Kezer: Struggles persist for exonerated inmates in Mo.

Thursday, February 4, 2010
In this photo taken on Jan. 28, 2010, Josh Kezer spoke to a group of kids, in Columbia, Mo. Kezer was released from prison last year after a Cole County judge ruled that prosecutors improperly withheld key evidence from his defense attorneys. He was accused in the 1992 death of a Southeast Missouri nursing student. (AP photo/L.G. Patterson)

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- A Missouri man who spent nearly 15 years in prison before he was cleared of murder said he and others wrongfully accused often struggle with an unshakable stigma and little help from the states that stole years from their lives.

Josh Kezer joined Darryl Burton, also cleared in a Missouri slaying, and Dennis Fritz, exonerated by DNA evidence in Oklahoma, to speak about their combined 50 years in prison and draw attention to wrongful convictions -- and to what happens when the public spotlight dims.

A different reality often sets in when case publicity fades: depression, unresolved anger, societal shunning and continued struggles to return to polite society, they agreed. Many states don't provide financial compensation or social service assistance.

"Nobody around me can really relate to me. Nobody," Kezer, who was released last February, said ahead of a Midwest Innocence Project fundraiser Wednesday at the University of Missouri. "Some people see 'prison,' that's all they see. They don't see, 'should have never been there.' They don't see that this guy just had his life brutalized."

People also don't realize that inmates are "subjected to violence and rape and molestation and lies and treachery," he said.

Nearly 400 prison inmates nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing or death row appeals, said Sean O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor and Midwest Innocence Project board member.

A December 2009 report by the national Innocence Project showed that 40 percent of the more than 230 people cleared by DNA testing received no financial compensation or assistance with social services.

No compensation is provided in 23 states to those exonerated by DNA, and only 10 states provide services such as counseling or job training along with money, according to the study. And for those who did receive payment for time served, the average wait was three years.

Missouri provides $50 per day to former inmates exonerated by DNA evidence, but neither Burton nor Kezer could collect because they weren't cleared by DNA. Kezer noted that people on parole are eligible for benefits that he can't receive, such as job training.

"They have more benefits set up for guys who get out of prison who are guilty than who are innocent," Kezer said.

Surrounded by college professors and defense attorneys inside a campus pub, the three former inmates spoke of their imprisonment and the struggles they faced when they returned to society.

"When I came out, it was like being frozen and unthawed," said Fritz, a father and former teacher whose case became the subject of best-selling author John Grisham's first nonfiction book, "The Innocent Man."

Fritz, 60, was convicted of killing a 21-year-old woman in Oklahoma before DNA evidence proved his innocence. He spent 12 years in prison, which he described as a "runaway roller coaster ride through hell and back." He won a lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma but said he couldn't disclose the amount.

Kezer, 34, was convicted in the 1992 death of a southeast Missouri nursing student, but a Cole County judge later ruled that prosecutors withheld key evidence and cleared him of the crime.

Burton, 48, spent 24 years in prison in a fatal St. Louis gas station shooting but was released in 2008, after a judge ruled his trial was constitutionally flawed. Over Christmas, he reconnected with a 26-year-old daughter he had not seen since she was a toddler.

Fritz, a former junior high school science teacher and track coach, left behind a 12-year-old daughter who had already seen her mother murdered when "I was snatched out of her life," Fritz told the audience Wednesday night.

Now entering his 10th year of freedom, he has spent half that time aligning his expectations with his new reality. A Lee's Summit native, he moved to Kansas City after his release.

"I didn't know anything," Burton, who also moved to Kansas City, said about his experience readjusting. "I didn't know how to turn on a television. I was afraid to go anywhere by myself. I didn't have a clue."

Missouri journalism professor Steve Weinberg said the three speakers were exceptions in terms of how well they've adjusted.

"It's a really difficult transition for most people, partly because of what happens to them inside prison," he said. "A lot of them were not particularly well equipped to deal with life before they went in."

He later added: "Most of the exonerees I know come out broken people."

"States have a responsibility to restore innocent people's lives to the best of their abilities," said Stephen Saloom, Innocence Project policy director. "When people are exonerated, they should find a safety net, not another long legal battle."

Kezer, like his fellow two panelists, said he found strength through his faith. He works as a contract painter in Columbia, but considers sharing his story his true calling.

"I had one of two options," he said recently. "To become like the place I was sent, to become prison personified, to become the monster they labeled me as. Or to carve out my own path."

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On the Net:

Midwest Innocence Project: http://www.innocenceprojectmidwest.org/

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