Wrongfully Convicted, 35 Years Later
If you sat out the last 35 years what would you have missed? Maybe your entire life! If you were to list the possessions you are most attached to, high on the list might be the cell phone, the Ipod, the (personal) computer and many related things including the internet, YouTube, Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter. Imagine life without any of these goodies. For James Bain, this is no idle exercise, as he has lost 35 years of a free life and is currently awaiting $1.7 million as restitution for the mistakes that imprisoned him.
The name James Bain meant nothing to me before December 2009. It’s a name that I’m unlikely to forget now though. I remember seeing Bain at a news conference that December—I think I watched it live—and I was struck! I wasn’t star struck; Bain is not a celebrity, but I was struck by the simple, zen-like calm that emanated from him as he spoke to a small crowd gathered outside the courthouse in Polk county, Florida. There is something gentle about Bain; it’s hard to imagine him in a prison of tough guys. But in December 2009, Bain was released from prison after spending 35 years there.
In 1974, a nine-year-old boy living in Lake Wales, Florida was plucked from his bed and raped. The boy’s description of his attacker led his uncle to think that he may have been James Bain, who was a student at the high school where the uncle worked as an assistant principal . There is some debate about whether the victim was steered towards doing so, but he selected Bain as his attacker from a photo lineup. So despite 19- year-old Jimmy Bain’s protests that he was at home with his twin sister at the time of the crime, he was tried and convicted of kidnapping and raping the child. Bain, who had no prior criminal record, protested his innocence all along, but off he went to prison.
I’ve heard the joke that everybody in prison is innocent, so Bain’s protestations didn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t guilty. Over the years, Bain tried to get DNA testing of the victim’s clothing, but his appeals were all denied. Attorneys from the Innocence Project of Florida were able to get DNA testing done in July of 2009, proving that Bain was falsely imprisoned. He was imprisoned for 35 years for a crime he did not commit! He spent all of his 20s in prison. And all of his 30s. And his 40s. And he began his 50s in prison. At the time of his release, Bain had spent more time in prison than any one else in the U.S. who was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.
If we think of the life course perspective that chunks life into stages, James Bain missed transitional adulthood, which is the name for the stage of those ages 18-29. Bain began his sentence at a time during which many of us attend college and then begin our careers. By the end of the 20s many are dating or married and have professional degrees or licenses. Bain didn’t get his driver’s license until age 55 and he plans to get a GED and take the state of Florida up on its offer to pay for his college tuition.
Bain also spent what is referred to as the early middle years (ages 30-49) in prison. In the free world, people at that life stage often experience career shifts and divorce. Bain left prison at 53—the beginning of what is called the later middle years (ages 50-65)—a time at which people generally begin to think about their mortality as they encounter health problems. At 55, Bain is engaged to a woman who has a young child and was seeking employment, events that had he been out of prison would have likely taken place in his 20s. Also, in his 50s, he attended his first NFL football game.
What are your reactions to Bain’s story? How much do you think he should be paid by the state for all that he missed? (More than a year after his release, Bain appears to be experiencing bureaucratic gridlock; although the state has promised to pay him $1.7 million, he has not received a single dollar yet.) How much is it worth not to get an education or start a family? Or never to have used a cell phone? Or to miss being with family and friends?
Is it inevitable that as a society we will incarcerate some portion of people who are innocent? The Innocence Project , an organization which exists to free wrongfully convicted people, has exonerated more than 260 people since its creation in 1992. What, if anything, do you think needs to be changed in the criminal justice system to ensure that The Innocence Project is no longer needed?