26 Years in Hell
26 Years in Hell
Article published in The Columbus Dispatch, Friday, April 18, 2003. Written by Alan Johnson
For more than half their lives they’ve languished in prison, professing their innocence all along. Now they face the prospect of re-entering a world that has left them behind.
For more than 26 years – 9,500 nights – they have slept in prison-issue uniforms on hard bunks in cramped spaces, where the sounds, smells and thoughts of other men crowded them like ghosts.
Initially on Death Row, Timothy Howard and Gary Lamar James lived for a year-and-a-half in constant fear of facing the executioner for crimes they say they did not commit. In the two decades that followed – after Ohio’s death penalty had been overturned – the East side childhood friends have been haunted by other numbing emotions: anger, bitterness and frustration. They could be locked up for life. But for what? They were innocent, they said.
On Wednesday, Judge Michael H. Watson of Franklin County Common Please court overturned Howard’s conviction but ordered him to remain in jail until Prosecutor Ron O’Brien decides whether to appeal. A bond hearing is set for next week that could at least free Howard.
A Different World
Howard and James were street-smart young men of 23 when they went to jail on Dec. 23, 1976, charged with and later convicted of murder and bank robbery. Jimmy Carter had just been elected president. A little sci-fi movie called Star Wars was about to be released. John Lennon was alive and urging people to give peace a chance. The world they hope to return to soon is dramatically different – and larger. The world population grew by 2 billion while they were behind bars. Now approaching 50, Howard and James are on the brink of freedom. Howard has been exonerated for an Ohio National Bank robbery in which 74-year old security guard Berne Davis was shot execution-style four days before Christmas in 1976. James hopes to hear the same response to his appeal.
Losing 26 years because of mistakes is the stuff of nightmares. Somehow, some way, Howard and James will have to recalibrate their lives, jumping ahead from America’s bicentennial year to a new millennium. Howard has survived prison on pure grit and determination, writing letter after letter to everyone from preachers and prosecutors to Geraldo and Oprah, seeking information and help. He has labored long nights writing by the blue light glow of the TV in his cell after lights out. “I’m angry, but I have to push that to the side. I just don’t have time for that anymore. The anger kind of motivates me. As long as I’m angry, I keep pushing for that front door. I knew it was just a matter of time until we’ll be free,” Howard said. “I felt me and James would eventually get out of this mess.”
James, meanwhile, was sullen and bitter at first, getting into frequent fights and being set to solitary confinement. “At some point you some to the realization that you have to let all that go,” James said. “I knew I had a lot of time to do. I knew I had to let everything go if I wanted to have any type of peace of mind. You have to force yourself to stop thinking about life on the outside.” Each in his own way, Howard and James have kept hope alive in prison.
Plans for the Future
Howard plans to use his first taste of freedom to visit his ill mother, Cecelia, 83, who is in a Columbus hospital. his father, Elijah, died in 1997. He also wants to see his sons, Dawan and Tim, and his grandsons, Dawan Jr., 7 and Elijah, 3. And he wants to thank a man at his mother’s senior citizens center – someone he’s never met – who sent him $5 to spend at the prison commissary.
If James is released, he will receive less of a welcome home. Both of his parents are gone – George James died of cancer before his son’s trial in 1977 and Virginia James died from a stroke in 1993 – and he has no children or grandchildren. His dreams of freedom are of pie and the ocean. “The first thing I want to do is eat some food I haven’t had in a long time. A home-cooked meal. Pie. I like a lot of different kinds of pie.” James wants to see his family, especially his sister Audrey Whiting, who lives in a Columbus suburb and with whom he plans to live. He also wants to travel. “I haven’t done anything. I haven’t traveled anywhere…I’ve never even seen the ocean. That’s another thing I’d like to do.”
Man of Hope
After their conviction in 1977 and years of disappointing appeals, hope walked in the door in the person of James C. McCloskey, a former Wall Street businessman turned divinity student who founded Centurion Ministries in 1983. Centurion’s financial and legal support has helped free prisoners nationwide, some from Death Row. He took on Howard’s and James’ cases about six years ago. Howard and James would be number 27 and 28 on Centurion’s freedom list. McCloskey’s relentless advocacy, coupled with the expertise of a legal team led by Columbus lawyer James. D. Owen, head of the Ohio Public Defender Commission, pushed Howard’s case forward, using much of the information that Howard’s dogged research brought to light.
Their combined efforts culminated in a hearing before Judge Watson from Dec. 9 – 18. During the hearing, which Howard attended dressed in a shirt and tie for the first time in 26 years, testimony spilled out about FBI reports filed but never revealed, and a prosecutor’s briefcase that contained vital evidence but allegedly was stolen at a Downtown bar. That led to Watson’s decision to overturn Howard’s conviction.
The Return Home
Back in Columbus, family and friends await the two men’s return with mixed feelings of joy and trepidation. Dawan Jackson, 30, who works as a barber, was 4 when Howard, his father, went to prison. Jackson and his brother Tim, 27, knew their father primarily through letters and pictures Howard drew of them. Using cardboard boxes, scrap paper and handkerchiefs as his canvas, Howard drew and painted pictures of his boys, cartoon characters and spots figures such as football player Tony Dorsett and heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield. “He would ask us what we wanted him to draw, and he would draw it for us. I couldn’t imagine how a person could draw so good.” Later, the elder Jackson desperately missed the father he saw only when his grandparents took him to the prison for visits. “There were times when it got kinda rough out here that I wished I had a father to talk to, someone to coach me, to come to my football games.” What Jackson expects now is as much a friendship as a father-son relationship. “I don’t know who he is,” Jackson said. “I still respect him and honor him as my dad and love him. It’ll be challenging.”
Gwen Freeman, 48 one of Howard’s two sisters,never believed her brother was guilty of robbery and murder. “I didn’t think my brother would do anything like that – kill a person and rob a bank. I didn’t think he was that kind of person.” Freeman never gave up hope, often helping her parents collect newspaper clippings and other information that Howard wanted. “I assumed eventually that he would get to the right person,” Freeman said. “I thought, ‘God’s gonna make a way that someone’s going to listen to him.’”
Meanwhile, James has a room waiting for him at his sister’s Columbus-area home. Audrey Whiting worked in the office of Ohio Attorney General William J. Brown at the time her brother was arrested. She heard, through the legal grapevine, that Franklin County prosecutors felt they didn’t have enough evidence to convict James and Howard and they would likely go free. “I was pretty naïve at the time,” Whiting said.
For a while, when James and Howard were on Death Row, Whiting feared the worst. “It was a bad year. I couldn’t imagine losing my brother in the electric chair. It was almost unimaginable.” Whiting looks forward to having her brother back, although she knows the adjustment will be difficult. “I am excited and looking forward to every moment. I just think I can’t spend enough time with him, to the point of being selfish and not wanting to share him with anyone else.”
What the future has in store for the two men remains to be seen. But James believes he and Howard – who have ha no direct contact for years – will be friends on the outside someday, forever liked by events that nearly consumed them. “I think we’re stuck for life.”