Monday, 11 August 2008

David Pope, exonerated in Dallas County in '01, is still struggling to find his place

After 15 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit, David Pope became the first of 18 men to be exonerated by DNA evidence in Dallas County.

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, August 10, 2008

COTATI, Calif. – Seven years ago, David Pope became the charter member of a select club: Dallas County exonerees cleared by DNA.

Mr. Pope, 46, spent 15 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. Now he finds himself a solitary figure who works odd jobs but spends most of his time quietly tending to the small rental house he shares with his mother.

He says he suffers post-traumatic stress from his prison years, likening exonerees to combat veterans who are comfortable on the battlefield but ill at ease in civilian life.

After years of freedom, "I don't quite know where I fit," a bewildered Mr. Pope says.

Family ties

For Mr. Pope, freedom came abruptly, with little time to prepare.

During a decade and a half behind bars, he had settled into prison life, where he was told when to get up, when to eat, when to work, when to play, when to sleep.

Then one day he was fetched from his cell. After years of investigating an anonymous tip, DNA testing cleared him. Prosecutors finally admitted the wrong man was incarcerated.

"They wanted me to walk out in the middle of the night," he says, "but I couldn't get a bus or anything at that hour."

A guard let him spend the night in an unlocked cell and brought him dinner. An officer thrust a faxed pardon from the governor into his hands, and the next day Mr. Pope walked out the front gate in a set of secondhand clothes.

An awkward family reunion followed, made tougher by the fact that Mr. Pope coped with prison by learning to "emotionally shut down."

He'd also been estranged from much of his family before his arrest and now, everyone had changed. His father had a new family. He hadn't seen his mother in more than 15 years.

Patricia Pall, who wrote often, says she always knew her son was innocent. She planned to fly David to California when he was released, but airplanes "made me feel out of control," he says.

"When something like this happens to you, you have control issues."

They rented a car.

For the first few days, Mr. Pope mentally looked over his shoulder, worrying that "they're going to come and kidnap me again and say, 'Oh, we made a mistake; we shouldn't have let you out.' "

He gradually relaxed and became reacquainted with his family.

"We had to learn how to treat each other," his mother says. "The best way we can get along now is to not talk, but just do our separate lives and leave each other notes about where we're going to go and when we're going to get back."

Like most mothers, she wanted to fix things for her son, but all she can do is listen.

"It's been a long period of transition," Ms. Pall says. "It's still going on."

Despite still having a family – some exonerees do not – Mr. Pope feels isolated.

"A lot of guys get out of prison and can't make it," he says. "The loneliness is a big [issue]."

He has few friends and though he knows it sounds odd, he misses the camaraderie of the shared prison experience.

"There were a lot of good guys in there," he says, noting that troublemakers are usually separated from the general population.

"When you're living in that environment, around hundreds of people, there was an energy. And when you get out, that's gone," he says.

"That was one of the most surprising things," Ms. Pall says with a grimace. "He missed prison."

Jobs and money

At age 23, when he was arrested, Mr. Pope was working odd jobs, living with a friend, staying at his father's house or sleeping in his car.

He says he'd only been in trouble for a few minor things, such as shoplifting as a kid and traffic violations.

When wrongly arrested for the July 1985 knife-point sexual assault of a 38-year-old Garland woman, he expected the criminal justice system to prove his innocence.

Voice print analysis – later discredited – and mistaken witness identification soon put him behind bars with a 45-year sentence. Even then, he assumed "the appeal process clears up these things," he says.

When the system failed him again, Mr. Pope resigned himself to prison life and hoped for parole.

"For the first five years, it's a lot of anger and it's like hell, OK? ... Then, at some point, you start moving forward."

Mr. Pope investigated religions and immersed himself in the Bible. He had nothing to repent, but "I wanted to understand what my purpose was, for instance, why I was there."

He studied cabinet making, electrical trades and horticulture. He worked prison jobs.

Eventually, he expected to be paroled to a halfway house, get help finding a job, and have state support to ease his transition back into society.

But that didn't happen: As an exoneree – an innocent person wrongly convicted – he received restitution several months later but didn't have the same services and structure as criminals who are freed after doing their time.

"It was literally like they said, 'Get away from us. ... You're on your own, you're free, but we're not going to help you much,' " he says.

His brother helped him land a job stocking shoes at a store. But Mr. Pope couldn't get along with a co-worker. He quit, and the pattern has been repeated.

Sometimes he feels like "Rambo-comes-back-from-Vietnam," he says. "And somebody does something or says something or harasses him – he just ain't going to hear it anymore. He just wants to be left alone."

For instance, Mr. Pope won't work with anyone he thinks has gang ties. He's offended by the glamorization of gangster culture: rap music, prison slang, baggy clothes and tattoos.

"All these young people want to be gangsters," he says. "And when they put me around people like that, it makes me nervous."

He tried attending college to finish his bachelor's degree, but he didn't fit in there, either.

"Going to college in prison ... there's no distractions," he says. "Going to college in the free world ... it's about acting out, having fun, dating, sleeping late, partying a lot."

Mr. Pope would like a relationship but has little in common with the women he meets.

"Which peer group do I fit in with?" he asks. "People my own age or younger people? When I was released, I was 39 going on 40. ... I was, emotionally, still 24 in certain respects, interacting with the opposite sex, dating. "

Life in the free world, particularly California, revolves around materialism, he says – what you wear, where you work, what you drive. That's a shock after the spare simplicity of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where everyone wore the same white uniforms, ate the same food and rode prison buses.

"Out here, it's all the selfish pursuit of money," he says.

He had money – for a while. But the $384,000 in restitution from the state of Texas disappeared quickly. He bought cars, traveled and gave money to relatives. He also paid taxes, lawyers and therapists.

Mr. Pope admits he's no good at managing money. He says exonerees would be better off if they got restitution in annual payments, or if the state funneled money through a trust fund.

He suspects that many exonerees share his inability to plan for the future. "Delaying your gratification, doing these things you need to do," he says with a shrug, "well, you don't live that way in prison."

Mr. Pope no longer has money for counseling but says telling his story helps him cope. He encourages other exonerees to do the same. "That's just the therapy itself," he says.

He still reads his Bible, keeping it "right next to my bed," he says.

Sometimes he wonders how life might have turned out had he not been wrongfully convicted. But he's not bitter, he says – he's sad.

"I'm sad about the fact that I haven't been able to make a life for myself," he says.

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