Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Still Another Challenge

Last week was pretty heady!

The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Steve Preston and Jedd Medifind the Director of the White House office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, visited our Destination Home project. Central Dallas Ministries has helped 50 formerly homeless men and women start life over again, in furnished, utilities paid apartments funded by a grant from HUD. Later that afternoon, I participated on a panel with HUD District Director Jerry Jenkins and Jay Dunn, who manages the BRIDGE (Dallas' homeless assistance center), at a conference sponsored by Mr. Medifind's office. But because of a schedule mix-up, in between the two, there was a meeting with about ten men about whom I've written before - Dallas' growing exoneree population.

Exonerees are men (although, I imagine it won't be long before women become a part of that group as well), formerly incarcerated, who've been freed because of DNA evidence, faulty eyewitness testimony, intentionally withheld evidence or some other miscarriage of justice.

While I didn't have the time I had initially planned to spend with them, it was a pleasure to talk with them, hear their stories and talk with them about how to help them as they helped to re-establish their lives.

Sunday, the Dallas Morning News began a series of investigative articles on the plight of these men focusing on the danger of relying on eyewitness testimony alone to obtain convictions. Some of these men have had their stories told before. Charles Chatman and James Lee Woodard who were both at the meeting at CDM, have been profiled several times. Keith Turner, who was a member of the church I pastored and for whom I had been a character witness at his trial (until Friday, I had no idea that he was numbered among this group), was also mentioned in the article. But one man's story caught my attention in particular because it revealed my worst fears regarding those who are in this group.

Wiley Fountain, freed six years ago after serving 15 years of a 40 year sentence, is still free but homeless. Living on the streets and in abandoned houses in South Dallas. One of the few who had received compensation Fountain squandered the money through unwarranted generosity with family and a girlfriend who took advantage of him.

Will this be the fate of most of these men? Probably not. But they live in a no man's land when it comes to the criminal justice system: not guilty, freed by the same legal system that convicted them, but let loose in a society that barely makes the distinction between them and parolees.
They have to obtain a lawyer to have a chance at getting the compensation they are due. If and when they receive compensation, they have to pay taxes on the money - for which they've already 'worked' without pay, in some cases for 25 years plus. Most services they are provided are no different than those received by parolees, in spite of the fact that they have been proven innocent.

Quite frankly they are owed more.

Their compensation should be immediate upon release.

This compensation should come with financial counseling and should be tax free.

They should have mental health services that distinct from parolees.

They need job training.

They need a full and immediate pardon.

These men have lost something they cannot recover and something that we can never repay: time. Whether it is 5, 20 or 25 years - or more. They certainly deserve more than to be simply be cut loose.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watson, has taken the first courageous step in correcting this injustice. But the rest of us must work with them to do even more.

You can join CDM and the Innocence Project of Texas to help these men live the rest of their lives free of stigma and full of opportunity.

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