Fairy tales are seductive. A sweet-faced, innocent hero is victimized by evildoers: poisoned, enslaved, enticed into an oven, locked in a cage to be eaten. Our protagonist withstands these outrages with bravery and fortitude. And then intervention—magical or otherwise—arrives, and with it freedom, love, and redemption. Trauma and misery vanish, and the reader is rewarded with Happily Ever After.
The narrative arc is always the same in fairy tales. The suffering, no matter how hideous and unwarranted, has a fixed end point. Good triumphs over evil. Youth, beauty, and hope are restored. Soul and spirit intact, the protagonist thrives in some perpetually blissful state. Fairy tale plotlines resonate in our Hollywood culture, which believes firmly in the restorative power of second chances and the cauterizing effect of retribution. Justice is done and villains receive their due.
I did not realize the power that fairy tales continue to exert over me until I read Ariel Levy’s “The Price of a Life,” published in the April 13 edition of the New Yorker. The piece chronicles, unsparingly, what life is like now for the men and women who were freed after decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. It is shattering. While some exonerees Levy profiles are doing relatively well, many are hobbled, psychically and physically, by all that they had to endure: assault, abuse, abrupt separation and ultimately estrangement from spouses and children, the deaths of loved ones whose funerals they could not attend.
Recently, Anthony Ray Hinton was released from death row after three decades in a 5-by-8-foot cell. It took 13 years to prove his innocence, with the state of Alabama fighting his lawyers at every turn. During his tenure there, 53 men were executed, many by electrocution, and Hinton could smell their flesh burning.
Hinton’s lawyer, the Clarence Darrow–like Bryan Stevenson, described the slow and careful process his nonprofit organization was taking to help Hinton readjust, not just to his freedom, but to a world that looked nothing like the one he was snatched from in 1985. “I gave him an iPhone this morning,” Stevenson told reporters. “He was completely mystified by that.”
Glenn Ford also spent 30 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. The lead prosecutor recently wrote a searing apology for his role in the case, which involved purposefully striking every black juror and what he finally admitted was a “sick” culture of ignoring evidence that conflicted with the state’s thirst for a conviction. Now Ford is dying of lung cancer, which has seeped into his bones and spine. Earlier this month, a Louisiana judge ruled that he was not entitled to a dime of compensation.
A fairy tale ending this is not.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise, particularly to me. I direct an innocence project in Los Angeles. I was part of the team of lawyers who exonerated Kash Delano Register in November of 2013, after he spent 34 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Kash went to prison as an 18-year-old in 1979. Jimmy Carter was president. When he walked out in 2013, he was 53. In the interim, Reagan was president, then president again. George H.W. Bush was president. Bill Clinton was president, then president again. George W. Bush was president, then president again. Barack Obama was president, then president again.
Or think about it this way: While Kash languished in one miserable prison after another, his girlfriend died, then his only brother. He spent decades without seeing his daughter. He did not watch her grow up, get married, and have her own children. All of his 20s, all of his 30s, all of his 40s were stolen.
When Kash went to jail, I was in kindergarten. Now my son is in kindergarten.
A robust body of research establishes the unique and long-term injuries suffered by some exonerees with experiences similar to Kash’s: chronic anxiety, suicidal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder. Like the worst kind of nightmare, a wrongful conviction is senseless and without redemptive value. As renowned psychologist Craig Haney explained in an interview with PBS’s Frontline, exonerees come to believe that, “the very worst thing possible can happen to you, and it leads them to a more generalized loss of faith in society.” Legal scholars have equated wrongful incarceration as a “sustained catastrophe” such as that experienced by prisoners of war. Haney describes the suffering of exonerees as “among the deepest despair I’ve ever encountered.”
Since I know all of this already, why was reading Levy’s article was so deeply painful that I had stop in the middle to numb myself with a stiff drink? Because, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what I know intellectually and experientially to be true, I believe in the fairy tale.
In the seminar I teach at Loyola Law School, we often talk about narratives, normally in the context of prosecutors. My students ask how a prosecutor could continue to insist that an obviously innocent person was guilty. My answer is that people tell themselves the story they need to believe in order to live with themselves.
The power of one’s own narrative—no matter how mythical—holds just as true for innocence lawyers. Or at least this one. For a year, I lived and breathed Kash’s case. The pieces of evidence shifted and turned over, zoomed in and out, flattened, revolved, took three-dimensional shape. Lying in bed at night, my closing argument played on repeat in my head. When I was not actually working on the case, I was thinking, constantly, about how to assemble the facts that needed to be told to win. The suffering was part of the story, of course, an integral piece. But I didn’t let myself feel it. When I could not stop the images from coming—Kash’s shuffling gait as he walked back to his cell in leg chains, the photograph of his family against a prison mural in the early 1980s, his mother’s hand on my arm—I shut my eyes tighter. Win the case, I told myself over and over, and the agony will disappear.
In my narrative arc, Kash was the heroic protagonist, the innocence project was the intervention, the redemption would come in the form of judicial ruling that validated everything that Kash had ever said, that validated the truth of his innocence. Kash would be reunited with his family, be compensated in the millions of dollars. And then—happily ever after.
We did win. Kash was released and reunited with his mother. Today he has a job and a wonderful girlfriend. He has, finally, seen his daughter and met his grandchildren. He remains strong, steadfast, and warmhearted. He has great civil lawyers who are fighting hard to get him every penny he deserves. But is it happily ever after? The villains—the police who withheld crucial evidence and the witnesses who lied—will never be called to account in any meaningful way. And what about the toll of the 34 years?
Kash survived, I believe, through a combination of stoicism and unfathomable inner strength. Haney, speaking generally of the wrongfully convicted, says that after decades in prison, “they’re forced in a sense to be disconnected from their emotions. They are feeling things but they’re not allowed to show them. … You project an image of yourself which is implacable, which is non-expressive, and it’s again very difficult to let go of because it becomes a habit that is practiced for so long under such important, really life or death, conditions that it becomes part of who you are.”
Is that Kash? I truly don’t know. The relationship between an attorney and an innocent client in a case that gets the equivalent of a retrial is indescribably intense, particularly, as in Kash’s case, when the client testifies. I knew the day, month, and year of each milestone, the names and biographies of every significant friend and family member. In a sense, Kash’s life story became more familiar to me than my own. But familiarity is not knowledge. And memorizing someone else’s life doesn’t give insight into it.
When I read Ariel Levy’s piece, I learned a painful truth, not about Kash, but about myself. I don’t want insight. I persist in refusing to see the exonerated for how complicated and raw their lives are, because I can’t bear it. Stubbornly, stupidly, I cling to the myth of Happily Ever After. It’s the story I need to believe in order to live with myself.
Read more in this series about the justice system locking away innocent men and women and the efforts to free them.