Forever Scared

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

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.

Michael Villegas

Atkins was broke and needed work. His stepfather gave him a Nissan 300ZX, and on outings to run 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 basic requirements—he did not know how to operate a computer. He had a 14-year hole in his résumé, and though 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.”

But, she says, “jail has changed that. He won’t trust until you’ve earned it, and he will shut you out.”

Fairs, theme parks and other places where crowds convened made Atkins anxious, reminding him of prison yards. At restaurants, he positioned himself to face 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 related 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 rose as a source of tension, and soon, the youth 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,” he laments.

As he struggled to counsel his son, Atkins watched his mother 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 freedom 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. His mother 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 to not allow grief and anger to dictate the terms of his existence. Smart decisions—no drugs, no gangs, no gambling—had helped him survive behind bars. The same approach could help him thrive in freedom.

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 Neufeld and 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 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.”

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