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Forever Scared: Ten Years After Winning His Freedom, Herman Atkins Still Fears That He Will Again Be Convicted of a Crime He Did Not Commit

ILLUSTRATION BY BRYAN STAUFFER

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.

According to a Los Angeles Times story in 2000, the prosecuting attorney in the case, Daniel A.B. Lenhart, said Atkins had been "panic-stricken and acted wildly. However, he wasn't trying to kill those officers."

Atkins has always contended he didn't fire the bullets that injured the victims. Peter Neufeld, a former attorney for Atkins, says according to a police report, a fingerprint on a revolver found at the crime scene was not Atkins'. Neufeld believes that gun belonged to the robber.

Regardless, the incident would lead to an even darker turn in Atkins' life.

While Atkins was in hiding, law enforcement officials had circulated wanted posters bearing his picture. On April 8, 1986, a rape victim in Lake Elsinore saw one of the posters and thought she recognized Atkins as the man who had attacked her earlier that day.

In 1988, with Atkins in prison for the L.A. shooting, a jury found him guilty of robbing and raping the Lake Elsinore woman at gunpoint. The victim, a shoe-store clerk in her 20s, was among three witnesses who identified him.

The outcome seemed impossible. Now, he was looking at a 45-year sentence.

His sister Mims remembers, "It was like someone had died."

Atkins would spend the next 12 years in some of the state's toughest institutions — Old Folsom, New Folsom, Lancaster. He witnessed a suicide and heard the rape of a fellow inmate. He would study the human condition, and it would horrify him: "You see how vicious people can be. There's no room to trust nobody."

Outside, acquaintances and even some relatives branded him a rapist. His mother turned to liquor. His stepfather refused to visit, believing that his job as a police officer was to put people in jail, not to call on them there.

Atkins insisted that his conviction was a mistake, but court appeals failed. Then, in 1994, Atkins received a lifeline — a letter from Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York–based legal clinic that helps wrongfully convicted people win freedom.

Scheck wrote that DNA testing, a new technology, could free Atkins. But it took six years to secure and examine evidence from the Lake Elsinore case.

Ultimately, forensics proved what Atkins could not: Semen on the rape victim's pink sweater was not his.

The night before he left prison, Atkins' advice to his cell mate, then new to the prison: "You stay away from homosexuals, stay away from prison politics, and stay away from drugs. Those are three elements that inmates find themselves attacking one another for."

When he awoke the next morning, February 18, 2000, sunlight streamed through a narrow window. As guards escorted Atkins to Receiving and Release, "It seemed like every step I had taken towards that gate ... was 10 years, 10 years backward — because I knew how far behind I was in life," Atkins says.

His family was waiting outside Ironwood State Prison in the desert of Blythe, California, beneath a huge, blue sky. He wore a gray sweatshirt, Levi's 501s and a pair of new, white tennis shoes that he had saved for the occasion. He carried $200 and a sack lunch.

This is what he recalls about that first day: He ate fried chicken. The air seemed thick. He struggled to breathe. Everything felt fast — cars, the way people talked and moved. Los Angeles had changed in the years that Atkins had been away. The freeways crawling across the skyline, once familiar, now seemed strange.

For years, Atkins had eaten, showered and exercised on someone else's schedule. Now the walls and routines were gone, and the world seemed huge with possibility.

He had choices to make. The thought was exhilarating, but overwhelming, too. How to begin a new life? He had fathered a third son while behind bars, and he hoped to build relationships with his boys and find work so he could support them.

He also wanted an education. In the penitentiary, he had undergone a political awakening. He had devoured books on black history. He drew connections between his struggle for freedom and the oppression that African-Americans had endured for generations. He questioned why so many black men and so many innocent people were in jail.

 

He promised himself that when he was free, he would enter college to gain the knowledge and credentials needed to push for reforms of the criminal justice system.

The day of his release, the sky had begun to darken by the time he arrived at his grandmother's house at East 76th Street and Avalon Boulevard in South L.A. Inside, Big Mama sat, facing a picture window looking out onto the street. In the fading light, she saw her grandson. He had entered prison with a shaved head and the face of a boy.

Now, he had dreadlocks. Muscles filled out his arms.

Atkins found comfort in his grandmother and moved in with her after spending some months with Mims.

Big Mama offered advice: Ignore the gossip. People whispered that he was "institutionalized," that a return to prison was inevitable. But it was time, she said, for him to move on. God knew the truth.

Atkins was broke and needed work. His stepfather gave him a Nissan 300ZX, and on errands, Big Mama would pay to fill up the tank.

When a family friend told him about an administrative opening at a real estate firm, he discovered he could not meet the basic requirements: He did not know how to operate a computer. He had a 14-year hole in his résumé, and although he was innocent, the rape conviction popped up in background checks.

At home, loved ones began to understand how his wrongful conviction had altered him. Before prison, "Everybody was crazy about Herman," Mims remembers. "He was a real funny type of guy, he liked rapping, had lots of friends, and just — really fun to be around.

"Jail has changed that," she continues. "He won't trust until you've earned it, and he will shut you out."

Fairs, theme parks and other places where crowds convene made Atkins anxious, reminding him of prison yards. At restaurants, he positioned himself facing exits so he could monitor comings and goings, and escape if need be.

He spent long afternoons talking with his second son. Frequently they spoke about school, with Atkins questioning the adolescent's poor attendance. The boy said he "couldn't compete," that in math, for instance, he could not memorize his times tables, Atkins recalls.

He hoped the boy would persevere, but Atkins had been gone too long. His absence during the boy's childhood became a source of tension; the youth soon left school and landed in jail, Atkins says.

"I feel as though he never had a chance to live a quality of life that I would have given him had what happened to me not took place," Atkins says.

As he struggled to counsel his son, Atkins watched his mother, Florita Lee Jackson, deteriorate. He remembered her as a vibrant woman, upbeat and spirited, with a smile that "would light up the world." He recalled skin the color of caramel candy and rich, dark hair that brushed the shoulders of a strong, medium frame.

The woman who greeted Atkins after his release was aged and weathered, with hair that had thinned and whitened, and dark bags under her eyes.

"The smile I remembered so much, it was just a cut in her face where her lips would normally be," he says. "She didn't have the desire to smile."

She checked into the hospital soon after Atkins' return. The doctor said she had esophageal cancer. She died early one morning in July 2001.

"It wasn't fair," he says, crying. "And I understand that life is not always fair, but it wasn't fair for me."

The funeral took place on a warm, sunny day at Inglewood Cemetery. Jackson was to be cremated, and Atkins informed his siblings he wanted to keep her remains.

"He told us that since we had Mama all those years, that it would only be fair that he have her ashes," recalls his sister Regina Holmes. "And that took us a while to get through to him, that it's only fair that she be at peace in the cemetery."

Atkins says he was determined not to allow grief and anger to dictate the terms of his existence. Smart decisions — no drugs, no gangs, no gambling — had helped him to survive behind bars. The same approach could help him thrive as a free man.

He engaged in a whirlwind of activity. Cochran, Neufeld & Scheck, a high-powered civil rights law firm led by celebrity attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Innocence Project co-founders Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, agreed in 2000 to represent Atkins in a civil lawsuit against Riverside County.

Lawyers reviewing police reports, trial transcripts and other documents relating to his 1988 conviction uncovered potential misconduct in the county's handling of Atkins' criminal case. It seemed possible, for instance, that Danny Miller, a sheriff's detective, had fabricated evidence.

 

Atkins hoped that new court proceedings would expose the truth. Plus the payoff could be huge.

But preparations took years. While waiting, Atkins focused on other goals. In 2000, he began studying psychology at Los Angeles Southwest College, with the state covering his tuition. The cruelty he had witnessed in the penitentiary had made him wonder about the human mind. He wanted to understand.

Many exonerees he encountered were hostile and bitter. He wanted to know what he could do to encourage them to live again.

"You have guys who refuse to take another step, in hopes of society giving back to them every day that they had took. ... These guys [needed] help," Atkins says. "If someone was going to give it to them, it had to be me." At 35, he became the oldest member of the college football team, playing defensive end. Weight training and running kept him agile. He loved the smell of grass. He joined a Freemason lodge, drawn by the fraternal organization's devotion to community service and emphasis on staying morally upright.

Atkins also made a business out of gumballs, installing and stocking about 30 dispensers along a route that included delis, barbershops, bail-bond centers, real estate offices and mom-and-pop stores. The candy kingdom turned a profit.

"Herman ain't out there messin' around," his grandmother would say. "Herman's trying to become someone."

Then, it happened again.

In 2004, one of Atkins' brothers borrowed his car to move belongings from their childhood home. As Atkins tells it, police came by with a warrant to search the house while the brother and the brother's friends worked. Atkins' car was parked in the driveway, so police decided to rifle through that, too, claiming later that they had smelled narcotics inside. The search turned up a cache of very well hidden cocaine.

Atkins said someone else had stashed it there. Police arrested him anyway.

Atkins' attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley, says the cocaine was "in a leather case, zipped, and also encased in cellophane and duct-taped all the way around." The idea that police could have smelled the cocaine was "outrageous," Holley says. As such, she says, the search was illegal.

The charge against Atkins was dismissed, but not before he spent several days in jail.

Curiously, police and the courts were of no help as the Weekly sought the facts of the case. An LAPD spokeswoman declined to comment, saying the media-relations team was unfamiliar with the incident and that detectives who handled the case would be better qualified to speak about it.

But the LAPD would not reveal the names of those detectives. The department also refused to turn over related records, saying investigatory documents are exempt from disclosure under California law.

Employees in the clerk's office of the L.A. Superior Court said they could not find the file on the case, even though it had gone to court.

The arrest was the last straw for Atkins. For a third time, authorities had tried to fault him for crimes he said he did not commit.

"Sitting in them same holding tanks, going through that same process, I realized that whole system has not changed. ... It was the same beat-you-down process, to [try to] get you to take a deal," Atkins says.

He knew he had to leave L.A.

By 2005, Atkins was close to completing a bachelor's program at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he had transferred after earning his associate's degree. He planned to pursue graduate studies in psychology at Cal State Fresno. When he discussed his experiences at conferences, lectures and other events, audiences marveled at his success.

He wasn't charming — not in a conventional way. He was blunt and stubborn. To strangers, he could come off as rude. But he was eloquent and passionate when he shared his story. He spoke out against problems including the unreliability of eyewitness identifications, which, according to the Innocence Project, plays a role in most convictions overturned through DNA testing.

He pushed for the state to provide re-entry services to exonerees, saying it was unconscionable for the wrongfully convicted to not have access to the resources available to parolees, who had committed crimes.

His testimony helped to persuade state legislators to raise the maximum compensation for the innocent from a flat $10,000 to $100 for each day spent in prison. (Atkins had been eligible for the $10,000 after his release but missed the deadline for filing a claim.)

Atkins also nurtured a romance. He had met someone: Machara Hogue, a mother of three with cropped hair and smiling eyes. She worked as a Compton Unified School District attendance clerk, had studied sign language and sold lingerie on the side.

 

Her drive to achieve impressed Atkins. Both had risen from extreme adversity to flourish — she from a car accident that had left her comatose as a teenager.

Atkins, wary of so many other people, let Hogue into his life.

"I was really intrigued by Herman's story, and I wanted to know everything," Hogue says. "I wanted to know, 'How do you feel when you were convicted?' ... I wanted to know how he thought and what he felt, and how was that going to affect his life later on."

The two ventured into business together, operating capsule-and-claw machines that dispense toys. They ran Faithful Vending from Hogue's home, filling her living room with a rainbow of race cars and miniature Shreks.

Atkins and Hogue moved to Fresno and married on February 18, 2006, the anniversary of his release.

Atkins began coaching youth football and took a job helping recovering drug addicts to reintegrate into society. Everything was falling into place.

His civil suit against Riverside County finally went to trial in 2006, ending in a jury deadlock. At the second trial, in spring 2007, the sole named defendant was Danny Miller, the county sheriff's detective and lead investigator in the rape case.

Atkins' attorneys asserted that Miller had fabricated evidence to strengthen the rationale for obtaining an arrest warrant for Atkins. Specifically, they accused Miller of concocting a statement by a man named Eric Ingram that said Ingram had seen Atkins in the city of Perris, near Lake Elsinore, around the time the crime occurred.

Miller defended himself, saying, according to a court reporter's transcript, that he had not lied.

But Ingram had signed an affidavit stating that he had never known Atkins or talked to Miller about Atkins. Ingram repeated this assertion on the stand.

Atkins' attorneys argued that the reputedly false information on Atkins' whereabouts added substance to a flimsy case built on identifications investigators had secured through suggestive procedures. (After the rape victim had claimed she recognized Atkins on the wanted poster for the L.A. shootings, she had singled him out again in a photo array that Miller had prepared containing a snapshot that appeared on the flier.)

On April 30, 2007, the jury in Atkins' civil suit awarded him $2 million, payable by Riverside County.

"It was at that time that I understood what my grandmother had always told me," Atkins says. "She said, 'A lie will die and the truth will always live on.' "

In 2000, after Atkins' release, Richard Bentley, the prosecutor in Atkins' wrongful rape conviction, had said in a statement, "I was horrified and my heart broke for Mr. Atkins and his family that he had served time in prison for this horrendous crime. A day hasn't gone by that he and his family are not in my prayers."

But Atkins says neither Bentley nor Miller, who had joined the FBI in Little Rock, Arkansas, ever apologized directly.

Bentley and Miller could not be reached for comment by the Weekly. A spokesman for the FBI's Little Rock field office says he cannot confirm whether Miller worked for the agency.

The Riverside County District Attorney's Office refused to put L.A. Weekly in touch with Bentley on the grounds that he no longer works there. The Weekly did not receive a response to a letter hand-delivered to the Riverside home of the only Richard Bentley registered to practice law in California.

Atkins calls February 18, 2000, his resurrection day.

"Like when Jesus told Lazarus to rise, the Lord told me to rise," he explains. "And you rise above the circumstances. You rise above the crisis that you faced."

But Atkins' life today, after 10 years of freedom, is a question mark. What might have been? For instance, had he not served time for the Lake Elsinore rape, maybe his second son would not have landed in jail.

What is clear is that Atkins stands out among exonerees.

"There's no question that Herman has done much better than most," attorney Neufeld says.

Neufeld remembers meeting Atkins in 2000 and recalls how, even then, it was clear that he "wanted to be in control of his own destiny."

Today, Neufeld says, Atkins "comes across as a very complete human being" — an insightful man with a family, education and ambition.

Atkins dotes on Hogue's girls, Rhea, 15, and R'Rheana, 11. He moved his third son, Imari, 17, to Fresno after the boy had a run-in with police in Lancaster.

Despite the injustices he has suffered, Atkins still talks about how grateful he is for his life and how he wants to use what power he has to alleviate the hardships of the less fortunate.

In 2008, he and Hogue, now 40, founded Life Intervention for Exonerees, a nonprofit that presents the wrongfully convicted with welcome-back baskets holding goodies including popcorn and apple cider, as well as $250 in gift cards for the purchase of necessities.

 

The civil suit against Riverside County inspired Atkins to study law.

He wants to work on behalf of the innocent. He has taken the Law School Admission Test three times, with disappointing results. But, not one to give up, he applied in 2009 to the California Western School of Law in San Diego, which houses the California Innocence Project.

As he waited to hear back, Atkins kept busy, lobbying for reforms of the justice system as chairman of a California council for the wrongfully convicted; running a small ATM business with Hogue; and buying, renovating and reselling houses with another partner.

The news from the California Western School of Law came this summer: Atkins was accepted.

At 44, the youthful-looking Atkins is a portrait of upper-middle-class America. He has a shaved head and plastic-framed glasses, and a flat-screen TV in his office so he can watch football while he works. He has his own code of etiquette: He wears dress shoes most days and addresses his English bulldog, Jack, a hulking creature who drools a lot, with such courtesies as "thank you" and "please."

He is always planning for the future. He wants to visit Australia, England and Africa. His dreams seem endless, but he is also practical — frugal, despite his settlement, because he knows that if he is to realize his goals, his money needs to last. Out running errands recently, he stopped at Burlington Coat Factory, where he picked out a $40 pair of shoes. He also introduced himself, by name, to the clerk at the counter and stowed away the receipt.

Over time, Atkins has buried his dark side deeper within him. But those who know him recognize it. They know why he positions himself facing the exit at every restaurant, why he is always looking around and sizing people up, why he stockpiles receipts.

This February, Atkins and Hogue were in Las Vegas on the 10th anniversary of his exoneration, the fourth anniversary of their wedding. They went to see a cover band that played songs from the 1970s and '80s. And as they made their way through hotels and casinos, Atkins found comfort in the countless surveillance cameras hanging from the ceilings.


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