It was 1983.
She was 19. He was 22. She was white. He was black. She was raped. He wasn't the guy who did it.
But she identified him. In a photo array. In a courtroom before a jury. In another courtroom before another jury. Guilty!
60 years, Four times what he'd have gotten from the plea offer he turned down even though his lawyer urged him to take it. After all, he was factually innocent and the truth would surely come out and set him free. Because God or the American way or just blind faith.
But no. The trial lasted one day. The jury was out for one hour. Guilty!
And 60 fucking years. Which might as well have been a lifetime.
He appealed. You know how that went.
His appeals failed, and he grew to accept that he would die behind bars. He shut himself off to the outside world — an adjustment exacerbated by the fact that, other than a visit from a friend in the first year, no one, not even his family, came to see him. He began to doubt his own innocence.There are, of course, two stories here.
While he was losing his life, the woman he didn't rape* was working on hers. She was comforted because the guy who'd raped her wouldn't get to do it again. To her or anyone. 60 damn years. And he deserved every one of them.
This was Oklahoma, so it's maybe no surprise (it shouldn't be anyway, but hey, this is my storytelling) that a church choir came to the prison for a Christmas musical. One of the women from the choir noticed him. She was impressed. She followed up. She believed. They got married.
When they learned about DNA she cashed out her retirement and used the money to hire a lawyer who managed to get the samples and have them tested. (I keep saying they should test the fucking DNA - this time they did.)
And of course, since he didn't rape anyone, including the woman who'd repeatedly said he was her rapist, well . . . . Damn! He was the first person in Oklahoma to be cleared by DNA. And after only 13 years.
“There’s nothing I can do to correct the 13 years of injustice that he has endured in this case,” the district attorney at the time, Tim Kuykendall, said in court.
Kuykendall also stressed that blame did not lie with the victim. “I do not believe she lied,” he said. “I think she truly believed [he] was the perpetrator.”
And so he went home, with his wife. And he found a job and was getting his life together. Which is maybe a whole lot tougher than you'd think, because really, innocence isn't enough.
Oh, it looked like things were going well. He had a job. He had a home. But it's not that easy.
“I went from 14 years in prison to the streets in less than eight months. No halfway house. No integration. No nothing,” he said.
He also had no opportunities to explore the trauma of having been locked up and treated as a criminal for nearly half his life.
He was maybe ready to howl a little. His wife, the church lady, not so much. Still.
They worked together and Oklahoma passed a law to compensate exonerees for their years in prison.
Well, some exonerees. They didn't make the law retroactive. Fucked again. And then there was the drinking and the drugs and he lost his job and his marriage. He ended up homeless.
“I had expected that all I needed to do was just get out, and then I can pick up where I started off,” he said. “But what I didn’t understand was that I didn’t know how to live life. I had lost the ability to cope.”
Of course, there was still the woman he didn't rape. She'd known about the DNA testing,
but she’d thought little of it, because she was sure there’d been no mistake — she’d even traveled to prison to fight his parole. So the disclosure was hard to accept. It brought back terrifying memories of the attack — and the realization that [he] was not the one responsible.
And that, of course, in another way, she was. The day he was exonerated and set freeShe knocked on the door of a church, weeping, and asked to see a pastor. “I told him I just needed God’s mercy,” she said. “I needed forgiveness and mercy.”
About 6 years later, the woman he hadn't raped called the wife he no longer had. They spoke for a while. How is he? How is he doing? She wanted to know. And the ex-wife, How did you do that to him? How could you?
In the fall of 2012, some 30 years after he was accused and tried and convicted of the rape of the woman he didn't rape, some 7 years after he was exonerated, he bottomed out. He started to reclaim his life. He got housing. He got disability payments. He went into recovery in a 12-step program.
Last year, he was to speak at high school with a bunch of other exonerees. The woman he didn't rape was an alumna. She saw reference to the program, saw his name as one of the panelists. She screwed up her courage.
She tapped him on the shoulder. Some 33 years after the fact. After they'd last seen each other - her glaring and him mystified - across a courtroom.
“Could I talk to you for a minute, please?” she asked.
He followed her into a hallway, where she told him her name. His gut skipped.
She stepped back, afraid of how he’d react.
“I’ve been waiting so long to say this: I’m so sorry,” she said. She crumpled into tears. “I’m so, so sorry.”
[He] listened in amazement. It was the first time anyone had apologized for what had happened to him. “It’s OK,” he told her. “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago.” He put his arms around her. He began to cry, too.
It is one of the
myths lies they tell people who've been victimized. You'll only feel better if the monster is destroyed. Or at least kept away. But they learned otherwise. Her apology freed him. His forgiveness cleansed her. They'd both been victims.
His name is Thomas Webb. At her request, the NBC News team that put this story together refers to her, at as K. I don't know how she picked that. I assume it's her initial. Or maybe she'd been reading Kafka and sensed - if only subliminally - a connection to Joseph K.
Every so often, he and K meet on lunch breaks. They check up on each other. He calls her sis. She says she loves him like a brother.
Their friendship has brought each of them a level of peace that neither thought possible.
“She’s able to move on with her life now instead of being stuck in fear and guilt because of me, and I’m able to be free from the resentment, the anger, the disappointment,” Webb said.
* Don't be a smartass. Yes, There are actually millions of women, billions of women he didn't rape. But you know what I mean.