He was exonerated after serving 40 years in prison. What does the state of Del. owe him?

  • By Zöe Read/WHYY

It’s been more than a year since Elmer Daniels’ rape conviction was dismissed and he was released from prison — but his struggles continue.

Despite winning his fight for freedom, the last year and a half hasn’t been easy for Daniels, who lost almost 40 years of his life in Delaware prisons.

The biggest hurdle is landing a job that will provide financial support — and an identity.

“I need something that’s going to give me a noun,” said Daniels, who for now, must financially rely on his fiancé, who he lives with in Maryland.

The 58-year-old said he doesn’t want future exonerees and their loved ones to go through the same hardships, so he’s advocating for legislation sponsored by state Rep. Sean Lynn that would provide a fixed income for every year a person was incarcerated on a wrongful conviction in Delaware.

Lynn expected a vote on the bill this year. However, because COVID-19 postponed the state’s legislative session until further notice, he’s unsure if it will be heard by then. If reelected in November, he said he will reintroduce the bill if it doesn’t get a vote this year.

“My hope is this becomes that seed money for exonerees to rebuild themselves,” Lynn said.

More than 2,600 people have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989, according to a national registry that keeps track of cases.

Yet, 15 states, including Delaware and Pennsylvania, don’t compensate wrongfully convicted individuals — placing a financial hardship on exonerees who often struggle to find a job, secure retirement and gain credit after years of incarceration. Since 1989, there have been 3 exonerations in Delaware and 92 exonerations in Pennsylvania, according to the registry.

“The state is the one that did harm to the individual, and it’s the state’s responsibility to repair that damage,” said Michelle Feldman of the Innocence Project, a 25-year-old organization that now advocates for policy changes to help exonerees.

More than 2,600 people have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989. (Source: The National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law)

Repairing the damage

Lynn said he was inspired to write his bill after meeting Elmer Daniels.

Daniels was arrested in January 1980 at his family’s Wilmington home, just a few weeks after his 18th birthday, for allegedly raping a 15-year-old girl along a railroad track in the city.

All he could say was, “I didn’t do it,” Daniels remembers.

“For me, it was very, very scary and confusing, because I hadn’t done anything, and I didn’t know what would happen to me,” he said.

Despite his alibi that he was playing basketball around the time of the assault, Daniels, who is Black, was found guilty by an all-white jury after a short trial in May 1980.

“I was angry for a long time,” he said.

In 2017, Daniels hired a new lawyer, Emeke Igwe, who reviewed the case and contended that evidence suggesting his client’s innocence never saw the light of day — that included fingerprints that did not match Daniels’, and a psychiatrist’s testimony that the victim’s description of the assailant did not match Daniels’ appearance. A teenaged witness also provided false testimony that he and Daniels were in the same class, but Igwe found not only were the boys in different grades, but attended different schools.

In November 2018, then-state Attorney General Matt Denn filed a motion for Daniels’ conviction to be dismissed.

“It’s very important for people to understand that it’s easy to be convicted of something,” Daniels said. “The tedious part is proving that you hadn’t done something. That’s hard to do when society has given the idea of you had to do something, because you got locked up.”

Lynn’s legislation would pay the wrongly convicted in Delaware $50,000 per year of incarceration, which is prorated for those imprisoned less than a year.

The proposal is a more direct path to compensation than what’s currently available to the state’s exonerees — that’s filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the government actors who contributed to the wrongful conviction.

“[It] strikes me as deeply inequitable and unfair,” said Lynn, who introduced the bill in June 2019. “I can think of few other things that are more unjust than being convicted and imprisoned for something you didn’t do. Then at the end of it all, the state releases you with nothing, and your only recourse at that juncture is to file a civil lawsuit against the state to seek some justice for those years you were deprived of.”

That federal civil lawsuit can take five to 10 years, Feldman of the Innocence Project said, and the exoneree must prove “intentional misconduct” — a difficult task.

“There are wrongful conviction cases where it wasn’t a matter of misconduct, it was just mistakes, like an eyewitness misidentified a person in a lineup,” she said. “That’s why having a straightforward path to an innocent person getting compensated is so important.”

Feldman is concerned about a stipulation in Lynn’s bill requiring the exoneration to be based on newly discovered evidence. She argues exonerations are often granted based on older information, such as withheld evidence.

However, Feldman said the bill is a step forward. As a state campaigns director for the Innocence Project, which has helped exonerate 200 people, she has seen how incarceration affects innocent peoples’ lives.

“Besides losing their freedom and losing time, which can never be given back, suffering the agony and violence in prison when you’re innocent is almost unbearable,” Feldman said.

Innocent prisoners lose so much more than their freedom, said Marty Tankleff of Long Island, New York, who was released from prison in 2007 after more than 17 years for a murder he did not commit.

Accused in 1990 of killing his parents when he was 18, an appeals court overturned Tankleff’s conviction at the end of 2007 after the crime was connected to his father’s former business partner. New York State decided not to retry Tankleff in 2008.

Tankleff is now licensed to practice law in New York, and is an adjunct professor at Howard University. He said compensation for exonerees is necessary because many of their opportunities have been stripped away — especially if they were young at the time of arrest.

“The natural maturation period is stalled as much as possible,” said Tankleff. “My friend Mark Howard, we have a joking tagline, where Mark went to Yale and I went to jail.”

It’s difficult to establish credit, get a mortgage or find a job.

“There’s no such thing as a resume,” he said. “They ask about job history. How do you explain this 20 year gap? Even if you say you’re exonerated, people still don’t want to hire you.”

Floyd Bledsoe of Hutchinson, Kansas, had a similar experience when he was released from prison in 2015. After serving 16 years for the murder of his wife’s 14-year-old sister, he was exonerated after DNA evidence linked his brother to the crime.

Upon his release at 39, Blesdoe couldn’t get a car loan because he didn’t have credit, and said he’d be homeless if it weren’t for family and friends providing a roof over his head.

“Most jobs I encountered were like, ‘Hey, we’re happy for you, but I have to look at my customers, and if they come in and see you and see you on the news I’m afraid of what they might think or say,” Blesdoe said.

However, last year Kansas legislators passed a bill offering exonerees $65,000 for each year of incarceration. While Blesdoe wishes the state would also offer indefinite medical benefits to exonerees, he said the compensation allowed him to get a better car, put away money for his retirement and restart his life. He now works for a nonprofit group running a mattress recycling program for inmates — at the same prison where he was incarcerated.

While Tankleff advocates for compensation, he argues a flat rate is neither fair nor reasonable, because had the exoneree not gone to prison, their income might have been much more than $65,000 a year.

Rather than set a flat rate, New York allows exonerees to sue. Tankleff, who settled with the state for $3.4 million and with Suffolk County for $10 million, argues states should offer both an annual income and a settlement.

“For someone that was a young individual who had huge potential in their life, who is the state to say what that individual’s value is? Somebody who was an up-and-coming football star, an up-and-coming musician, an up-and-coming businessperson, they could have been Bill Gates.”

Now a lawyer, Tankleff also wants states to prevent wrongful convictions by requiring mandatory recording of interview suspects, reducing the caseload for public defenders, and increasing forensic science training for defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges.

For those already wrongly convicted, there should be a formal review, he said.

“When we’re able to identify why someone was wrongfully convicted, we’re able to improve the system,” Tankleff said.

Starting a new life

Elmer Daniels poses for a photo at his attorney’s office Thursday, March. 05, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Daniels said being released from prison after more than 39 years is like stepping out of a time machine. He was shocked by the prices of items like bread and milk, and has had to face the challenge of learning new technology.

“When I got out, the first time I heard a car talk, my little brother came to pick me up from the halfway house, and he was talking to somebody, and I opened the door and said, ‘Who you talking to?’ And he said, ‘Siri,’ and I looked around his car, ‘Where she at?’” Daniels recalls.

“He said, ‘Go ahead, talk to her. Ask her anything.’ So, I asked her out. And she said, ‘I don’t think that’s possible.’”

But more than feeling like he was in a time warp, imprisonment took away years he could have spent with his mother and family. He said he has nieces and nephews he doesn’t even know.

Going to jail at such a young age also meant Daniels missed the opportunity to go to college and start a career. He said finding a job has been the most challenging aspect of returning to society.

“I’m 58, a lot of people are going to look at that first. Even McDonalds, the easiest place to get a job,” he said. “I have some work experiences. Painting, I can do that. I can cook. There’s a lot of things I know how to do. But to consider me qualified based on credentials, no. That’s the issue.”

Even if Daniels finds a job soon, he will have to work for the rest of his life because he hasn’t worked enough years to build up a pension. He said he relies heavily on his fiancé Edna Emory, which weighs on him heavily.

“And it bothers me, because I’m an able body, and I just can’t get anyone to take a chance,” said Daniels, who also is enrolling in Cecil County College.

He said no amount of money will replace the time he lost, but compensation would help him get on his feet.

“What the money will do is help me transcend into a phase of life I can be comfortable with and allow me avenues I choose to do,” he said. “I need capital to make my dreams come true.”

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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