It has been one year since Glenn Ford walked away from death row and out the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a free man for the first time in more than 30 years.
Ford survived a nightmare few people could ever imagine: confined to a one-man cell, in virtual isolation, for a murder he did not commit. He said his ordeal was so psychologically devastating that while in prison, he refused to step outdoors into death row’s caged recreation area for seven years.
Ford swore his innocence from the moment he was arrested and charged with fatally shooting a Shreveport jewelry store owner during a robbery in 1983. After a long legal fight, the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office — faced with new evidence implicating a different suspect — finally conceded it had been wrong and filed a motion requesting Ford’s immediate release.
Despite the admission from prosecutors that they made a grave mistake, Ford, 65, now finds himself fighting a second legal battle. He has filed a claim under Louisiana’s compensation program for wrongfully convicted defendants.
The state Attorney General’s Office — which reviews all such claims — immediately opposed Ford’s petition.
Now, engaged in a court battle that could last for years, Ford is also fighting the clock.
He recently was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The disease has spread to his lymph nodes and spine, and doctors have given him a prognosis measured in months.
“I don’t know if there could be a clearer case where somebody is deserving of compensation. I mean, the man walked out of prison with nothing but the clothes on his back,” said Kristin Wenstrom, an attorney with Innocence Project New Orleans, who filed the claim on Ford’s behalf.
She highlighted Ford’s grave medical condition in her petition: “He has recently undergone a surgery to remove tumors from his lungs and (has started) rounds of radiation treatment and chemotherapy.”
In Wenstrom’s court filings, she provided lengthy legal arguments based on her interpretation of the state’s compensation statute. But she also made another appeal — pointing out that Ford served more time on death row than any other later exonerated person in the nation.
“Of Louisiana’s 44 exonerees, Glenn Ford has suffered the worst injustice,” she wrote.
Elsewhere in her court filings, she described the state’s position as “shocking” and “preposterous.”
“This case is especially absurd because he spent so much time in prison, under such terrible circumstances, on death row. That means he spent 23 hours a day in lockdown — in solitary confinement,” Wenstrom said in an interview.
“And now the state is fighting him on it. It’s shocking. I don’t think the citizens of Louisiana wanted to be represented in this way by the Attorney General’s Office.”
The AG’s Office declined to comment on the case. But an opposition filed by Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark argued that Ford should be denied compensation because he went to a pawnshop after the 1983 killing and sold items taken in the robbery.
Because of the pawned items, Colin argued that Ford does not have “clean hands” and cannot prove his “actual innocence,” as the compensation law requires.
“The petitioner has never explained that his possession of the stolen goods was lawful,” Clark wrote in his opposition. “Even looking only at the evidence admitted at the petitioner’s original trial, it is clear that he cannot prove his factual innocence.”
Proving his innocence
Ford said he never knew the items were stolen, much less taken during a robbery and murder. But the way Louisiana’s compensation statute is written, the burden of proof falls on the exonerated inmate to prove his or her innocence.
As for the compensation itself, the state’s program is modest compared with those in some other states, offering $25,000 a year for a maximum of 10 years, plus an optional $80,000 more for “lost opportunity.”
Ford applied for the maximum amount, $330,000. And Wenstrom argued that the full amount doesn’t come close to properly compensating her client.
She argues that the state should consider the fact that Ford’s time on death row exceeds the compensation cap by 20 years. On top of that, Wenstrom points out that even if Ford had been convicted of possession of stolen property, the maximum sentence for that crime is five years, leaving 25 years for which he should be compensated, a full 15 years beyond the state’s limit.
Gary Clements, the attorney who filed the appeals that ultimately freed Ford, said there is another cruel irony in the case.
While the Attorney General’s Office is using the pawned items to deny Ford’s claim, the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office is interested in Ford’s account to help build a case against the real killer.
New evidence from informants that cleared Ford has implicated another man, Jake Robinson, in the 1983 murder — as well as five later killings.
Robinson is now behind bars, awaiting trial in one of the killings as detectives build cases in the other five. A police report on the 1983 jewelry store murder, which took the life of Isadore Rozeman, actually named Robinson as a suspect, but Shreveport police stopped pursuing him after they zeroed in on Ford.
The police report shows that Ford went to police after the murder to explain the pawned items. At the time, he thought he might be able to help the police track down the actual killer. Instead, he became the prime suspect.
“You could write a Greek tragedy about this,” Clements said. “He wasn’t even allowed to bring it (evidence about the pawnshop) in at his trial. And yet now, by this ironic twist, they’re turning around and saying — ‘Aha! There’s our reason why we can’t give you any money.’ ”
Wenstrom wrote in her petition that if authorities had listened to Ford from the beginning, “at least four murders would have been prevented and Mr. Ford would not have suffered for 30 years in solitary confinement on death row at Angola for a crime he did not commit.”
Fighting for others
Not knowing how long his compensation fight might last, Ford concedes that because of his poor health, he probably is waging the fight for others, not himself. He said he is trying to help his children and grandchildren back in California, as well as other exonerees who may come after him.
As for his own post-prison life, Ford admits that regaining his footing in the free world has been difficult.
“As soon as I think I’m about to get some of my life back, it’s another little part that’s gone. Or missing. Or slipping, or whatever. That I will never get back,” he said. “Actually, I feel violated all the way around. For 30 years, and then just kicked to the side.”
Ford said Angola Warden Burl Cain offered him a brief apology on his way out.
“He said it was a little mistake that was made, but the hands of justice works. Sometimes it just turns slow and he’s sorry about that,” Ford recalled.
Along with the $20 that the prison gives to all inmates upon their release, those words from Cain now stand as the only thing Ford has received for a mistake that cost him most of his adult life. He was locked up at age 33.
Ford walked out of prison homeless, penniless and poorly equipped to navigate a world that had largely passed him by. He is living in a room donated by the organization Resurrection After Exoneration, which was started by fellow death row exoneree John Thompson.
Thompson arrived on death row after Ford, in 1985, and was exonerated 15 years before him, in 1999.
Thompson, who did receive a settlement from the state, described Ford’s compensation battle as a travesty.
“Nobody’s looking at all that pain, what happened behind a wrongful conviction. Let’s look at that picture,” Thompson said. “As exonorees, it’s almost like we come home after fighting the biggest battle of our life, only to come home and be met with more resistance.”
In addition to the compensation claim, Ford also has filed two federal lawsuits claiming wrongful imprisonment and inadequate medical care while in Angola. He realizes he may not live to see the cases to the end.
‘Only bright part’
But Ford is determined to make the most of whatever time he has left.
He recently spoke to a group of Loyola University law students. He went to Disneyland when he visited his family — which includes 17 grandchildren — in Southern California, where he was raised. He took in Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras.
Last week, he obtained a passport so he can go on a cruise next month with his kids.
Because of his marginal circumstances and illness, everything Ford has received since his release has been donated. The money for the cruise was raised through a “GoFundMe” website started by a Massachusetts woman, a complete stranger who heard about Ford’s case in the media.
“I find that amazing,” Ford said. “That’s the only bright part of the whole 30 years, the outpouring of people.”
Despite what he has endured, Ford said he doesn’t have time to be bitter. In his own quiet, measured way, he expresses his gratitude every day, to every supporter, every chance he gets.
He knows that without the kindness and generosity of others, he’d have nothing.
“I need it the way I need a heartbeat to live,” he said. “I take it as a blessing, in the middle of all this madness.”
Ford said he takes things day to day, trudging to radiation treatments, checking in with doctors and attorneys, but always looking ahead to spending precious time with newfound friends, trying to “create new memories in the time I have left.”
Ford’s compensation claim is being heard by a state judge in Shreveport. There is no timetable on a ruling, but given the position staked out by the Attorney General’s Office, his attorneys are bracing for a series of lengthy appeals.