Every night, I go outside and look up to the stars and the moon because for years, I could not see them
Iwas 29 and mowing the lawn at my mother’s house in Birmingham, Alabama, on a hot day in July 1985 when I looked up and saw two police officers. When my mom saw the handcuffs, she screamed. They asked me whether I owned a firearm, and I said no. They asked if my mother owned one, and I said yes. I asked the detective 50 times why I was being arrested. Eventually, he told me I was being arrested for a robbery. I told him, “You have the wrong man.” He said, “I don’t care whether you did it or not. You will be convicted.”
At the station, it became clear I’d been at work when the robbery occurred. The detective verified this with my supervisor, but then told me they were going to charge me with two counts of first-degree murder from two other robberies. They said my mother’s gun was the same kind as the one used at the crime scene, and that I matched the description of the man they were looking for. That was enough for them to pursue charges.
When I met my appointed lawyer, I told him I was innocent. He said, “All of y’all always say you didn’t do something.” I might have seen him three times in the two years I waited for trial. The only evidence linking me to the crime was the testimony of a ballistics expert who said the bullets from the murder weapon could be a match to my mother’s gun. They found me guilty and on 17 December 1986 I went to death row.
On death row, the day starts at 2.45am. At 10am they bring lunch. Dinner was at 2pm. And that was it. They don’t care about actual mealtimes: they say they have to get through everyone, so they start early. The cell was 5ft x 7ft. You spend about 24 hours in there.
For three years I didn’t say a word to another human. I had to watch 54 men walk past to be executed. My cell was 30ft from the chamber and I could smell the burning flesh. There were 22 who took their own life. Going into my fourth year, I heard the man in the cell next to me crying. He told me his mother had died. I said, “Well, now you have someone in heaven to argue your case.” The next morning, it was as though a light had come on: my sense of humour was back.
I let my mind travel. I visited the Queen; I married Halle Berry. My mind went everywhere, and at night I’d come back and check on my body.
Without lawyer Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wrote to him after seeing him on TV one day while being walked back to my cell. I got to meet him in 1995 and finally had someone to fight for me.
He hired a ballistics expert and when we got the news that the bullets didn’t match, we went to the attorney general. They refused to take an hour to re-examine the case because it would be a “waste of taxpayers’ money”, and I sat on death row for another 16 years.
EJI kept pushing for a retrial and eventually, on 3 April 2015, the State of Alabama dropped all charges. I was released that same day. I couldn’t take it in: when you’ve been locked up for nearly 30 years, nothing is the same. It was like walking out on to another planet at the age of 58. Someone had to introduce me to the internet. My mother had died, but I was fortunate to have a best friend who let me move in and who supported me.
In jail, you spend all your time thinking of the things you’re going to eat, only to get out and discover you want nothing. I bought a king-size bed – after sleeping in the foetal position for years, I dreamed of stretching out. I’ve been out of prison for a year and half now, and I have yet to stretch out.
Every night, I go outside and look up at the stars and moon, because for years I could not see either. I walk in the rain, because I didn’t feel rain for years. Now, I am determined to go wherever I am asked to help end the death penalty. I am so thankful that I get to travel with Lifelines and EJI, and share my story.
I’ve never had an apology, but I forgave those involved in my conviction long before I left prison. I didn’t forgive them so they can sleep well at night. I did it so I can.