Page last updated at 13:05 GMT, Sunday, 15 November 2009

Adjusting to life after death row

John Thompson, former death row inmate
John Thompson was on death row for 14 years

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

John Thompson spent 14 years on death row for crimes he did not commit.

Convicted of killing New Orleans hotel executive Ray Liuzza, and for a carjacking weeks later, he was preparing to be sent to his death at the notorious Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana - the largest maximum security prison in the United States.

After six execution dates, John had exhausted all his appeals. His seventh date - 22 May 1999 - was to be his last.

In one final twist, a new investigator uncovered some previously lost evidence. After a retrial, John was freed in 2003.

It was the start of another struggle - surviving in the outside world. It was a struggle which has led John to found a new charity helping former death row inmates: Resurrection After Exoneration.

He told BBC World Service's Outlook programme his story.

You need somebody to sit down with you and talk to you and let you know that what you just experienced was wrong
John Thompson

"I was glad to be coming home. I was overwhelmed with the thought of me having my freedom, but at the same time I was scared to death because I didn't know what I was coming in to. I didn't know where I was going.

"I only had a mother. My two sons had grown. I was coming into a world where I had no future - I didn't know what to expect."

Yet, unusually for a death row inmate, John was surrounded by people willing to help him get his life back on track.

"I had a remarkable supporting cast of people when I came home. When I first came home I started working for the death penalty law firm that represent guys on death row. So I had a job immediately waiting for me."

He was also offered a house, a book deal and movie deal. Before the week was out, he'd even met his future wife.

"I was blessed, but not my other exonerated brothers. They wasn't as blessed as I was when I came home."

Psychological rehab

It was this experience which drove him to set up his charity helping wrongly convicted death row inmates to fit back into the outside world.

The group provides housing, education and work opportunities to people who are otherwise shunned by society.

"When you come home you need some total psychological rehab.

"You need somebody to sit down with you and talk to you and let you know that what you just experienced was wrong.

"You need the help, you need a job. People do not want to give these guys a second chance and that's what my programme is about."

John's time on death row was a constant battle against the law and his own state of mind.

"You need to find out what they're trying to kill you for, what the rules and regulations is.

"They actually bring a warrant to your cell and tell you to sign it, for them to have permission to kill you. I never did."

In the 14 years of his stay, he saw 12 of his fellow inmates - friends - be executed.

"On death row we're supposed to be the worst of the worst, yet within 24 hours of [an] execution, we fast that whole day. Everybody on death row, they will pray for the victim's family, we will pray for our family. Asking that God ease everyone of their burdens and pain."

John knew his time was fast approaching.

"I was hoping that somewhere down the line someone would see that I was innocent. But the reality was I was an African-American male - really, really poor. And I was accused of killing a rich, white guy. I didn't feel like I would ever have an opportunity to prove my innocence again."

He nearly didn't. One day, as John sat in his cell, his lawyers gave him his seventh execution date. He would be killed the day after his youngest son's high school graduation.

At his son's school, a teacher discussed the execution in one of his classes, unaware of who was listening.

"My son was in the classroom - he had a nervous breakdown."

Forensic evidence

Just as John and his family were coming to terms with his imminent execution, a new investigator was hired.

Outlook logo
Outlook is broadcast daily on the BBC World Service
It is also available as a podcast

It proved to be an appointment that saved his life. On the same day John was being told of his final execution date, the investigator uncovered some forensic tests that proved his innocence.

The evidence, which had previously been lost, showed that blood found on the carjacking victim's trousers wasn't from either the victim or John.

"It was just that simple - it was a matter of knowing the right question to ask at the right time, to the right person."

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