Exonerees struggle to adjust after life in prison

BALTIMORE - Ten months and counting.

For Demetrius Smith, that’s how long it has been since he was released from a Maryland prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

He’s still getting used to life after being locked up for five years.

The adjustment is still strong. While he found a job, he is learning to be a father to two teenage daughters. He goes back and forth living with his sister and girlfriend in East Baltimore.

And even with his faith in the judicial system shattered, Smith remains hopeful. He knows he’s come a long way with a good support system.

“It takes a village,” he said. “I’m thankful for so many people who were there to support me.”

Smith isn’t alone.

He is in a rare, but elusive club of 16 Maryland residents who, since 1989, have been exonerated for a crime they didn’t commit. 

Local community organizations say there isn’t enough immediate support to assist people like Burgess through the transition from prison to freedom.

In an effort to do their part, organizations like the University of Baltimore's Innocence Project are taking to the Maryland General Assembly, testifying on legislation that will keep these mistakes from happening.

For more than a decade, Michele Nethercott, director of the Innocence Project Clinic, has worked to help overturn wrongful convictions. She receives hundreds of calls every year for help.

“Getting out of prison is just the beginning,” she said. “Once free, that’s when the real help needs to begin.”

Everyday struggle

In 2008, Smith was convicted for the murder of 36-year-old Robert Long, who was found dead next to railroad tracks near Carroll Park.

He was fatally shot in the head.

Eyewitnesses told Baltimore City police they saw Smith with Long the day of the murder. It was enough to be sentenced to life in prison.

It was later revealed that another man, José Morales, had ordered Long to be killed. 

Nethercott said Smith’s case moved “relatively quickly” thanks to a federal investigation which implicated Morales.

The day Smith got out of prison, Cheyenne Ward, his sister, was there to meet him.

“She was my angel, my guardian,” he said. “She was the one who helped me get this case overturned.”

They took an immediate trip to Walmart to get new clothes.

“The experience was weird,” Smith said. “I felt like everyone was staring at me; like everyone knew what had happened.”

He then spent the weekend with his family and didn’t leave the house for two days.

Smith said he immediately started applying to jobs, but kept getting turned down. The Baltimore City Council passed legislation Monday night that would bar most employers from asking about a person’s criminal past until after a job interview.

RELATED: Baltimore City Council votes for 'Ban the Box' law

“You have to explain this thing that happened to you,” he said. “No employer wants to hear that.”

He had anxiety attacks getting on the bus, since there were so many people. When a person would bump into him on the street, he wondered why they didn’t apologize.

“Because in prison, you better say something,” he said. “It was expected or you were in trouble.”

Even the thought of mobile phones confused him.

“Everything became a touchscreen,” he said. “Technology changed so quickly.”

At the suggestion of Nethercott, Smith started job training through the Living Classrooms Foundation; a Baltimore-based non-profit that offers classes and job training for adults and at-risk youths.

During the nights, he studied for his GED diploma, which he is close to achieving.

A few months after enrolling in classes, he got his first job in plumbing.

From a legal perspective, Smith hopes he can get compensated for time served, but he’s aware that might not happen.

When a person is exonerated, the path to freedom can move relatively quickly, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In the process, he said that long term resources are usually not provided in the way they might be if someone is put on probation.

Nethercott said the most critical time an exoneree needs help is right upon release.

“I’ve had people in my office with no money and nowhere to go,” she said. “It’s a struggle.”

Community organizations like the Living Classrooms  Foundation are available to help with that transition, but many times an exoneree isn't aware of what's available. 

"Most people hear of us through word of mouth," said James Piper Bond, president of Living Classrooms. "We serve an average of 400 people getting out of prison--that's small compared to the 4,000 expected to be released."

Bond said in Baltimore there is a big shortage of services for anyone transitioning from prison to society. Through Living Classroom's Project Serve program, adults who enroll begin developing work skills to help with their transition. 

"The recidivism rate for Project Serve is seven percent," he said. "In the city, it's 55 percent. With proper support, a person can get on track."

Smith was able to learn about the organization thanks to a referral. He credits the

group for getting the help he needed. 

“Testifying”

On March 4, Smith took off work to make his way down to the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis.
He was testifying before the Senate Judiciary on SB0986, which outlines  procedures on updating how police conduct lineups.

As he stood before the microphone, he opened a piece of paper.

His words were short.

“I come before you as an example of how misidentification can go wrong,” he said. “Don’t let this happen to someone else.”

Under the legislation sponsored by Sen. Lisa Gladden (D-Baltimore) police would adopt a step-by-step outline on conducting lineups.

Nethercott said the legislation, if passed, will be another safeguard set in place to prevent the wrong person from being wrongfully convicted.

As he left the assembly room, Smith stood back to watch the crowd. As he looked around, different legislators came up and shook his hand and apologized for what happened.

He thanked them.

Smith says he has yet to receive a formal apology from police or the court system.

“It’s something that would’ve helped,” he said. “I’m still waiting, but not hoping it will come.”

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