Nearly all those cases were overturned, but not before some defendants spent 10, 12, even 20 years in prison.
In a very few of those cases, lawsuits yielded millions of dollars. Most defendants who sued got a pittance, or nothing at all.
They had to start their lives over from scratch, often with looming attorney’s bills and scant opportunities for employment, given the taint to their names.
Cummings and his wife, then Jackie Nokes, weren’t convicted.
They saw what was coming as friends and acquaintances got sentences of 40 years and more.
In 1984, they packed up their three boys and fled. By the time they were picked up in Northern California, they’d had time to get the grand jury involved, hire investigators, take polygraphs and get their story out.
Still, their boys were put in foster care for about a year and their workaday lives stopped while they grappled with the Kern County justice system.
It set them back. As it did all the families.
That memory stayed with Cummingses, who got involved with the Northern California Innocence Project as it worked for John Stoll’s release.
Stoll got out after 20 years and eventually won a $5.5 million settlement from Kern County on top of a $700,000 settlement from the state.
That’s not common.
“Most exonerees get nothing when they get out of prison,” Cummings said. Lawsuits can be costly and extremely time-consuming, and it’s difficult to find lawyers to take them on.
So along with Alicia Samis, a psychology teacher in the Bay Area, and Maurice Caldwell, an exoneree who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, Cummings created Life Beyond Freedom.
The group’s goal is to help people freed from prison get started in life with things like housing, jobs, medical care, education — the basics.
“Parolees are better served than people who didn’t do the crime but did the time,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell was convicted in 1990 of murder. About three years ago, another inmate confessed to the crime and the San Francisco County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case against Caldwell. Caldwell is now suing San Francisco.
He was in so long, he said, he lost most of his family while incarcerated. His only living relative is a sister who has helped, along with Cummings and Beyond Freedom.
“We’re working with exonerees all over the state,” explained Samis. “We don’t have any official partnerships, but we definitely seek out partners for everything from housing to counseling. Each of us is putting together different parts of the puzzle.”
It’s taken a while to get everything in place, including nonprofit status and the website, which is still a work in progress, according to Samis.
Beyond Freedom works with the Innocence Project to vet exoneree cases.
“This program is exactly what we’ve needed,” said Raquel Cohen, an attorney with the California Innocence Project. “We are one of the bigger innocence projects, but our mission is to get them out of prison and our resources are limited.”
Once they’re out, she said, any help with expenses, or just support, is extremely valuable.
Beyond Freedom is hoping to start getting donations, services or help with jobs soon as the ranks of exonerees is growing all the time.
In particular, Cummings is hoping to find a job and housing for Roeling Adams here in Bakersfield. Adams is currently in the Bay Area but is hoping to transfer here for better housing costs while he works and goes to school.
Adams and his brother were convicted of murder in 1985. Another man confessed to the killing long ago but was ignored back in the 1980s.
He confessed again in 2008 before the Board of Parole Hearings and a commissioner pushed to have the case against the Adamses reopened.
Adams’ brother, who had always maintained his innocence, was released four years ago.
But Adams was initially denied release by the parole board because in his early years he’d been advised by an attorney not to claim he was innocent.
“He said it would go against me and they’d keep me for life,” Adams told me.
When the confession came to light, Adams came before the parole board again but was denied because he’d lied about being guilty in previous hearings.
“They said, ‘You were just telling us anything to get out of prison,’” Adams said, chuckling at the memory.
Six months later, on Oct. 10, 2014, they let Adams out. But his conviction remains.
The Innocence Project is still working on Adams’ case.
Like Caldwell, Adams praised Cummings and the Beyond Freedom program. He had nothing when he got out, not even an ID. Cummings bought his books for class and even paid for two of his field trips.
Samis said sometimes it’s hard to remember how many years these men have lost. She was working with Caldwell to help find him housing and tried to talk him through the Internet.
“I’d say, just Google ‘housing authority’ and he was like ‘What? Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ He missed a lot.”
Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.