Above: Some of the Dallas exonerees, from left to right: Claude A. Simmons Jr., Thomas McGowan, Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Richard Miles. Press photo.
Every once in a while, I’ll be reporting a story and want to keep hanging out with my subjects.
It doesn’t always happen. I sometimes end up in places that give me a feeling of guilty relief that I can just walk away. But if I could have, I would have lazily dragged out the reporting of my 2011 Observer story, Freedom Fighters. But the feature was slated for the cover, the copy was due, and so I was quickly bound for keyboard purgatory.
The Observer story follows a group of exonerated prisoners who had come together to help each other deal with their struggles, and then had organized themselves into a force fighting for criminal justice reform. I met them at the Texas Capitol, where they were lobbying for a bill to strengthen eyewitness identification procedures across Texas. It passed. I also went to Dallas for one of their group meetings, where they discussed the struggles of returning to the free world: Dealing with friends and family members who abandoned them and now came asking for money; bonding with children who had grown up without their dads; and just learning to trust people again. But these men gave little hint of the bitterness they had every right to feel. In fact, they were more full of purpose than most people I knew.
Chris Scott, one of the exonerees, had an especially bold plan. He wanted to free other innocent men behind bars by starting a detective agency—staffed solely by exonerees— to investigate their cases and help push them through the courts.
After the story ran, I told my friend, filmmaker Jamie Meltzer, about Chris’ ideas, and Jamie asked me to help him produce a film on it. We began filming just as Chris began working on his first case. And so I got my chance to come back to Dallas and hang out. We all took a road trip in a Hummer together to interview a prisoner in East Texas. I spent a day with exoneree Johnnie Lindsey. He watches dawn arrive every day from a lawn chair in his garden, savoring his freedom along with a morning coffee and cigarette. Later on, he careened around his quiet subdivision in a go-cart, cackling with joyous laughter.
See more in the trailer below. Their detective agency also will be the focus of a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered, scheduled to air on April 15. And we’re going to keep following the exonerees as they crack cases. You can help make it happen by supporting our kickstarter campaign.