Forever Scared

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

At 35, he became the oldest member of the college football team; he played 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, barber shops, 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.”

Brian Stauffer
Michael Villegas

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 they had smelled narcotics inside. The search turned up a cache of very well-hidden cocaine.

Atkins told the truth: someone else had stashed it there, he said. The 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 LA 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 the detectives. The department also refused to turn over related records, saying investigatory documents were exempt from disclosure under California law.

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

That 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 LA.

*     *     *

By 2005, Atkins was close to completing a bachelor’s program at Cal State Dominguez Hills, to which 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 resources available to parolees who had actually committed crimes.

His testimony helped persuade state legislators to raise the maximum compensation for the innocent from a flat $10,000 to $100 per 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 had studied sign language and was working as a Compton Unified School District attendance clerk and selling 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 Machara into his life.

“I was really intrigued by Herman’s story, and I wanted to know everything,” Machara recalls. “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 dispensed toys. They ran Faithful Vending from Machara’s home, filling her living room with a rainbow of race cars and miniature Shreks.

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

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

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