When John Thompson, a man who spent 14 years on Angola State Penitentiary's death row, says he's lucky, the irony hangs in the air until Thompson grabs it, and offers an explanation.
"I'm very f--king lucky," Thompson says. "I'm very lucky I survived seven dates of execution — seven different times the state tried to kill me."
Released from Angola for almost seven years, Thompson is still adjusting to life outside prison walls. He wants to help others who like him were wrongfully imprisoned in Louisiana's correction system, through his organization, Resurrection After Exoneration.
Thompson was convicted of murder in 1985 for the death of New Orleans hotel executive Ray Liuzza Jr., and was sentenced to death. He served 18 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, 14 of which were in death row solitary confinement, and he was scheduled to be executed seven separate times. Through legal appeals and postponements of the execution date, Thompson kept beating death.
Fourteen years after his conviction, it was discovered the New Orleans District Attorney's Office had withheld blood evidence in an armed robbery charge, which Thompson had been convicted of and had contributed to his later murder conviction. Eventually this led to Thompson getting a new trial on the murder charge in 2003. That jury deliberated 35 minutes before acquitting him.
Following his exoneration from the murder charge, Thompson filed a civil suit against the Orleans DA's office, seeking damages for the time he spent in prison. In 2007, jurors found that the DA's office under former district attorney Harry Connick Sr., had shown "deliberate indifference" to training attorneys in policies and procedures, and awarded Thompson $14 million in damages and another $1 million in attorney's fees. (The judgment has held up under numerous appeals, and current DA Leon Cannizzaro has vowed to take the case to U.S. Supreme Court.)
Since 2005, Louisiana has provided $15,000 a year up to a maximum of $150,000 for those wrongfully incarcerated. State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has fought against paying Thompson, however, claiming that since the Orleans DA office is a subdivision of the state, Thompson would be doubly compensated if he were to receive the $14 million from the city. Earlier this month, more than six years after his release, Judge William Morvant with Louisiana's 19th Judicial District signed a judgment in favor of Thompson receiving $150,000 from the state.
Still, Thompson says he's fortunate — the exception to the rule when it comes to prison exonerees. When he was released from Angola, his mother, his grandmother and his grown sons, John and Dedrick (who were 4 and 6 when he was arrested) were all waiting for him. He had a place to stay, he started working two days after his release and he met his future wife Laverne that same day; they were married 42 days later.
But for most exonerees, Thompson says, no one is there to greet them when they get out. After what is often decades of imprisonment, Angola gives them $10, a bus ticket and whatever personal belongings they can carry.
What they do have are numerous obstacles to overcome — no job, no money, no shelter, no clothes and no transportation — and the trauma associated with living in prison: mental illness and few life skills for surviving on the outside.
As executive director and founder of RAE, Thompson tries to improve conditions for exonerees. RAE provides one-on-one client case management and tries to secure housing, jobs, medical services and other needs as well as raise public awareness.
"We are trying to give back to society," Thompson says, "so other families don't have to go through what we went through."
It's an uphill battle, Thompson says. Funding is difficult and RAE is trying to become self-sufficient while providing job training for exonerees. One local prison reform advocate, Norris Henderson, director of the group Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) says nobody else is offering these kinds of services, adding the odds are stacked against exonerees or, indeed, anyone coming out of the Louisiana correctional system.
Thompson founded RAE in 2006 with assistance from the Innocence Project of New Orleans (IPNO), a nonprofit group that works to free people who have been wrongfully imprisoned. While IPNO concentrates on getting people out of prison, Thompson knew firsthand there was no organization that was helping the exonerated once they were out. In Louisiana, 25 people — 24 men and one woman — have been officially exonerated, meaning the original conviction was thrown out of court and the person is no longer facing charges.
Greg Bright is one of them. He was 20 years old when he was convicted of second-degree murder in 1975. He spent 27 years in Angola, but with the aid of IPNO, the conviction was overturned and the New Orleans DA's office dismissed all charges. When he left maximum security prison in 2003, he had a $10 check from the state and garbage bags full of legal paperwork.
Unlike other inmates released from prison, exonerees do not have parole officers, or anyone from the state assisting them with integrating back into society. More than six years later, Bright — who has yet to receive any compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment — does not have health insurance, a steady job or many of the things he would have if he hadn't been in prison most of his adult life.
"Had I been out here for 27 years, I would have had all that, but to be thrown out here without so much as a shack? It's a slap in the face," Bright says.
RAE recently arranged for Bright to work on the New Orleans-set and -shot HBO show Treme as an extra, and he now lives in a three-bedroom apartment that is part of the RAE headquarters. Thompson purchased the two-story building at 1212 St. Bernard Avenue in 2008 through an anonymous donor, and it contains a computer room, where RAE holds weekly classes, and a large unfinished gallery, which will display exonerees' art work and a space for community meetings. The entrance is a storefront, and Thompson wants to turn the room into a screen print shop. RAE will train exonerees to work in the shop, and Thompson hopes the business will help make RAE self sustaining. He has raised half the necessary funds.
Ora Nitkin-Kaner has worked for Thompson for the past year and a half, and she concentrates on getting funding for RAE and raising public awareness for exonerees. Through a collaboration with writer Lara McNaughton, Nitkin-Kaner started Voices of Innocence, a spoken-word program in which four exonerees detail their experiences in monologues. The show explains in the exonerees' own words how their lives have been affected by incarceration, attempting to portray them not as victims, but as survivors.
Nitkin-Kaner has visited current inmates at Angola, and she worries they are only concerned with getting out of prison, and not what happens afterwards.
"We deal with a new life and hereafter, but it's not the heaven you would expect it to be," Nitkin-Kaner says.
Christo Raines, an exoneree advocate for RAE and IPNO, attempts to obtain jobs, housing and medical services for the 20 exonerees and six wrongfully-convicted clients he works directly with. A 23-year-old from Portland, Ore., Raines first came to New Orleans as a volunteer through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a Catholic-based community service program. He is challenged on one hand to reach out and check up on his client's everyday activities ("How are you eating and sleeping?") and on the other hand, giving them room to become self-sufficient. So while Raines will sometimes drive clients to medical appointments, and RAE pays for co-payments so the exonerees can get free health care through the Daughters of Charity, he also is pushing them to apply for Medicaid.
Prison produces daily traumas, and for those who stay behind bars for years, Thompson says it's no surprise they continue to endure its effects. He speaks from experience, admitting the depression and anxiety and physical manifestations like insomnia are ailments he has in common with other exonerees. He can't stay in one room for too long; his voice gets loud, then drops to almost a whisper; and it seems like his body is in constant motion even when he's seated. In late 2008, he had a heart attack, and recently underwent cardiac surgery.
"I'm one of the problems," Thompson says. "I go through the same traumas."
Raines says recidivism is a problem, and four exonerees (16 percent) have returned to prison. The number doesn't surprise VOTE's Henderson, who was in Angola for 27 years on a murder conviction (he was eventually given probation). Henderson points out that Louisiana has the nation's highest incarceration rate, 865 per 100,000 residents, and does little to rehabilitate inmates while they are imprisoned and little to help the approximately 15,000 ex-convicts who are released every year.
"It's not scary that they're getting out, but what is scary is that after five years, 46.6 percent are returning to prison," Henderson says.
Thompson agrees, and Henderson is now holding VOTE meetings at the RAE building. Thompson says he wants to broaden RAE's mission to include anyone who has just gotten out of jail.
"That's the beginning of our problems," Thompson says. "Are we giving [people] a second chance when they get out of prison? Hell, no."