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
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
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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

The civil case finally went to trial in 2006, ending in a jury deadlock. At the second trial in spring 2007, the sole named defendant was Danny Miller, the Riverside County sheriff’s detective and lead investigator in the rape. Atkins’ attorneys asserted that Miller had fabricated evidence to strengthen the rationale for obtaining an arrest warrant for Atkins. Specifically, they accused Miller of concocting a statement by a man named Eric Ingram that said Ingram had seen Atkins in the city of Perris, near Lake Elsinore, around the time the crime occurred.

According to a court reporter’s transcript, Miller defended himself, saying he had not lied.

But Ingram had signed an affidavit stating he had never known Atkins or talked to Miller about Atkins. Ingram repeated his denial on the stand.

Atkins’ attorneys argued that the reputedly false information on his whereabouts added substance to a flimsy case built on identifications investigators had obtained through suggestive procedures. (After the rape victim had claimed she recognized Atkins on the wanted poster for the LA shootings, she had singled him out again in a photo array that Miller had prepared containing a snapshot that appeared on the flier.)

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.”

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.

*     *     *

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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