After exoneration

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Justice in Question

Larry Mayes spent decades behind bars for a rape he claimed from the start he didn’t commit. It took more than 20 years, but the Gary man proved his innocence. He was the 100th person in the U.S. and one of six from Indiana who’ve been exonerated, a trend that’s becoming more common as science evolves and cold-case reviews expose flaws in the criminal justice system.

Mayes was exonerated four days before Christmas 2001, after DNA evidence finally freed him by proving he hadn’t raped the female service station clerk in Hammond. He knows that part of his story is long since finished, but a second chapter post-exoneration has recently culminated for Mayes, who is now 58 and working to rebuild his life.

MayesThough Indiana is a state that doesn’t currently have any statutes that allow for compensating those wrongfully convicted, Mayes has gotten some compensation for what he went through. It took seven years, but in early September he settled a federal civil rights suit against the city of Hammond for $4.5 million. While it’s less than a quarter of what his attorneys originally requested and half of the $9 million federal jury verdict returned in his favor in August 2006, Mayes is relieved his case and that chapter of his life is now finished.

“I just couldn’t believe they’d put someone innocent away like they did,” Mayes said, reflecting on his wrongful conviction. “I’d heard people talk about this, but I never would have believed it until I experienced it for my own self. But it does happen, and it’s been a long, hard road.”

In 1982, a jury sent Mayes and another man to prison for abducting and raping a gas station clerk during an armed robbery in October 1980. The woman told police that two black men entered the station, demanded money at gunpoint, and then forced her to leave with them. They hit her with the butt of the gun and raped her before dropping her off where she contacted police, according to case records. At trial, the prosecution relied on the clerk’s description and identification of Mayes from a photo array. She also said her assailant had a gold tooth similar to the one Mayes had.

When modern DNA analysis became available and Mayes petitioned for that testing, the victim revealed for the first time that she had been hypnotized in order to sharpen her memory of the attack. His attorneys argued, and Mayes still believes to this day, that police were squeezing him for information on an unsolved murder of a Hammond police officer and were not satisfied by his claim of ignorance.

Mayes refused to plead guilty, maintaining his innocence and expecting that at some point a court or attorney would give him the chance to prove they had the wrong man.

I just couldn't believe

“I knew deep down inside that if they ever gave me the chance to say it, I could get out because I wasn’t there,” he said.

However, he said no one listened, and as a result he went into the Department of Correction for what would end up being 20 years, 10 months, and 20 days for a crime he didn’t commit.

Proving his innocence

Few words can describe the time behind bars, Mayes said.

“It’s a man-made hell, a day-to-day struggle to survive,” he said. “They took all of my freedom, but I never gave up hope that I could get out. I had to keep the faith that I’d get out. You drink water, pull yourself up each morning, and do what you have to. If I go crazy, then it defeats the purpose of everything I’ve done and all the times I’d said I was innocent.”

His thoughts often turned to the Hammond police investigator who he said years earlier taunted him, telling Mayes he wouldn’t see the outside as a free man until after age 70. That memory nagged at him, but he didn’t lose hope.

The problems wereA way to solidify that hope came one day when he saw an episode of “The Montel Williams Show.” Someone mentioned a group called the Innocence Project that was helping clear the wrongfully convicted. He wrote a letter and kept writing. He eventually got a response - albeit three or four years later.

The Innocence Project, which accepted his case in 1996, works with students at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City, where the organization was founded in 1992. Law faculty and students there eventually referred the Mayes case to the criminal defense clinic at Indiana University School of Law Indianapolis, where professor and attorney Fran Watson studied wrongful-conviction cases. She and her clinic students are part of a national collaboration of law schools known as the Innocence Network, which works with the Innocence Project and is dedicated to raising awareness about the failings of the criminal justice system and those wrongfully convicted. Four students - Todd Ess, Edward Queen, Alicia Corder and Darlene Seymour - worked with Watson, who was appointed by state public defender Susan Carpenter as pro bono counsel for Mayes. They filed a petition for post-conviction relief based on Indiana’s newly passed Indiana Code 35-38-7, which had taken effect July 1, 2001, and allowed DNA testing for postconviction proceedings in murder cases.

The two met two or three times a month, and Mayes remembered her telling him she believed that he was innocent. Watson and her clinic students have filed appearances in 10 to 15 wrongful-conviction cases over the years, but Mayes is the only exoneration so far that they’ve helped achieve.

Aside from Watson and the law students, Mayes also had attorneys John Stainthorp with the People’s Law Office in Chicago and Nick Brustin with Cochran Neufeld & Scheckin in New York. Mayes describes them all as his “dream team.”

He remembers the phone call from Watson, telling him the news of the DNA testing results.

“When I heard her hollering on the phone, saying ‘Larry, Larry, Larry.’ I knew that I was finally going home,” he said. “They’re more than lawyers.  They’re good lawyers, but they are family to me.”

After exoneration

Within two years of his release, Mayes filed a federal suit in the Northern District of Indiana alleging civil rights violations and a pattern of misconduct by police. Following a 12-day trial, a jury returned a verdict in Mayes’ favor in the amount of $9 million. While the verdict was out on appeal, Hammond officials and Mayes’ attorneys agreed in March to settle the case out of court for $4.5 million - that meant the court needed to vacate the jury award.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago refused to do that, even though U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry in Hammond was inclined to set aside the verdict and many appellate courts across the country automatically vacate lower judgments in order to promote settlements. The 7th Circuit’s three-judge panel cited concerns about wasting judicial resources, but eventually in late August the appellate court agreed to remand the case and allow Magistrate Cherry to abandon the verdict. That happened Sept. 2. 
Despite the verdict and settlement in his favor, Mayes makes it clear he has no faith in the legal system. Brustin echoed similar feelings but said he is doing what he can to address these types of problems.

“Larry is a good example. He’s someone who wasn’t a choirboy; he’d had run-ins with the law before, and these detectives decided his basic constitutional civil rights don’t matter,” Brustin said. “The problems were so systemic and so fundamental that it’s so egregious to think about it, but hopefully Larry’s case opens up people’s eyes to the dangers of the system.”

Mayes said he never thought it would take this long for the federal suit to play out, and he admits being nervous about the 7th Circuit’s hesitation to vacate the jury award. He has a heart condition that has made it difficult to work steadily, and he’s had to rely on odd jobs and help from family and friends. His life insurer determined that Mayes has the life expectancy of someone almost 20 years older. Though he believes he could have eventually gotten the $9 million award, he said it wasn’t worth the continued legal battle.

“I wanted to come out of this with something and not take a chance to not get anything,” he said. “I felt that it would be best for me to try and get a settlement, because it could be many more years.”

Now, he is working to put his life back together. Mayes and his fiancée are planning for a possible June 2009 wedding, and they are working with a Realtor to move from their apartment in Portage to a house in the region.

“You can’t ever make up for that time,” he said, “but you can enjoy what time you have left.”

Read "System delivers in justice" , from the Sept. 17-30, 2008, issue of Indiana Lawyer to learn more about exonerated individuals and the attorneys who assist them.


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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.