Forever Scared

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

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.

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.”

Booking mug shot of Herman Atkins in 1987
Booking mug shot of Herman Atkins in 1987
Booking mug shot of Herman Atkins in 1993
Booking mug shot of Herman Atkins in 1993

Atkins has always contended he didn’t fire the bullets that injured the victims. Peter Neufeld, a former attorney for Atkins, says that according to a police report, a fingerprint on a revolver found at the crime scene did not match 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 fliers and thought she recognized Atkins as the man who had attacked her earlier that day.

In 1988, with Atkins in prison for the LA 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.

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 a rape of a fellow inmate. He would study the human condition, and it would horrify him. “You see how vicious people can be,” he says. “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 as a police officer, his job was to put people in jail, not to call on them there.

Atkins insisted 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 helped wrongfully convicted people win freedom.

Scheck wrote that DNA testing, a then-new technology, could free Atkins. But securing and examining evidence from the Lake Elsinore case took six years.

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

The night before leaving prison, Atkins’ advice to his cellmate, then new to the prison, was “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, Feb. 18, 2000, sunlight streamed through a narrow window. As guards escorted him 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, beneath a huge blue sky. He wore a gray sweat shirt, Levi’s 501 jeans, and a pair of new, white tennis shoes 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. 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.

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