By Charlene Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from The Final Call –
(FinalCall.com) - John Thompson narrowly escaped death by lethal injection after serving 18 years behind bars for a murder and other crimes he did not commit. He was released after evidence revealed that prosecutors withheld a blood test and other information that would have exonerated him and a jury awarded him $14 million compensation but the U.S. Supreme Court stripped him of the judgment. Despite it all, he has dedicated himself to helping others like him get their lives back on track after incarceration.
Thompson told The Final Call he was stunned but mostly saddened after the court's 5-4 reversal. He could have walked out of prison and gone into seclusion but instead, he reaches back every day by working to build Resurrection After Exoneration, a New Orleans, Louisiana-based program that helps men get back on their feet after incarceration.
“The whole thing was facilitated because of what guys had to do to put their lives back together coming home,” Thompson said. The program was initially created for men who were exonerated but broadened to include ex-offenders generally.
“I thought our state should have been responsible, held accountable, meaning help us put our lives back together, too but I've come home to find out it was the opposite. They didn't really care about you putting your life together. Then I started reading and found out what happened to these other guys that had come home before me and it was a sad case. I couldn't go that route,” Thompson told The Final Call.
He explained that the sad case was most of the exonerated men were homeless and some were severely ill with no medical benefits. When he was freed in 1999, there was no compensation bill in place, he said. After regularly meeting with some of the men he was imprisoned with, discovering what they experienced, and what it takes to survive on the outside, they decided to create their own house and program together, he said.
The guidance of people like Norris Henderson, a longtime community activist who was also formerly incarcerated, has helped to mold his life and make him a fighter and a survivor during his younger years in prison, Thompson said.
Part of the result has been Resurrection After Exoneration, which runs out of a fully donated eight-bedroom, three bathroom home that is under renovation. It is fully equipped with two kitchens, a large den and huge backyard for a vegetable garden.
The focus for the past three years has been on men located in Louisiana and Mississippi. To self-sustain the overhead and programs, Resurrection After Exoneration plans to operate several independent businesses like its paralegal training program, a computer silk screening company, and a community space that it leases out.
The men may stay at the house for up to six months to help them work their way back into society, coordinators said. During that time, they are offered a skill trade, such as computer literacy. They are also given trauma treatment and counseling with social workers and psychologists to help them readjust to living outside of prison.
“Sometimes that is the biggest hurdle, trying to readjust and refocus on coming out of an abnormal environment into a normal environment. You know, people fail to realize how violent, how vicious inside a prison is,” Thompson said.
“It's one of the worst places where your manhood is tested 24/7. That means during the course of a day or any given time you have to be on your defenses and it could mean life or death inside the prison and you want me to just turn that switch off when I come home,” he added.
Resurrection After Exoneration is a space for those formerly incarcerated to come home without feeling so isolated and ostracized because most have been in prison so long, their families are already gone, Henderson told The Final Call.
The program isn't looking for a profit—only to put people to work, Henderson continued. The community garden will be used to produce and sell fresh herbs and vegetables to the neighborhood. Development of a lawn care business is already underway and the paralegal training program has 22 enrollees, he said. Graduates of their programs give back by donating 10 hours a year to mentor someone else at the house. A primary key is to help participants successfully resume their lives by making a way for them to become financially independent.
Thompson received some limited compensation from the state after his ordeal but most men don't receive that, Henderson said.
“That was a bad message the Supreme Court sent, ya'll can do anything you want, put people on death row, put people in jail, but no harm, no foul,” Henderson said.
For Thompson, the Resurrection Program has been a labor of love rather than a distraction from the Supreme Court's denial of his award. He said he filed the lawsuit in part for the other men left behind in Louisiana's prisons and jails, to give him and them hope that their lives are valuable.
“You gotta think about what they told my family, that our system could take your father from you and punish him for 18 years and you can't get nothing! To both of my children, to my mom, I was a good father. None of my children were on welfare when I went to jail. I was a hard worker and a little hustler too, now. I was no angel but I wasn't no damn murderer either!” Thompson said.