Saturday, November 24, 2007

NBC Action News Mark Clegg's Report Journey Toward Freedom

I would like to share a great story reported by my friend: Mark Clegg
NBC Action News
Journey to Freedom

Innocent until proven guilty – that is the foundation of the United States' justice system. But can you prove guilt when it doesn't exist?

Depending on how you look at him, Joe Amrine is a lucky guy. He is alive, but at 51 years old he is still serving time for a crime he didn't commit.

"Dying scares me now for real," Amrine said. "I spent all that time on death row."

Dennis Fritz, like Amrine, also spent years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

"It was a roller coaster ride out of hell every day in that penitentiary," Fritz commented.

Despite nearly losing everything before being exonerated and finally released from prison, both men say they'll never be truly free.

"I have not found any peace," Amrine said. "Like I said, 26 years is a long time to be in prison."

Fritz added, "Every time a cop car would drive by or the telephone would ring and nobody would be on the phone, you know, I would be thinking they were coming after me again."

Burglary, forgery and robbery charges landed Amrine in prison in 1977. Several years into his 15-year sentence, someone murdered another inmate. Amrine got the blame. He was charged, convicted and sentenced to death. Multiple appeals were denied.

"So now, I'm facing the situation where I've got to come to grips with myself – you're going to get executed," Amrine recalled.

All for a crime he didn't commit.

Fritz was charged with the rape and murder of Debbie Sue Carter.

"I had never met her in my life," Fritz said.

He was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he had nothing do with.

Both men spent much of their lives behind bars. After being cleared by DNA evidence, they were released. One man stands free while the other is still imprisoned from within.

"A counselor came to my door and was hollering in through the door," Fritz said.

Amrine added, "So he says, 'You're leaving tomorrow.'"

"I actually just dropped to my knees and just thanked the Lord and was weeping and sobbing," Fritz said.

Amrine said, "I seen all the cameras and stuff and I said, 'Ah yeah, I'm gone.'"

NBC Action News cameras watched Amrine walk out of prison a free man on July 28, 2003. But the road back home has been anything but easy.

"Every day I wake up, I find a new problem," Amrine said of the years since his release. "And they all lead right back to being in prison."

From relationships to crowds; from paying bills to holding a job, it's a struggle for Amrine. He spends much of his time in solitude at his favorite park. And for a time, he fell back into drugs.

"During that I remember going to the park and just sitting there crying because my whole situation… it was just too much," he said.

Fritz lived in fear for two solid years after his release. It was only after the real killer was charged that he found any peace.

"And so in my mind, instead of doing 12 years, I did 14 years," he said.

Eight and a half years later he still has flashbacks.

"Out of the blue... actually, I can see something that will flash me back to a certain incident that happened in the penitentiary," Fritz said.

Fritz found a great deal of peace writing his story in the book Journey Toward Justice. He also worked with author John Grisham in telling the story of his and Ron Williamson's case. "The Innocent Man" became another Grisham best-seller.

"My mission right now, and probably for the rest of my life, is to help wrongfully convicted inmates out," he said.

It's a helping hand that can make a difference for someone like Amrine, who still struggles to find his way.

"I don't see how anybody could be in prison that long for something they didn't do and get out and actually experience the real feel of freedom," Amrine said.

According to the Innocence Project, which helped free Fritz, DNA has cleared 208 people nationwide and led to their release from prison.

Fritz sued and won compensation for the years he spent in prison. Amrine filed a similar lawsuit, but it was thrown out by the courts. He is appealing. The case is expected to come up in January.

But just because you have money doesn't mean all is good. The Oklahoma district attorney who convicted Fritz recently filed a lawsuit against Fritz and Grisham, claiming libel and slander.

Reported by: Mark Clegg
NBC Action News

Clegg's Comments - Share your thoughts with Mark Clegg. He will regularly be adding entries and responding to viewer comments here.

Comments can also be added on my blog, "Barbara's Journey Toward Justice" here

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