CHICAGO - Thousands of Americans are in prison for crimes they did not commit, experts believe, but the few who are exonerated and set free often are consigned to a purgatory between guilt and innocence.
"My life has been a living hell. Some of my loved ones want to see me come in the door, some don't. I'm very, very bitter," said Marlon Pendleton, who was freed from prison in 2006 based on DNA evidence that cleared him of a 1993 sexual assault.
"I was glad to get out, at first. But I can't get a job -- no one will hire me," Pendleton said during a panel discussion with a dozen exonerated former inmates last week at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions to highlight the plight of those waiting for a pardon and compensation for their lost years.
Pendleton and an increasing number like him have gained a measure of freedom thanks in large part to improvements in DNA testing technology that can provide proof of innocence from tiny pieces of evidence.
Lawyers who work for "Innocence Projects" in several states are inundated by inmate requests, and their success exonerating dozens of Death Row inmates has fueled America's debate over capital punishment.
Some who have been exonerated said they are worse off than even the truly guilty, stuck with the stigma of their wrongful convictions while awaiting a governor's order expunging their criminal records.
"As a parolee I would get job training, health care, housing assistance, and a tax break for any employer who hires me ... but I didn't get nothing, no compensation, no help, nothing. I felt so bad I thought I'd be better off back in the penitentiary," said Robert Wilson, who spent nine years in prison after police beat a false confession out of him that he slashed a woman's throat.
Wilson was living on a measly wage and $500 saved from prison jobs when his assets were frozen for not paying child support -- while unjustly languishing in prison.
A University of Michigan study identified 340 people convicted of serious crimes between 1989 and 2003 who were later found to be innocent. The pace of exonerations is increasing, it said, with more than 40 yearly.
The wrongly convicted spent an average of 10 years in prison, and 60 percent were murder cases in which pressure for a conviction and the chances of error are greatest, it said.
Tip Of Iceberg
"The false convictions that come to light are the tip of an iceberg," wrote Michigan law professor Samuel Gross. "Beneath the surface there are other undetected miscarriages of justice in rape cases without testable DNA, and a much larger group of undetected false convictions in robberies and other serious crimes of violence for which DNA identification is useless."
Ninety percent of convictions are guilty pleas often made out of fear of a harsher sentence at trial, and the report roughly estimated 29,000 innocent people were convicted during the 15-year period in the study but not exonerated.
A study released on Thursday by the Pew Center on the States found the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world with more than 2.3 million held at the start of 2008.
For the first time in the nation's history, more than one in every 100 American adults was behind bars, it said.
Greater awareness of the unreliability of witness identifications, doubtful testimony by confederates or jailhouse snitches, faulty forensics such as bite mark evidence and incidents of malfeasance by police or prosecutors have led to more exonerations.
States could ease the bureaucratic nightmare of the newly innocent by empowering judges to grant "certificates of innocence" and by following the U.S. Congress' recommendation to award $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, Northwestern's lawyers said.
After struggling to find work for 12 years since being freed from a sexual assault conviction he did not commit, Alejandro Dominguez got $60,150 for his four years in prison.
Marcus Lyons said his career in the Navy was hijacked by a 1998 sexual assault conviction. Before his 2007 exoneration by DNA, a frustrated Lyons crucified himself on a makeshift cross in front of a county courthouse.
The bitterness expressed by the panelists was generally not directed at those who put them in prison, but at the delays gaining a pardon and compensation to resume their lives.
"How do you measure what they have lost?" asked Northwestern attorney Jane Raley. "This is not only embarrassing, it's horrifying. The state spends billions administering justice ... and the amount of compensation is still paltry."
"It's a barbaric system," said Randy Steidl, one of 18 inmates freed from Illinois' Death Row, a dismal record that prompted a halt to executions in the state in 2000.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman
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