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Cleared by DNA, 1 Ga. man gets $1M, 2 get nothing

ATLANTA — On a March afternoon in 2005, three men who spent a combined 37 years behind bars for rapes DNA later showed they didn't commit climbed the steps to the Georgia Capitol. They were seeking some measure of justice — money to help them rebuild lives wrecked by years spent in prison.

Clarence Harrison walked away that day with a promise of $1 million from the state. Douglas Echols and Samuel Scott left empty-handed and have spent much of their time since wishing they had the kind of compensation Harrison received.

Yet looking at the lives of these three men today, it's tough to tell who got paid and who got nothing.

For all its certainty when it comes to solving whodunits, DNA evidence cannot answer a question that can be tougher to determine than guilt or innocence: When people are put away unjustly, how much money is enough to undo the damage?

Seven years after DNA evidence exonerated Echols and Scott, neither has received a cent from the state of Georgia. Their appeal was doomed by the influential district attorney of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" fame who locked them both away in 1987 and is still not convinced they're innocent.

"We're like ghosts," Scott said recently. "They want to pretend we don't exist."

Georgia is among 23 states that have no law governing compensation for the wrongly convicted, so anyone who suffers that fate has to ask the Legislature for an individual bill to make them whole. That's what Harrison, Echols and Scott were doing in early 2005 when they strode through the marble hallways and were ushered into a packed hearing room of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

Harrison, a large, soft-spoken man, was 44 years old when he was released in 2004 after serving 17 years in the abduction and sexual assault of a woman waiting for a bus. Lawmakers approved a $1 million payout, which Harrison said seemed like a dizzyingly large sum.

Echols and Scott were up next. In 2002, DNA cleared them of raping and kidnapping a woman at Scott's Savannah home. The woman claimed Echols held her down while Scott raped her. A third assailant was never identified. Echols served five years before being freed on parole. Scott was in prison for 15 years.

No one had told Scott or Echols that Spencer Lawton, the Chatham County district attorney who had convicted them and was still in office in 2005, had sent a letter to legislators arguing that the men were never exonerated and could not be characterized as factually innocent despite what the DNA testing revealed.

Lawton — the tough prosecutor made famous in John Berendt's book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" — held considerable sway with lawmakers, who didn't want to be seen as soft on crime. Echols' and Scott's claim was quickly dead.

Former state Rep. Tom Bordeaux, the Savannah Democrat who sponsored the legislation to compensate Echols and Scott, recalls that they were "blindsided" by Lawton.

"He wasn't man enough to admit he may have convicted the wrong guys," Bordeaux said. "It was wrong in the most fundamental way. It was indecent."

Echols has since sued Lawton, claiming the prosecutor violated his constitutional rights when he lobbied the lawmakers against compensation.

Lawton declined to comment for this report, citing the pending lawsuit.

Lawton opted not to prosecute Echols and Scott again after their convictions were thrown out. Their records weren't expunged though, so every time they apply for a job they must reveal their criminal background.

Not everyone is understanding.

"You're walking around with a jacket on your back (that) says 'rapist' all your life," said Echols, who had spent 11 years in the Army when he was arrested and now lives in Hinesville, Ga., with a woman who became his pen pal while he was in prison.

"Only thing I ever wanted to do was be a soldier and they took that away, and that's all I ever had," he said.

Scott has a small home in Pooler, Ga., with the woman he married after he was freed. He had a drug record before his rape conviction and has had a few brushes with the law since getting out, including a domestic violence charge.

Like Echols and like most ex-cons, he's struggled to find steady work since he got out. He started a small landscaping business but has few customers these days. He had a line on a job waxing and cleaning floors that he says would have paid about $15 an hour, but when the company discovered he had a criminal record, it was a no go. He is two months behind on his mortgage.

Scott and Echols have both wondered what life would be like if they'd gotten a big payout the way Harrison did.

The difference between $1 million and nothing, it turns out, can be very little.

Harrison emerged from prison deeply suspicious of nearly everyone and everything. Finding prices far higher than they'd been when was arrested in 1986, he was convinced store clerks were trying to cheat him.

He had to rely on help from family, friends and complete strangers. Many wanted to be paid back when the first installment in his state compensation — a $100,000 lump sum payment — arrived some two years later.

The money went fast. About $12,000 went to his ex-wife for years of child support he wasn't able to pay for their daughter. His big splurge was a Chrysler 300 for his wife, Yvonne, whom he married 18 days after leaving prison and who had supported him for years. He was encouraged to obtain credit cards to set up a credit history and quickly ran up balances.

He admits he overspent.

Harrison, who lives in the Atlanta area, has been unable to hold down a job. He worked for a time stocking books in a warehouse and as a security guard at a Christian school.

Under the 20-year structured settlement, Harrison gets about $47,000 a year before taxes. When the state check comes in, he uses it to pay off last year's debts — including a growing pile of medical bills, because he has no insurance.

"I used to think that it would be a lot of money, but after you get it you see it's not as much as people think it is," he said.