Forever Scared

Herman Atkins is still trying to pick up the pieces 10 years after he was freed from imprisonment on phoney rape charges

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, who files them in chronological order, a separate folder for each month.

When Atkins is out of the house and realizes he has not bought anything for a few hours, he sometimes swings by a minimart to make a purchase so he can get a receipt. If the store has a surveillance camera, Atkins will make sure to walk by.

If he is on the road and cannot stop somewhere, he will call Machara. 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.

Brian Stauffer
Michael Villegas

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,” Machara says. “He understands he has to have a record of every minute of the 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 him to prison for a rape and robbery in Lake Elsinore, a place he had never been.

He received a sentence of 45 years and served about one-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,’” Machara 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 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, but it’s also the way it changes you forever.

Spend time with Atkins, and you see that he is struggling. He is nervous; suspicious; and leery of women, 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 that 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 sinking into 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. On the night of Jan. 25, 1986, 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 his 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 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.

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