By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Herman Atkins Sr. keeps every receipt. About this, he is meticulous. For every bottle of water, every pack of gum, he will ask the cashier for a sales slip. Each day, he brings the slips home to his wife, Machara Hogue, who files them away in chronological order, a separate folder for each month.
When Atkins is out of the house and realizes that he has not bought anything for a few hours, he sometimes swings by a mini-mart to make a purchase so he can get a receipt. If the store has a surveillance camera, Atkins will make sure to walk past it.
If he is on the road and cannot stop somewhere, he will call Hogue. The cell phone statements are not as good as receipts, which pinpoint a person's location at a specific time on a specific date. But they are better than nothing.
Atkins is building an alibi for a crime he has not committed.
"Herman is never driving in the car without talking to someone on his cell phone," Hogue says. "He understands that he has to have a record of every minute of every day of his life, because when he couldn't prove that he was somewhere else at a certain minute of the day, his freedom was taken away from him."
Twenty-two years ago, when he had no receipts or bills or surveillance cameras to establish his whereabouts, a jury sent Herman Atkins to prison for rape and robbery in Lake Elsinore, a place he had never been.
He received a sentence of 45 years and served about a fifth of it before a DNA test proved his innocence and he was released.
"A lot of people will tell him, 'That's bull, it doesn't happen like that,' " Hogue says. "But you can't tell a man who's been through it that it doesn't happen like that."
For the innocent who are locked away, no apology, no amount of money, can replace the lost years. While they're imprisoned, the world outside moves on. Children grow. Loved ones die. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, births, graduations — all are missed.
When an innocent man is freed, the world sees his release as a resurrection. The media is obsessed with recounting his good fortune. He is driven, intent on reclaiming his life. Opportunities open to him seem limitless.
But the reality of exoneration is ugly and complicated. After the media frenzy comes a reality the public doesn't see: The trauma of a wrongful conviction isn't only the years it claims. It's also the way it changes you forever.
Spend time with Atkins and you see that he is struggling. He is nervous, suspicious, leery of women as well as law enforcement and strangers of all kinds. He describes himself as distrustful.
"People tell me, 'Herman, you're too hard. You're not approachable.' I don't want to be approached," he says. "Even today, I admit that I'm not so open-minded with dealing with people. I don't like people."
Atkins says he prefers not to dwell on the past. He has seen the way that some exonerees allow bitterness to consume them. He won't be like that.
He insists he will not be devoured by history, obsessed with transgressions impossible to reverse. But the truth is, the past stalks him anyhow.
Atkins grew up on West 79th Street in Los Angeles, the third of six children. His mother was a homemaker. Her longtime boyfriend, a man Atkins calls his stepfather, worked as a highway patrolman. Atkins avoided trouble in his tough neighborhood by focusing on athletics and books. He played football and baseball at Fremont High School and worked there as a janitor. He attended church on Sundays, read or cleaned the house on Saturdays and devoted his spare time to buying, refurbishing and reselling low-rider Chevrolets.
Of four brothers, Atkins was the "quietest of the crew" — the only one among the boys to finish high school, his sister, Dena Mims, recalls.
After graduation in 1984, Atkins took a military aptitude test but scored too low to enter the Air Force. He would not have the opportunity to take the exam again.
A mistake and a frightening coincidence changed his life in 1986. On the night of January 25, he was at an auto shop in South Central, paying a mechanic $150 for work on an engine when a robber approached, snatched the money and bolted on foot.
What happened next is murky, but this is Atkins' account: The mechanic pulled out a revolver and Atkins grabbed the weapon and gave chase, firing into the air to scare the thief. The robber kept running, however, and disappeared around a corner.
As Atkins approached the corner, he spotted a cop car, heard gunshots and — frightened — cut off his pursuit, retreated, ditched the weapon and went home.
Police told a different story. They blamed Atkins for shooting and wounding three people, including two officers.
Atkins remained on the run for 10 months, until authorities tracked him down in Phoenix in November 1986.
Atkins had no prior convictions. He pleaded no contest to charges linked to the shooting, taking an eight-year sentence. A trial might have produced a guilty verdict and a longer prison term, which Atkins did not want to risk. He had infant sons by two women — one a summer fling, the other the first of three wives — and he wanted to get to know his boys.