Shawn Shinneman | Longreads | November 2017 | 23 minutes (5,753 words)

Richard Miles has no preternatural pull toward stuff, but after he received his compensation from the state of Texas for a wrongful conviction, he did make one purchase of minor extravagance: a majestic-looking chess set, which he had installed at the entryway to his Duncanville, Texas, home. This is what greets his guests: a wooden board checkered in alternating shades of stain, fit with a hand-chiseled animal kingdom (a few bishop-giraffes now missing ears), sitting in a floodlit display case. The base of the display is solid wood, painted a soft white and about the size of an oven. Atop that, the board rests on a circular platform, about six inches tall and fitted with a small motor. In theory, it rotates. In actuality, the function remains turned off. When it’s engaged, the board spins too swiftly, and kings and their men veer off and collapse.

To Miles, the game of chess is the game of life: You have to be on the move while thinking ahead. A chess player should be simultaneously offensive and defensive, productive while defending what’s theirs. Miles developed a taste for the game in prison. “It was either checkers, chess, dominoes — or you’re talking about somebody,” he says.

More than a dozen years into Miles’ sentence, he learned the prosecution had been playing cards with a trick deck. He was freed in 2009. Three years later, when he was fully exonerated of the murder and aggravated assault for which he’d been put away, the state of Texas’ apology came in the form of a $1.2 million check. Now come monthly annuity payments totaling $71,000 a year. As of this writing, the state has paid Miles about $1.5 million.

Those numbers, however, tell a slanted tale. Like most prisoners who do substantial time, exonerees depart life behind bars for an intimidating new world. Things like completing menial tasks and finding and keeping a job — not to mention the prospects of building a  fulfilling career and life — prove difficult. But unlike most prisoners who do substantial time, exonerees often don’t have access to the various re-entry resources that await convicts. That can make the process seem a bit like receiving a good luck slap on the back and a check to take home.

People who have been wrongfully imprisoned experience a unique type of mental fallout. A few years ago, when a dozen Dallas exonerees agreed to check in with a psychiatrist, all 12, including Miles, were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Not one was found mentally healthy, and not one has since received serious treatment. Various family members have expressed differing levels of concern about Miles’ state of mind, and his mother’s assessment has been painfully blunt: “A part of him is still dead,” she says one afternoon, “still incarcerated.”

For some of Miles’ exoneree brethren in other states, financial reparations and even the detached sense of regret that accompanies them remain a pipe dream. Texas — Red Texas — has one of the most progressive compensation laws in America, and yet it’s difficult to tell whether the money is spurring mental or emotional recovery. Even a king can topple from a spinning foundation. At different moments, in different lights, the compensation granted to Miles can seem either extraordinarily beneficial or, given the enduring impact of wrongful incarceration, remarkably futile.

* * *

Miles has fed his compensation into a few different ways. He bought a house for himself and another for his mom, he made a sizable tithe to help remodel his late father’s church and he put a 2011 Jaguar XJL in his garage. He then took $150,000 and started a nonprofit he named Miles of Freedom.

Several well-compensated exonerees have ended up pursuing nonprofit work, but Miles chose not to cater his organization exclusively to exonerees. He has aimed his assistance at all those struggling with re-entry, keeping close to heart his brothers behind bars. One hazy Texas winter afternoon, Miles was working his way toward the Dallas campus of Texas A&M University–Commerce to speak to a group he hoped could help him expand Miles of Freedom’s reach and resources. It was a social work class taught by Jaimie Page, who was instrumental in unifying exonerees to fight for increased compensation. Page invited Miles so he and her students could compare notes, with the goal that they could set a more robustly funded path forward.

Miles was optimistic about what the meeting could bring. The refreshing thing about Page was that she didn’t seem to want anything out of Miles, or Johnnie Lindsey, or Christopher Scott — guys who in the drop of a gavel had gone from convicted killers and rapists to innocent men, in certain eyes, something entirely different: dollar signs. Page has more than once turned down money from exonerees for her help. Now, she was inviting Miles to her classroom not as Guy Who Had Bad Thing Happen to Him, but as the head of an organization.

One of the central struggle in Miles’ first life was rooted in a yearning to experience the freedom outside his sheltered upbringing, and in his second he grappled with a stinging guilt associated with his conviction. The tension of his third is in a search for an identity deeper than Richard Miles, exoneree. Turning out of his South Dallas office in a black Cadillac CTS (he bought it after seeing the bill for his first bit of maintenance on the Jag), he was feeling good.

One of the first things Miles had done when he had gotten out was enroll in college. Still awaiting his compensation at the time, he had lived on student aid. He hadn’t known how to use a computer, which had been embarrassing, and he had taken a public speaking course, which had been terrifying. But from the latter he gained confidence, and he was soon telling his story over and over — in classrooms, conferences and on a book tour. That story ends well: Miles has been let out of prison and is now in front of you, speaking. This is remarkable and inspiring. But that basic narrative suggests no plan of action. No purpose. Our feature presentation, The Life of Richard Miles, has now ended. Enjoy your evening.

“I think now, more so it’s trying to walk away with a plan,” he says in the car. “That makes me have to study more. It makes me kind of forget about myself.”

Miles arrives early for class. He’s directed to wait in the library, where he settles momentarily and then gets up and paces the hallways talking on his cell phone.

By the time Page gets there, he’s been on three separate calls with Aubrey Jones, his wise and always beaming former prison-mate, now his right-hand man at Miles of Freedom. In class, he sits up front in a black blazer, a silver watch showing, chic as usual. At about 1 p.m., Page calls class to order and introduces her guest, turning to Miles. “So,” she says warmly, “maybe you can start with a little bit about your story.”

Former inmates and current Miles of Freedom clients use the computer lab at the organization’s office in Dallas, Texas. (Laura Buckman)
Former inmates and current Miles of Freedom clients use the computer lab at the organization’s office in Dallas, Texas. (Laura Buckman)

* * *

May 16, 1994, early morning: A couple of minutes after 19-year-old Miles is dropped off near the neighborhood in which he’s staying, he crosses the street in front of a stopped police car and suddenly finds himself under the glow of a helicopter’s beam. Ground police appear in flocks, surround Miles and arrest him. Not far away, at a Texaco gas station near Dallas’ Bachman Lake, two men have been shot several times at close range. One is dead. The other will be permanently disabled. A witness has told dispatchers the shooter is wearing something similar to Miles’ attire.

Still, even sitting in the back of the police car, Miles isn’t nervous. He figures the cops will call the people he’s been with all evening, realize he’s telling the truth and release him. Trying to elicit a confession, Detective B.J. Hooker spends 10 hours in and out of questioning Miles, whose premonition is partially correct: The police call the alibis, and the alibis check out.

As the day wears on, the police charge him anyway.

There’s hardly any evidence to convict. Under closer examination, Miles’ clothes don’t quite match the description. He’d been in dark-blue Dickies pants; witnesses say the shooter was wearing dark-colored shorts. He had on a black derby hat with a rigid felt brim and a feather; the shooter was described as wearing a “floppy” hat. (Miles’ hat would disappear before trial.) Miles is light skinned and about 5 foot 6, relatively short; the shooter is said to be tall and dark skinned. Seven witnesses are shown a photo lineup of Miles and five others. In it, Miles is the only one wearing a white tank top, which matches the description of the shooter. Only Marcus Thurman identifies Miles. Thurman, whose initial description to cops had led to Miles’ arrest, had still been at the Texaco that morning when police, in an odd move, brought Miles to the scene, took him out of the car and swabbed his hands for gunshot residue. Thurman got a look at Miles then, before his positive ID during the photo lineup. Prior to taking the stand—he will later say—Thurman is coached as to the defendant’s whereabouts in the courtroom. He serves as the prosecution’s star witness, pointing to Miles as the killer. Lab tech Vicki Hall’s testimony stretches the significance of trace levels of residue — minuscule enough to be found in the dirt — that show up on Miles’ right hand. Miles is left-handed. She will later say she would have testified differently if she had it over.

But it’s not the reversal of those two key testimonies that gets Miles out of prison; those come later, triggering his exoneration. One day in 2007, Miles is in his cell during lockdown when he gets a delivery, volumes upon volumes upon volumes: his trial transcript, the trove of valuable documents he could never afford, which had made it nearly impossible to make a compelling case for a new trial. In Miles’ world, he’s on a deserted-island quest for innocence and this is the flare gun to signal help, the thing he’d held out hope for during his darkest moments. He could change his situation, if only he could get his hands on the transcript.

In his cell, Miles works through thousands of pages over several sittings, trying to read as if he’s guilty so as to overcorrect for his own bias, a tip he acquired from a writ writer in the prison law library. The police report is here, too, but Miles saves it for last. That, he figures, he’s seen already. Except, as it turns out, this version is much different. The file provided to Centurion Ministries, the organization that has taken on Miles’ innocence case and sent him the files, is more than three times the size of the one given to William Lloyd, Miles’ father, years earlier. It contains evidence that the defense never saw, including a promising lead that appears to have been ignored by police in the pursuit of Miles. He and his lawyers hadn’t known that a woman had called police one day in May 1995, talking about a shooting at a Texaco not far from where Miles was picked up, with the time frame to match. They were about to try a man in connection, she told them, but the real shooter was her ex. She reluctantly provided the name of the suspect, Keith Richard, but did not give her own name and feared she’d be killed if her former boyfriend was questioned. She also identified the gun as a 9 mm pistol, a detail that hadn’t been publicized. Another report described an encounter the two victims had had outside a Kroger a few days before the shooting, during which the surviving victim, Robert Johnson, had threatened a man with a gun, the same one found on the floorboard of the car after the shooting, thus further discrediting Johnson’s claims in the courtroom that he was a random victim, that the gun was merely for defense and that the two had no enemies.

Already well versed on the state’s duty to disclose exculpatory evidence, Miles discovers the missing documents from inside his prison cell. A confusing mix of anger and elation envelops him. It is in this moment he knows he will be free.

On what sort of submarine explorations has Miles’ mind since embarked? He has been scared, angry, tired, and soaked in guilt. He has fought; he has prayed. He has considered what dying could do for him and how to achieve it. He has learned the key to forgetting about yourself: to account for every minute, never to be idle. Will he be able to unlearn this? More hours in law books, working in the infirmary. More hours lifting weights, playing chess. Sleep eat work eat exercise study play eat sleep. Repeat. Do not sit; do not sink. Never leave a moment free, lest reality come bubbling to the surface.

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* * *

August 26, 1995, late evening: Welcome to the coldest hunk of concrete in America.

Miles had just twice heard the word “guilty.” The jury had deliberated for eight hours, a good sign, and then the foreman — a young, Black woman — rose to her feet in the courtroom and said it, and while some of the jurors wept, Miles had fallen to his chair, stood, and was carried away to this concrete slab in a holding chamber. After a long day, the chamber was otherwise clear. Miles was alone.

The truth shall set you free.

A childhood photo of Miles. (Courtesy of the Miles family)

Miles’ parents stopped by. Thelma, the uplifter, mother of four, forever of hope. William, a Vietnam veteran: spiritual, serious. Dad. Miles and his older sister, LaShawnda, have a different father by blood, but it is William who raised them, along with the two boys, William and Emanuel, he and Thelma had together. The rules of his house were smothering. Miles was boisterous, a jokester. The way his classmates’ laughter fed something inside him assured his constant presence inside detention. He developed an interest in girls, and a smile. “A little lover,” Thelma calls it. Meanwhile, William’s religious vision required considerable devotion. The family participated in revivals, meaning nightly trips to the church. Home life offered little leisure. Miles yearned for more. He was not even allowed to play checkers or chess.

He had been arrested once before. That first time had been a year and a half after a fateful conversation with his father. The talk had taken place during the evening, out back behind the house. He had been sitting in William’s beat-up Chevy truck, on the wrong end of a three-hour lecture about abiding by the rules of this house so long as you live in this house. Miles decided not to live in this house. His supervisor at his job at McDonald’s, who went by L.A., offered to take him in, and a guy named Tori picked Miles up.

“Man, you know, it’s good!” Tori told Miles. “You’re moving out! You’re staying on your own!”

Tori lived with his mom.

He did not take Miles directly to L.A.’s. Instead, he took Miles to a corner, where they met a drug dealer. The group Miles would fall in with kept two hotel rooms, a place at Raw Suites Hotel — the chill-out spot — and a place across the street at the Deluxe Inn, where the transactions went down. They sold crack and smoked pot. Soon, Miles found himself entranced by this new street life. He dropped out of school late during his senior year, and the following year, on March 1, 1994, police got clearance to search the room at Raw Suites and found about half a gram of crack cocaine atop the trash can’s heap. Police did not find cash on Miles, and therefore — his lawyer suggested — he might have a chance in court. Instead, a month in, he pleaded guilty in exchange for probation, sure he’d be able to avoid further trouble. He distanced himself, he says, from the Raw Suites crew. On April 26, he turned 19. Three weeks later, everything changed.

So there were Miles’ parents. They’d always insisted that should their children get in trouble with the law, they would not be there to help. They would not put up bail or fund a lawyer. They would not visit. Miles was staring back at the owners of the home he abandoned, who raised him until he decided that their services would no longer be needed, that he was a man.

The walls were down and Miles was reduced, naked.

Under William’s faith, the family had spoken of this date in August as the endpoint, refusing to legitimize the possibility of a conviction. Once the day came, conversation rang hollow. Thelma wondered what to say. She did not want to make Miles feel as if his parents were doubting their faith in God. “But we looked at what, 80 years? 60 years?” she says now. Miles picks up on something. “My dad was like, ‘Man, your court-appointed lawyer is going to do what he’s supposed to do,’” he says. “‘The word of God says that the truth shall set — ’ So he was more like that.”

Relaying the story, 40-year-old Miles is wearing a white T-shirt, sitting on his leather couch, the light above illuminating the grays on his closely cropped head. A room over, his year-old daughter, Raelyn, starts to cry. Miles checks on her and returns.

“It was me, too,” he says. “I know I had to go to God: ‘What is this? Man, this makes no sense.’”

Miles’ lawyer, Ed Gray, had been sure the jury would show mercy — given the tears — all the way up until Miles confessed during the sentencing hearing to dealing drugs, providing the missing motive. Miles was sentenced to 40 years and 20 years, respectively, and a judge tacked on another 20 for his violation of probation. All three sentences could be served concurrently, setting his maximum sentence at 40 years. But Miles’ release would come much sooner, 15 years after his arrest, in October of 2009.

By that point, much damage had been done. Miles moved in with his mother, and Thelma Miles quickly took note of all the new traits her eldest son had acquired. He would sit very straight and still, so as to not extend outside his personal space. He would seldom leave the house, and he struggled to make friends or connect with others. When he needed to go to the bathroom, he would ask. “I’m like, ‘Richard, just get up and go!’” Thelma says. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just so — ’ ‘I know, baby, you’re just so used to it.’”

A cut-out of Miles in prison pasted onto a photo of his family — with the caption written by Thelma at the top. (Courtesy of the Miles family)

One day Miles was mowing the yard when an alarm sounded, the weekly test of the emergency system. From inside, Thelma noticed the lawnmower motor had quieted, and she stepped outside to check on her son. Miles had hopped up on the porch and snapped to attention. The alarm had transported him back to the prison yard, its strict schedule, the unforgiving guards.

Miles struggled with the college classes he’d enrolled in — although he managed to earn praise along the way from professors who knew his story. He’d taken college courses in prison, where the teachers taught. Out here, they instructed: read this, analyze that, come to class ready to discuss. The medium through which he was to study changed, too, and suddenly involved a screen. The Blackboard app was baffling. “When I left, beepers,” Miles says. “When I came back, iPhones.” His peers were warm to his story, but he quietly wondered how many times he could reasonably request simple technological assistance.

For Miles and other exonerees, struggles to assimilate into modern culture are compounded by the psychological impact of wrongful incarceration. “They feel like they’re Martians landing on Earth,” says Centurion Ministries founder Jim McCloskey, whose organization counts Miles among its 54 successful exonerations over 37 years. “It’s so difficult for any of us to really understand the pain and suffering that they’ve gone through and their psychological structure, and how they view the world and people.”

Cautionary tales abound. In 2008, CNN found Wiley Fountain — a Dallas exoneree who’d been compensated $190,000 under a prior iteration of the law — had become homeless just five years after he was released. Last year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, police found Darryl Hunt dead in a pickup truck. A dozen years after DNA proved he wasn’t the rapist and killer who took a young life in 1984, Hunt was the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Dallas exonerees are overwhelmingly Black and male, a demographic that, according to Page, the Texas A&M University-Commerce professor, is historically overrepresented in institutionalized mental health care and historically underrepresented in outpatient mental health care. In a society already squeamish about treating the mind, this is a population more resistant than most. When Page secured the money for evaluations, the men in the group she was working with had strict demands: The psychiatrist had to be a Black male over the age of 50, and he had to be willing to meet each of the exonerees at their individual homes. Page knew of no one, but her intern uncovered a man named Charles Mathis. He worked his way through the group and eventually diagnosed every one of them with post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to Miles, Page says it’s possible the exonerees are actually dealing with a more serious form of PTSD called C-PTSD. The C stands for “complex” and signals a more serious version resulting from long-term or repeat trauma, such as consistent sexual or physical abuse.

Either way, Mathis’ diagnoses largely did not result in treatment. Page says not a single exoneree from her group received treatment, although Miles later submitted to a couple of therapy sessions through Centurion Ministries. By and large, the men were guarded about sharing something so personal, let alone with someone who could have little grasp of the impossible emotions with which they’d dealt. “I think they’re more baffled by us,” says Miles. “The tables tend to turn.”

* * *

Across the country, the likelihood that an exoneree will be compensated in any significant way depends heavily where in the U.S. they were found guilty.

Today, 18 states don’t have any law guaranteeing exonerees compensation for the time they spent in jail. Options in those states might include arguing in front of a state commission, lobbying legislators or filing a civil claim against the state. If you win a civil claim, you could fill your bank account with $15 million or $20 million — but you’ll be in the vast minority, as winning a civil case for compensation is rare. Success is most likely for exonerees whose stories have gained national followings.

Of the states that have standards, the restitution they promise exonerees varies wildly. Most cap compensation. The state of Wisconsin provides a maximum $25,000 lump sum, about enough to buy a 2017 Honda Accord Coupe. Florida tops out at $2 million. California pays $100 per day spent behind bars, and Iowa $50.

Restrictions and caveats make an impact, too. Even after Louisiana (compensation cap: $330,000) finds reason to grant an inmate’s release, the state puts the burden of proof back on the exoneree — guilty until proven innocent — for the purposes of a payout. Under Florida’s “clean hands” provision, only exonerees with felony-free records prior to their wrongful convictions are eligible to receive compensation. One notorious case saw a man denied because of an unrelated prior felony conviction for possession of a single quaalude pill. Because of his earlier drug arrest and guilty plea, Miles, too, would’ve been stonewalled.

And the same politics that drive states not to pay exonerees are in play when it comes to freeing them in the first place. This is one explanation for why the states with the most exonerees also tend to have the most progressive compensation laws. Tom Sullivan, a defense attorney in Arkansas, says politicians in his state have long refused to see the wrongs their justice system is capable of inflicting. “We aren’t going to set up a system of compensation, because we don’t ever make errors,” he says, characterizing the attitude of legislators in his state.

Sullivan worked on the case of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, native Gyronne Buckley. In late 2013, the Arkansas Claims Commission voted to do something it had done only once before: The commission unanimously granted Buckley $460,000 for the 11 and a half years of a life sentence he served for a drug offense that was later expunged. It seemed the state was taking a step forward. But with tax dollars on the line, politics can interfere. As it happened, Arkansas’ then–Attorney General, Dustin McDaniel, rallied a legislative subcommittee to reverse the commission’s decision. Buckley, who didn’t respond to several attempts to make contact for this story, hasn’t seen a penny.

Separated by just a three-and-a-half-hour drive on I-30, the realities that greeted Miles and Buckley outside prison bars were vastly different.

In Texas, momentum to transform state policy into one of the country’s most progressive did indeed start with the state’s massive community of exonerees. Under Dallas County Prosecutor Craig Watkins, who championed a proactive approach to freeing the jailed innocent, the number of Texas exonerees inflated. They had numbers, but lacked organization and leadership. In 2007, Page volunteered for a boss’s vague offer to work with former inmates, and fell hard into the world of wrongful incarceration. She was moved by the stories of dozens of Dallas exonerees and, in time, became a trusted figure within their community.

“Here I am, a White woman trying to help a large group of these men just be able to talk to each other,” Page says. “It’s not the day room in the prison, where you kind of talk above each other and there’s all these prison dynamics.

“How do we have a conversation? A productive meeting? That took, really, about six months.”

Patience paid off, and with a united group, Page picked up grant money, which helped put exonerees in front of lawmakers. More than a dozen of the men Page worked with went to Austin. Meanwhile, several other circumstances drew attention to the cause. Acting on behalf of some exonerees, a couple of attorneys joined in lobbying efforts (perhaps with slightly less-pure intentions than Page’s, as would be revealed later when the lawyers charged exonerees for the work). Media coverage was heavy. Black leaders rallied at the state capitol.

It all crescendoed in 2009, when legislators passed the Tim Cole Act, named for a man who’d been posthumously exonerated the year before. Under it, exonerees get a lump sum equaling $80,000 per year for each year they spent behind bars, plus monthly annuity payments totaling up to $80,000 a year, ostensibly for life. As of November, Texas has paid  $111 million to exonerees.

* * *

Richard Miles in his office at the Miles of Freedom office in Dallas, Texas. (Laura Buckman)

By now Miles’ story is presented like a well-oiled machine, and this afternoon in Page’s class it takes him 18 minutes and 12 seconds to tell it. Watching him tell his story is like watching a crane operator lower cargo, meticulously and with perfect precision. He rarely projects pathos, and today there is not a shade of indignation. His arrest, wrongful incarceration and exoneration comprise one big footnote to the endeavor in which he is currently engaged: building Miles of Freedom.

Miles makes sure to mention that he wants his story to take a back seat to the organization’s goals. The “Miles” part of the nonprofit’s name, Miles tells the class, is actually an acronym: Motivated, Inspired, Law-abiding, Enthusiastic, Successful citizens. That’s what they’re trying to pull from the wreckage.

“Keep that in mind,” he says. “Please don’t connect ‘Miles’ with Richard Miles.”

Page is quick: “How are people not going to do that!” she says, to the class’s laughter. “Come on.”

“Well, I guess for the sake of the organization,” he says. “If someone were to ask you, ‘What does Miles mean?’ those are the steps to successful citizenship.”

After class, Miles folds his materials away and heads for his car. The meeting has gone well, and it feels feasible to Miles that he could soon have a paid staff. “That evolution — you go from incarcerated to exoneree to, now, I’m founder of an organization,” he says, steering the Cadillac away from campus. “That feels good.”

Miles enters a place of reflection, eyes fixed on the road ahead. Conversation turns to chess. Miles doesn’t play anymore, but lately, he’s been thinking about bringing a set to his regular meetings with Dallas youth. “I like the art of chess because chess to me is life,” he says. He talks about his family, about the pull he felt to write them checks after he received his compensation; he couldn’t see the sense in being stingy with the people who’d seen him through his worst. He gave each of his siblings $10,000. “We’re all going to be blessed, because we were all incarcerated,” Miles says. He mentions his father, whose funeral he didn’t get to attend.

Eventually, the highway grows congested, and Miles exits for the solitude of the side streets.

* * *

In 2010, Miles left college and traveled with other exonerees to promote Tested, a book about their experiences. The group appeared on Larry King Live that October, and though there were many voices to get to, King asked Miles a direct question about how he was able to move on from the injustice of the withheld evidence.

“Weren’t you angry and bitter when you got released?” King said.

“Yes, sir, I was,” replied Miles. “But if I dwell on the anger, I can’t get past it.”

The family and friends who surround Miles say they’re impressed by the way he’s been able to shirk bitterness and approach life with a pure heart. “Every person wants to believe that we are actually free,” says Miles. “Every person wants to believe that all men are created equal.” When you run smack-dab into evidence to the contrary, he says, you can let it turn you cold. Or, you can do your small part to stop the injustice.

Miles is as busy as ever, and some who know him worry about how his tendencies toward reclusiveness might mix with his constant eyes-forward approach. “What is he now, 39?” his mom says, a year off at the time. “That’s too young to close down.” McCloskey, the Centurion Ministries founder, says Miles’ authentic charisma and genuine love of people have made him a “star exoneree, in terms of his ability to adapt and develop a whole new life once he got out.” But “beyond that exterior, he’s going through a lot, too,” McCloskey adds. “It’s difficult.”

Miles’ house buzzed on a recent Saturday morning. A crew was installing insulation in the attic. Raelyn had turned two, grown five of the cutest braids in America and started running full speed into love seats, letting her momentum carry her tummy into the leather while her legs bent up behind her. Raelyn was in all pink, and her dad was in flip-flops and cargo shorts.

Richard Miles and his wife, Latoya, play with their two year-old daughter, Raelyn, at home in Duncanville, Texas. (Laura Buckman)

And then there was Latoya Miles, who appeared every so often to corral her daughter. Latoya, who works at a local hospital, met Miles in 2012. By that point, his schoolboy charm had been dampened by the elongated stay in prison. But at a car wash one afternoon — a hangout where guys looked to impress — he tried his hand. Latoya ignored him on first walk-by but engaged him when she walked out. Somehow, Miles pulled a number. About two and half months later, the two were headed to a happy hour when Miles got a call about a meeting of exonerees that night. He tried to be cryptic on his end of the phone conversation, but Latoya still pushed for an explanation, so he pulled the car over and told her his story — all of it.

Uneasiness stung the air. He’d been fully exonerated just a short time before meeting her, but his perspective only strengthened her feelings. Here was a guy who’d been dealt one of life’s toughest hands and come out the other side, not angry, not bitter, not even content to forget — but bent on doing his part. She latched onto his ambitions. She was also genuinely unimpressed by the check. “It was never: ‘Oooh, you’re going to get this compensation?’” she says, insinuating a wink-wink. “It was like, ‘OK, so what are you going to do with that once you get it? Are you going to invest?’ Those were my questions.” Miles appreciated Latoya’s independence and the fact that she looked out for him. They got married in 2013, splitting the tab on the wedding.

William Lloyd died from complications related to thyroid cancer on May 27, 2009, several months before Miles was released. The small saving grace was that William had at least seen his son’s freedom appear likely. On June 3, after Thelma laid her husband to rest at a morning funeral, she retreated to her room for a nap. She awoke to a call from McCloskey, who had good news: He’d come away from a first meeting with the district attorney’s office surprised at how sure investigators already were as to Miles’ innocence. “The Bible says that once a seed is planted into the ground, then will come life,” Thelma says.

What does the future hold for Richard Miles? He has a faint vision to eventually recede from his full-time role at Miles of Freedom, perhaps 10 years from now, stepping into a role as chairman and president and relinquishing his title as CEO. Ten years after that he could see himself merely as chairman. He already took some weight off his shoulders earlier this year, when Miles of Freedom at last took on its first paid staff. Miles wants to go back to finish his degree, but in his wildest post-exoneration and post-CEO and postgrad dreams, the only sort of job he can envision is one that allows him to go to work for his community. “I have to tell him sometimes,” says his sister, LaShawnda, “take a minute to live.”

* * *

Shawn Shinneman is a Dallas-based journalist who currently covers technology for the Dallas Business Journal.

* * *

Editor: Mike Dang
Photographer: Laura Buckman
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Liz Byer