Imagine spending five years in a Nebraska prison for having brutally murdered a teenage honor student but knowing that the real killer is at large. Or rolling over in the middle of the night to put your arm around your spouse, only to fall out of bed because you're alone on a prison cot. Imagine your spouse, left hopeless, moving in with someone else and calling you by the new person's name on one of her infrequent visits, the one that would be the last.
And imagine living this while knowing that the situation would soon end -- because you were scheduled to die in an electric chair.
This is Jeremy Sheets' story, the one he didn't expect he would live to tell.
"It could have been any of you," he told the crowd of about 25 people gathered in an SMU lecture hall Sunday night. He and four other death row exonerees -- Gary Drinkard, Clarence Brandley, Ron Keine, and Shujaa Graham -- are part of the advocacy organization, Witness to Innocence, and they shared their stories at the event sponsored by the university's Embrey Human Rights Program. The men are from different states across the country; Brandley was convicted in Conroe, Texas.
The event's organizer, human rights program director and anti-death penalty advocate Dr. Rick Halperin, set the stage with context. "Texas leads not only the U.S., but the free world in putting people to death," he said. Thirty-nine percent of all U.S. executions take place in Texas.
"This is a national problem, but it's really a regional phenomenon," Halperin said, adding that it's "lunacy" to believe that every person put to death is guilty. For every nine people executed, one is exonerated, he said before introducing the event's speakers. "These stories are stories of men who were spared, but shouldn't have been in a position to be spared."
At an appeals hearing, Sheets was exonerated because he lost his constitutional right to confront his accuser, who had committed suicide and whose testimony was deemed unreliable. Without the testimony of Sheets' former friend, who framed him for murder, the prosecution didn't have a case. "You ready to go home?" the prison warden asked, approaching his cell without warning one day.
"It's an evil place -- there's no hope there," Sheets said of the place he called home for five years. Without packing any of his few belongings, he walked down the hall as a free man. He felt hesitant, not knowing what to expect but not at all wanting to turn back. He was met outside by flashing cameras, reporters yelling questions -- and his family, who took him to a bar where the rest of his friends and loved ones waited to celebrate.
Sheets has since moved to Denver, where he is married and has children, but the years taken from his life still haunt him. A murder conviction, although dismissed, remains on his permanent record, dissuading potential employers. He picks up odd jobs doing yard work, and his wife works a steady job. Making matters more difficult, Sheets had to overcome severe PTSD without the benefit of expensive therapy.
All of the men on the panel had difficulty finding work after their release, and 134 others have faced the same situation. In addition to the obvious difficulties, death row prisoners don't have the benefit of in-prison education programs, since the government does not invest in the betterment of people who are unlikely to ever reintegrate in society.
"This is happening every day," Sheets reminded the audience.
The others on the panel had survived similarly horrifying situations. Gary Drinkard, convicted robbery and murder in Alabama, spent five years in a prison that would reach up to 120 degrees in the summer. "It's just so cruel and inhumane, it's unreal," he said. "I really thought they was going to kill me ... I told my wife to go out and find somebody else."
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Ron Keine was in prison four years before the actual murderer, a cop, had a religious epiphany, confessed to the crime and was convicted, in 1978. "It's archaic; it's barbaric; it's morally wrong; it's not indicative of a civilized society," he said of the death penalty.
Shujaa Graham, who spent 11 years in prison, was filled with anger when he was finally exonerated. But his advocacy has changed his attitude. "I don't want no revenge -- I just want justice."
But a life of advocacy is a life of constant reminders. Graham recalled protesting an execution:
"When the ambulance came out with the body, I felt a pain," he said. "I said that could have been me."