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Man wrongfully imprisoned for decades happy to start relearning life

By Rich Phillips, CNN
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Freed by DNA evidence
  • James Bain says he's not bitter after serving 35 years for crime he didn't commit
  • Bain, 54, released last year after DNA test showed he didn't rape boy in 1974
  • "In a sense, I feel like a bear, coming out of hibernation," Bain says
  • Living with mother in Florida, Bain hopes to return to school, retake driving test

Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- Meeting 54-year-old James Bain, the one thing that stands out is that the smile never seems to leave his face. He appears happy and positive, and the bitterness that might be buried inside a man who was wrongly sent to prison for 35 years is nowhere to be found.

"I kind of see myself as a man of God and being like Joseph," he said.

"In a sense, I feel like a bear, coming out of hibernation. Like, they come out to eat, mine would be coming out to enjoy what I have missed."

Bain has missed a lot. His life was returned to him and his family in December, when a Florida judge freed him after DNA testing proved he did not kidnap and rape a 9-year-old boy in 1974 in Lake Wales, Florida.

With the help of the Innocence Project, a national public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA tests, Bain left a Florida courtroom and entered a world he had left a lifetime ago. He is now on the outside, in a world that has changed technologically and socially, and one in which he must now learn how to live -- again.

"I've been planning on going back to school, and getting ready to take my driving test again, and hoping to get a motorcycle license," Bain said.

In the backyard of his mother's home in Tampa, Florida, Bain said that he'd like to tour the country on his motorcycle. CNN spoke with him amidst grapefruit and orange trees that weren't even planted when he went to prison so many years ago.

"You spend 35 years in prison, and just the little things, like a grapefruit tree or an orange tree ... those had vanished for me," he said. "I never thought I'd get a chance to see another one of these."

The past six months have been a whirlwind, and Bain has become a celebrity. He was brought to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by the Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence to ring the Liberty Bell on Martin Luther King day.

When it was revealed that his favorite movie was "Titanic," the owners of the Orlando, Florida, exhibit "Titanic -- the Experience" invited him and his family to spend the day at the site, where characters from the movie tell the story of the sunken vessel.

Noting the movie symbolized hope and strength for him while in prison, Bain said the film sends chills through his body.

"To me, it means love and care for what you feel about other persons, like my sisters and mother. I think about that key word from 'Titanic,' 'Don't ever let go,' " Bain said.

Bain was invited to Orlando by Lowell Lytle, the man who portrays the Titanic's captain, Edward Smith. Lytle was touched by the torment James experienced while wrongly imprisoned.

"It just hit me how horrible that must have been. That man's youth was taken away from him," Lytle said. "I thought, I need to do something to help this man. If I can bring a smile to his face ... to be able to take him through this exhibit here, and take him through an experience he will remember forever, that was fun for me."

During the past six months, Bain also has spoken to church groups and organizations.

"I try to show whoever I'm speaking to about choices. That's my key word. Choice. Only you can make it because you have to live with it," he said.

"My choice was snatched. ... It was taken from me. They didn't leave me no alternative. It's like the old saying, the right place at the wrong time."

But Bain insists that he's not bitter. He said he believes he's returned to a better society -- a better country than the one he left in 1974. He points to the fact that an African-American was elected president.

"I saw a big difference when the president changed, which I never dreamed would happen," he said. "To see that change, that goes to show me, now, that there's a lot of good that we've done in this country."

Bain has been living with his mother in Tampa. He's been paid to speak in a couple of places, money that will help tide him over until his big payday. He and his attorneys have filed with the state of Florida for the restitution that Bain is entitled to -- $50,000 for every year he spent behind bars, for a total of $1.75 million. That's a lot of money to most of us, but not nearly enough to make up for 35 years, Bain said.

"Not even if they gave me $100 million," he said. "Even if they gave me that, it still wouldn't replace what I lost."

He said it's the money that's keeping him on his guard -- and is one reason why he doesn't yet have a girlfriend.

"I just don't want no woman to want me for my money, to be honest with you," he said. "... You don't know what they have planned."