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. Read more…