 hours. You gotta put everything in: eat, sleep, rest, and sex in 44 hours. So now it’s like, “Hey! We can stretch this out.” We can put a movie in. We can actually go to the store. We can take a break, and smoke a cigarette, and have a drink. You can have some fun doing it. And it’s drawn out.

The next day, I went to the Innocence office for interviews. My brother drove. I was not trying to deal with MetroCards because my generation used tokens. I didn’t want people to know I didn’t know how to use the MetroCard. I didn’t want to stand out. You just wanted to feel normal. I had to learn to laugh at myself and realize I don’t walk around with a sign saying FORMERLY INCARCERATED, WRONGLY CONVICTED. People don’t know who I am just because I don’t know how to use the MetroCard.

Convicted of rape, robbery, and assault in 1985, Newton was exonerated after a misplaced rape kit was found and tested.

Freed: OCTOBER 29, 2013
Imprisoned for:
Gerard Richardson, 50
Gerard Richardson. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

I found out on Thursday that the state was gonna agree to vacate the sentence. My lawyer was telling me that I don’t have to be brought into the courtroom. I told her, just like they berated me in front of the media, saying that I’m a murderer and all that, I wanted it done in the courtroom saying that it’s not me.

The judge told the sheriffs in the courtroom, “Remove the shackles from him.” My mother came right up to the defendant’s table where I was, and she sat next to me. Years ago in Trenton, I told her, “If I do my time, I won’t be done till 2026.” She said, “By the time you come home, I’ll be dead,” and that pulled the heartstrings. I’d told her in prison, “You won’t be dead when I come home.” So when she sat by me and started crying, I said, “Didn’t I tell you you’d be around to see this day come? The day done came.”

The next day I went to East Fallowfield, Pennsylvania. My brother was driving a truck for FedEx, and I asked if I could work with him. Two days later, I was working for FedEx delivering packages all over Pennsylvania. I told my brother, when we were standing in his kitchen drinking coffee, I told him it’s crazy that just two days ago I was sitting in prison with a khaki uniform on; now I’m standing here in your kitchen with a FedEx uniform on. Here I am, I’m ringing the buzzer to get in their back doors and they don’t even know I just came from prison for 20 years.

Richardson was convicted in 1995 of murdering a drug dealer in New Jersey. DNA evidence cleared him.

Freed: DECEMBER 7, 2011
Imprisoned for:
Derrick Hamilton, 49
Derrick Hamilton. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

The day I walked out, my wife, my nephew, and my son was in the car waiting for me. There was a church right around the corner. I would always listen to the bells ringing when I was in jail. I didn’t even know where the church really was. But I would pray when I would hear the bells. It was my only opportunity to pray at the same time people on the outside was praying. When I got out, that was one of the first things I wanted to do, just go around and pray in that church. I went in and thanked God for my release, lit a statue, and walked on out. When I was in prison, I always said four prayers basically, which was St. Michael’s prayer, the Our Father, Glory to the Father, and Hail Mary. I would say those prayers every single day, and it was like a covenant between me and God. Going into that church, it was like being born again.

Prison was not good for me. And take no wrong impression about me being relaxed and enjoying myself. I’m very much bitter about what happened to me. As I say every time, I’m bitter, but I’m wise enough to know that anger has no place in my life. I learned when I was in prison that some things you have to fight on different levels. I have that right to be bitter, but it’s not a bitterness that eats at my soul. It’s just, Wow, you say to yourself like that. Why the hell did they do this? But I can’t carry anger. Because then I’m just as bad as them.

Convicted of murder in 1991, Hamilton had been paroled for three years when ballistic evidence from the crime scene proved the eyewitness account used to convict him was false.  

Freed: OCTOBER 15, 2014
Imprisoned for:
David McCallum, 46
David McCallum. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

I recall vividly walking down the streets of Brooklyn from the district attorney’s office, where I went first and personally met with Ken Thompson and his family. One thing he said to me was to “hold your head up when you’re walking down the street and when you walk into the courtroom.” And so I did that. I had nothing to be ashamed of.

I was walking out without Willie Stuckey walking beside me. He was my childhood friend and my co-defendant. He passed away while he was in prison. He was 32. I saw Stuckey’s mom when we were in the elevator together going up to the courtroom. She said to me, “It’s supposed to be two of you.” And she broke down. I was still shackled, so I couldn’t really hold her even if I wanted to. The district attorney and the judge let his mom sit in for him, so we were sitting next to each other while the proceedings were taking place. She said something very profound to me. She said, “You’re my son now.”

My mother and my brothers and sisters, they didn’t get there until late because they was confused about the time. I was walking out of the courtroom, my family were walking right down the hallway, and they ran to me. We went home to my mom’s apartment in Bushwick, across the street from where I grew up. I felt like a tourist because things just looked so different in Brooklyn than what I remembered. I didn’t see one vacant lot. It was really noticeable for me because vacant lots kind of defined my neighborhood at the time.

The third day I went out with my friends in Williamsburg to an area called Smorgasburg. They’re all 29-year-old white guys. I met them in 2004, when I wrote to Innocence International. Although these guys were part of organizations, they became sort of like my extended family. It became just about more than the case.

We went to a nice bar and I stayed out really late because I could. When I came home, guess who’s sitting at the kitchen table as I come through the door? My mom! To her, I’m still 16 years old. All I can do is laugh. She just looked at me and was like, I’m all right. I’m okay. That’s all she needed to see.

When McCallum was 16, he and Stuckey were arrested of carjacking and killing a Queens man, though neither knew how to drive.

*This article appears in the September 7, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.