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What it means for exonerees to be compensated after a wrongful conviction

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thousands of incarcerated people in the U.S. have fought to prove their innocence and won. In some cases, getting released from prison marks the start of another fight, a fight for compensation for the years spent behind bars.

MALCOLM ALEXANDER: So we could call each other.

FREDERICK CLAY: OK. That sounds great.

ALEXANDER: Yes, we can make plan.

SHAPIRO: Malcolm Alexander and Frederick Clay both spent nearly 38 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit. Both were ultimately exonerated and released. But that's where their stories diverge. Fred got $1,000,000 from the state of Massachusetts for his wrongful conviction. In Louisiana, Malcolm is still fighting for compensation. When we got the two of them on the line together, I asked how it felt to meet a stranger who's been in their shoes.

ALEXANDER: Well, I would say this to Fred. You know, in the process that we both have just went through, the ordeal in our life, to me, you know, it was like standing in front of a loaded gun, you know, and being told that - to give me everything you have. And after you cooperate in every possible way, you still became that fatal victim. And this is what I was saying that me and Fred and many others have experienced.

SHAPIRO: You're saying that's what the justice system felt like to you.

ALEXANDER: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Fred, do you relate to that metaphor?

CLAY: Yes, I do because the justice system, in my experience, doesn't really care about people being innocent. They only care about getting convictions and padding their resume.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the financial compensation aspect of this. I mean, money can't make up for the decades that you spent incarcerated. Fred, what can money do? What can the compensation achieve for you?

CLAY: Well, it can achieve a little bit more stability. It can give people a little bit more independence, whether people want to get into a apartment or buy a car or get education, or they can spend some of their money on education. It gives people a little bit more flexibility to do what they want to do on their own.

SHAPIRO: Malcolm, I understand you live with your wife and the dog that you raised behind bars, named, Inn (ph), short for Innocence. If you do get this financial compensation, apart from the necessities that this could help pay for, is there any luxury, just some small thing for pleasure that you would use that money for, for yourself, for them?

ALEXANDER: Well, the thing is, I have been working since I've been out. And my wife, she's worked as well. And my dog, you know, we have recently brought her to get her tetanus shot. And right now, you know, I'm really putting a few dollars on the side, again, that bring her - 'cause I want to get her groomed. I need to get her toenails - at least her paws cut. And I built a doghouse, and I must have didn't build it too sturdy 'cause we just had that storm up here, Ida. And it blew the doghouse apart. And I say, wow.

SHAPIRO: If it makes you feel better, that storm blew some proper houses down, too, so I'm not sure it's any comment on your carpentry.

ALEXANDER: (Laughter) So I was thinking of go out and really trying to get me some bricks and, you know, and actually build her a brick doghouse.

SHAPIRO: So if you do win this case, Inn is going to be much better off for a trip to the groomer, a new house. Inn's going to be living the good life.

ALEXANDER: Yes, sir.

SHAPIRO: Fred, was there something after you got that compensation from the state that you treated yourself to?

CLAY: Yes, I treated myself to jumping out of a plane.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my - you went skydiving?

CLAY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Seriously?

CLAY: I did that twice.

SHAPIRO: Twice? Wow. That is not what I expected you to say.

CLAY: So when I got the money, I treated myself to skydiving.

SHAPIRO: I think I would pay to not do that.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Was it worth it?

CLAY: Yes, it was.

SHAPIRO: Why was that the thing you chose?

CLAY: There's a couple reasons. It made me feel like I was totally free. And also, when I was in prison and I was talking to some guys, we watched things on WGBH Channel 2 about skydiving. They say they want to do that. I said, I want to do that. So it was - 'cause some of these people that I talked to are no longer living now. They passed away. So I was like, OK, I'm doing this for such and such, a person. I'm doing this for me. But...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

CLAY: The second time I did it, it was more for me. Jump out of a plane 10,000 feet in the air - it made me actually feel like I was truly free.

ALEXANDER: Fred, I can relate to that 'cause I wanted to go bungee jumping.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Go on.

ALEXANDER: Did you know that?

CLAY: I want to do that, too. I haven't done that yet, but I want to do that, too.

SHAPIRO: I think you guys should go together.

ALEXANDER: That would be nice. Well, I didn't want to skydive, but I actually wanted to go bungee jumping. And I wanted to go over to the Grand Canyon where you could walk out on that glass floor and look down at the Grand Canyon.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: It's a feeling of totally freedom. It, like, floats.

CLAY: Yes. I can relate to that, you know? I also did hang-gliding, too.

ALEXANDER: What? That's nice.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

CLAY: And it gave me - it made me feel like I had a bird's-eye view of the world, looking down, and it made me feel free, totally free.

SHAPIRO: You guys are braver than I am.

ALEXANDER: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Well, you've both overcome an enormous hurdle, which is proving your innocence and getting released from prison. Setting apart - setting aside the compensation question, if there are people listening who are still incarcerated and still working on achieving that step, what advice do you have for them?

ALEXANDER: Mine would be to never give up. I mean, what it is to give up on - you know, you give - 'cause you got to understand you didn't do it. And you have family members who believe in the fact that you didn't do it. You have friends who believe in it. You have a community that - who believes in it. It's just that the justice system is - like you said, it just doesn't work all the time properly. You know, and you - and innocent - you being innocent proves that. But the thing is, if you give up, you've got to realize it's not you just giving up on yourself, you've given up on your family 'cause like you said, you is not the only one that's incarcerated. They have incarcerated your family. So, you know, you fighting, you fighting, you fighting not just for you. You fighting for your family. You fighting to get back with your loved one.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ALEXANDER: You know, you fighting to show that - no, you is wrong.

SHAPIRO: Fred, what do you think of that?

CLAY: I agree what he said. Never give up. When you do give up, you're not only letting yourself down, you letting your family down. But I would also add to the situation is that not only the perpetrator - me or you or gentlemen I'm talking to now or anybody else - not only were we lied on. The victim's family was lied to also. I will also say that - 'cause I have a relationship with the victim's family right now - his brother. I met with Tim (ph) and his wife, like, three or four times already, went out - you know, went out to dinner, even went to a retreat with them. But I will also say that the victim's family needs to have a little bit more input because the victim's families is - from my point of view, from my experience, the victim's family can only make the district attorney accountable. I cannot make them accountable.

SHAPIRO: You know, I asked at the beginning of this conversation whether there was anything you wanted to say to each other. You really didn't know each other at all at that point. Now that you've gotten a chance to get to know each other and chat a little bit, is there any parting thought you want to share with one another?

ALEXANDER: Well, I will say I'm glad Fred made it. I'm glad he has gotten the chance to do the things that he wanted to do and even more to come. And he proved to me to be me, you know, in the sense of saying, you know, recall as to how many years I may have done or how long I may - was there, I never gave up hope. I never stopped fighting, you know? And so to that, you know, I applaud. I'm glad you're home, man.

SHAPIRO: Fred?

CLAY: I'm glad you're home, too. And I want to applaud you, even though we had setbacks, you know, pursuing our litigations and trying to, you know, do what we needed to do to prove our innocence. I'm glad that you had due diligence. I'm glad that you didn't give up. You might, probably got discouraged, just like I did. I got discouraged at different times. But I'm glad that once we get past our disappointments, we still stuck to maintain our innocence and continue to fight.

SHAPIRO: Frederick Clay in Massachusetts and Malcolm Alexander in Louisiana, both men were wrongfully convicted and spent decades in prison before being exonerated. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

ALEXANDER: Thank you.

CLAY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX SONG, "ROME")

SHAPIRO: And after we finished the interview, the two men exchanged phone numbers to follow up on that bungee-jumping plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX SONG, "ROME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.