(Exoneree) Freedom Isn’t Free

Cornelius Dupree Jr. served 30 years before DNA evidence overturned his conviction on Jan. 4th. In fact, the man paroled before the wheels of justice turned in his favor.

Original Story: NYTimes.com

Hearing men repeatedly proclaim their innocence in prison is one of the first endless streams of noise that you learn to drown out in order to get some sleep. Inmates can be as callus to one another’s judicial predicaments as any turnkey or Appellate Court intern. Each of us has our own thoughts to contend with after “Lights Out,” but the panic and despair can be especially acute for those who believe, with every fiber of their being, that “they” sent the wrong guy up the river.

And it’s one thing to know the world at large doesn’t care; it’s even more deflating to learn that the quickest conversation stopper in custody is, “You want to see my transcripts?”
But the truth is, nearly every inmate except the Thorazombies has a justification for his conviction, crime, or attitude. It’s sort of like accusations of abuse, neglect, and being railroaded – ho hum, just stir them in with your soup. After all, it’s for your own sanity that you avoid the appeal-happy and the note takers.

For someone convinced of his innocence, prison can be especially isolating; being ostracized is a direct function of doing anything that will bring you extra attention. When I served my own sentence, I had ample opportunity to ponder the plight of men shuffling up and down the various corridors year after year carrying the same bundle of manila envelopes as evidence of their wrongful conviction. There were the excited ones and the sullen ones and the beaten ones and of course the dishonest ones. Some eventually stopped sharing their forms, applications, and correspondence with anyone who caught their eye, and on rare occasions one would be plucked from us without explanation, leaving only gossip behind. “Wouldn’t it be a thing,” we’d say, “if that screwball’d been right?”

Still, to the best of my knowledge I was never in contact with someone who was genuinely innocent – and who proved it cold. When I clerked for a California Civil Addict Program (CAP) Director who oversaw parole board-style hearings to determine which junkie hit the gate and when, I found that most inmates are just ignorant about the law and so desperate for a distraction that they can’t refrain from putting their hopes into comically erroneous conspiracies. There’s money to be made off of those sorts, of course, but prison commerce is an entry for another day.

The fork in the “innocence” road lies in the daily carriage of the person making the proclamation. Enduring the delayed gratification and forensic persistence required to keep track of so many legal breadcrumb trails is a herculean task. This means sustained focus and not hanging out on that big ugly street-corner known as a prison yard running your yap. A lot of guys claim they “don’t belong” behind bars: only a few guys define it.

So for Cornelius Dupree Jr. to still be a reasonable soul – let alone able to form rational sentences – after 30 years of proclaiming his innocence to an audience of indifferent guards and self-protective fellow inmates…well, that’s just one of the truest products of faith and resolve I can imagine. Since movie award voters seemed to have ignored “Conviction,” staring Hilary Swank/Sam Rockwell and championing similar virtues and circumstances, it’s unlikely that Dupree will ever see a film made of his journey. But something tells me he won’t care.

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