Forever Scared

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

On April 30, 2007, the jury in Atkins’ civil suit awarded him $2 million, payable by Riverside County.

“It was at that time that I understood what my grandmother had always told me,” Atkins said. “She said, ‘A lie will die, and the truth will always live on.’”

In 2000, after Atkins’ release, Richard Bentley, the prosecutor, had said in a statement, “I was horrified and my heart broke for Mr. Atkins and his family that he had served time in prison for this horrendous crime. A day hasn’t gone by that he and his family are not in my prayers.”

Brian Stauffer
Michael Villegas

But Atkins says neither Bentley nor Miller, who had joined the FBI in Little Rock, Arkansas, ever apologized directly.

Bentley and Miller couldn’t be reached for comment. A spokesman for the FBI’s Little Rock field office said he could not confirm whether Miller worked for the agency.

The Riverside County district attorney’s office refused to put a reporter in touch with Bentley because he no longer works there. The Weekly did not receive a response to a letter hand-delivered to the Riverside home of the only Richard Bentley registered to practice law in California.

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Atkins calls Feb. 18, 2000, his “resurrection day.”

“Like when Jesus told Lazarus to rise, the Lord told me to rise,” he explains. “And you rise above the circumstances. You rise above the crisis that you faced.”

But Atkins’ life today, after 10 years of freedom, is a question mark: What might have been? For instance, had he not served time for the Lake Elsinore rape, maybe his second son would not have landed in jail.

What is clear is that among exonerees, Atkins stands out. “There’s no question that Herman has done much better than most,” Neufeld says.

The attorney remembers meeting Atkins in 2000 and recalls how, even then, it was clear he “wanted to be in control of his own destiny.”

Today, Neufeld says, Atkins “comes across as a very complete human being”—an insightful man with a family, education and ambition.

Atkins dotes on Machara’s girls, Rhea, 15, and R’Rheana, 11. He moved his third son, Imari, 17, to Fresno after the teenager had a run-in with police in Lancaster.

Wronged so many times, he still talks about how grateful he is for his life and how he wants to use what power he has to alleviate the hardships of the less-fortunate.

In 2008, he and Machara, now 40, founded Life Intervention for Exonerees, a nonprofit that presents the wrongfully convicted with welcome-back baskets holding goodies including popcorn, apple cider and $250 in gift cards for purchasing necessities.

The civil suit against Riverside County inspired Atkins to study law instead of psychology.

He wants to work on behalf of the innocent. He took the Law School Admission Test three times, with disappointing results. But, not one to give up, he applied in 2009 to the California Western School of Law in San Diego, which houses the California Innocence Project.

As he waited to hear back, Atkins kept busy, lobbying for reforms of the justice system as chair of a California council for the wrongfully convicted; running a small ATM business with Machara; and buying, rehabilitating and reselling houses with another partner.

The news from the California Western School of Law came this summer: Atkins was in.

At 44, the youthful-looking Atkins is a portrait of upper-middle-class America. He has a shaved head, wears plastic-framed glasses and keeps a flat-screen TV in his office so he can watch football while he works. He has his own code of etiquette: He wears dress shoes most days and addresses his English bulldog, Jack, a hulking creature who drools a lot, with such courtesies as “thank you” and “please.”

He is always planning for the future. He wants to go to Australia, England and Africa. His dreams seem endless, but he is also practical—frugal, despite his wealth, because he knows that to realize his goals, his money needs to last. On a recent outing to run errands, he stopped at Burlington Coat Factory, where he picked out a $40 pair of shoes. He also introduced himself by name to the clerk at the counter. He stowed the receipt.

With time, Atkins has buried his dark side deeper within him. But those who know him recognize it. They know why he positions himself facing the exit at every restaurant, why he is always looking around and sizing people up, why he stockpiles receipts.

This February, Atkins and Machara were in Las Vegas on the 10th anniversary of his exoneration, the fourth anniversary of their wedding. They went to see a cover band who played songs from the ’70s and ’80s. And as they made their way through hotels and casinos, Atkins found comfort in the countless surveillance cameras hanging from the ceilings.

This article appeared in print as "Forever Scared: Ten years after his imprisonment on phony rape charges, Herman Atkins can’t shake what happened. His life is a never-ending search for an alibi."

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