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DNA cleared them, but they'll never feel free

  • Story Highlights
  • The wrongly convicted find themselves starting over in middle age
  • Even after they are cleared, a criminal record still follows most of them
  • Advocates say they are not taught the skills they need to find work
  • Most struggle in a world they've come to mistrust
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By Ed Lavandera
CNN
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This is the second of two stories about DNA exonerations in Dallas,Texas.

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After his release from prison, Wiley Fountain surfaced for this mug shot, then fell off the radar.

DALLAS, Texas (CNN) -- Wiley Fountain is homeless just five years after he walked out of prison an innocent man. He is one of the 17 men wrongfully convicted in Dallas County, Texas, then cleared by DNA evidence.

He was one of the lucky few to receive financial compensation from the state, but the $190,000 or so that made it into his pocket is long gone.

For awhile, Fountain wandered the streets of Dallas, looking for aluminum cans to trade in for cash. He earned the occasional meal by cleaning the parking lot of a restaurant. At night he had nowhere to go.

Now he's nowhere to be found. Just as the headlines of his release vanished from the front pages of the newspaper, Fountain, 51, has disappeared. And so have his hopes for a fresh start after spending 15 years in prison for an aggravated sexual assault he did not commit.

Clay Graham, a policy director with the Innocence Project of Texas, spends many days worrying about Fountain. In March, he received a phone call with the news that Fountain had been arrested on a theft charge and was sitting in the Dallas County jail. Graham rushed over to talk with him.

"He said being homeless ain't so bad," Graham recalled. "That's when I thought something horrible must have happened to him in prison."

A few weeks later, Fountain was released from jail and disappeared.

Fountain's story doesn't come as a shock to Jeff Blackburn, one of the lead attorneys with the Innocence Project of Texas, who represents many of the exonerated former convicts. See how the others fared »

Blackburn said these wrongly convicted men get "a double-whammy screw job." He said there's little help from the government to transition back into society and they're still viewed as criminals once they're out of prison.

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"They don't have any services available to them, not even $100 and a cheap suit," Blackburn said.

What happens to these men in the months and years after their release is an often overlooked story. These men find themselves starting life at middle age. CNN recently interviewed 15 of the 17 men who have been exonerated by DNA evidence in Dallas County since 2001.

Their stories are vastly different, but they do share common themes. There is little talk of bitterness and anger. But there is great mistrust of the world around them and immense frustration.

Some men have married and had children. Eugene Henton married a woman who worked in the jail commissary. "I don't know what I would have done without her. She makes me human," Henton said.

Others came out of prison so jaded and changed that it ruined marriages and relationships. A few have had repeated troubles with the law.

And almost all of them talk about how the ghost of their past follows them wherever they go. Video Watch a newly released man start over »

James Waller decided the only way to escape is to leave the place where the injustice happened. After 10 years in prison, Waller is selling his house and plans to move closer to his family in northern Louisiana. "I'll feel free when I kiss Texas goodbye," he said.

Very few of the men have managed to find steady, full-time employment. They say their wrongful convictions routinely appear in criminal background checks.

Entre Nax Karage, a 37-year-old Cambodian immigrant, was wrongfully convicted of murdering his girlfriend and spent seven years in prison. Karage is married now and has a 3-year-old daughter and the family is expecting a second child next month.

He finds occasional work as a security guard.

"I go and apply for a job and it keeps popping up on my record," said Karage. "It's pretty frustrating. I didn't even do it."

The long prison sentences left many scars on the personalities of the exonerated men. Greg Wallis spent 17 years in prison, and said he's lucky to have made it out alive. There were countless fights with other inmates that left him battered, bloodied and bruised.

Wallis now lives in Lubbock, Texas, with his girlfriend --but relationships aren't easy for him. "She has a hard time understanding my ways," Wallis said. "You do all that time in prison and it rubs off, you still act that way."

Wallis doesn't want to be around people. He doesn't have a job and is seeing a psychologist.

"I don't like being around people," he said. "If I could do it I'd move into the woods and live off the land."

David Shawn Pope, a self-described "artistic Southern boy," left Dallas and moved in with his mother in Northern California after he was released.

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Seven years out of prison, Pope is still looking for full-time employment. He spends a lot of time playing guitar and writing songs. But he hasn't written anything about his time in prison.

"I haven't been able to put it together probably because it was so painful." Pope said.

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