Life After Exoneration: How One Man Rebuilt His Life After a Wrongful Conviction

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June 5, 2022

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(PHILADELPHIA) — A portable heater went out in Veterans Stadium on the Rams sideline. They were in town to play the Philadelphia Eagles in a National Football League game. Ed Baker, who at the time was only one of two electricians working at “The Vet,” had to fix it. He told that story with pride at his home in South Philadelphia in late February. After what he’d been through, landing a job among NFL players was like winning his own Super Bowl.

In the living room, CNN was on the television with reports from the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Sitting at the kitchen table, he flipped through scrapbook photos and recalled memories from his life. In one of them, Baker, now 65, displays a fish he caught during a fishing trip in Atlantic City with his co-workers from Veterans Stadium in 2004. In another, he stands on a boat called “Highroller” as he poses for a picture with these same colleagues.

Many of the photographs document his life after 26 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. He had a successful 16-and-a-half-year career as an electrician for the city of Philadelphia, but the wrongs of the past continue to linger.

“I guess I’ll never get over it. No matter how long I live,” Baker said. 

A majority of states throughout the country allow for people who have been wrongfully convicted to seek compensation for the years they have lost while in prison. Pennsylvania is not one of them. According to a story from Penn Live, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf proposed paying exonerees $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated in his 2021-2022 budget.  

The History of a Wrongful Conviction

It was December 20, 1973, and Ed Baker was a 17-year-old teenager attending a wake in Frankford, a neighborhood in the northeastern section of Philadelphia. He stayed over at a friend’s house that night to attend the burial the following day, according to a story published in Inquirer Magazine in December 1996.

Meanwhile, that same night back in South Philadelphia, Donahue Wise murdered Steven Gibbons, a retired bellhop, with an ice pick during a robbery at Gibbons’s home. Malcolm McLaughlin and Garland “Golly” Scott also participated in the robbery, where the trio stole money from Gibbons, according to Wise’s affidavit from the third petition from post-conviction relief. Clifford Walker was the lookout.

Walker was also 17-years-old at the time and was picked up first by the police. He told them he was the lookout, while Wise, 21 at the time, was inside the house, according to the Inquirer Magazine story. Wise was arrested by the police after Walker and they were questioned in separate rooms by detectives for more than 20 hours. Detectives then brought Walker into the room where they were questioning Wise and asked Walker to identify him. 

Wise thought Walker might pin the murder on him, so he lied and said that Walker committed the crime with the help of Walker’s friend, Ed Baker, according to Wise’s affidavit. Eventually, Wise testified against Baker and Walker in exchange for a plea deal. Wise only ended up serving three years in prison.

Walker, according to the Inquirer Magazine story, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder but was released in 1979 when his conviction was tossed by an appellate court. Instead of being retried, prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to a less-serious degree of murder, which allowed him to get a shorter sentence. He was eventually released shortly after that. Malcolm McLaughlin and Garland Scott were never arrested or charged for the murder. McLaughlin was shot and killed in 1978 and Scott died of alcoholism, according to the Inquirer Magazine story by Julia Cass.

Baker served the longest time in prison of anyone whose name was mentioned in relation to the murder.

But this was just the beginning of a labyrinth of injustices that Baker suffered at the hands of a flawed criminal justice system.

He was taken to a police station where he said he was beaten by police for two and a half days until he was forced to confess to a crime he did not commit. Later, the confession was thrown out due to improper police conduct. Then, he was assigned a court-appointed attorney named C. George Milner, who proved to provide incompetent legal counsel. Baker continues to feel animosity towards Milner today.

“He never really did any sit-down, walk-the-street investigation,” Baker said of Milner. Milner did not acquire or make use of previous incompatible statements of Wise to question his credibility and did not call available character witnesses to testify to Baker’s good reputation, according to the third petition for post-conviction relief presented by Leonard N. Sosnov, an attorney. To add to this, there was not any evidence, whether physical or forensic, that Baker was involved in the crime.

“He was the one that went to school and learned about what you need to do to protect me,” Baker said of Milner.

Baker added that if he had this case right now, he thinks he could win it.

The only aspect of the case pointing to Baker was Wise’s fabricated testimony about the murder. This was enough for the prosecutor to charge Baker. On September 27, 1974, he was convicted of first-degree murder, burglary, robbery, and conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison. Baker thought he would go home that day. Instead, he was forced to spend the next 26 years in prison for a crime he was never involved in.

***

The sentencing laws in Pennsylvania continue to be “really draconian”, according to Attorney Nilam Sanghvi, the legal director and interim executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project in Philadelphia. In Pennsylvania, people convicted of first or second-degree murder are sentenced to automatic life without parole, according to Sanghvi.

Baker spent around a month in the now-shuttered State Correctional Institution — Graterford in 1975 because he was too young to be in the general prison population. He was then transferred to SCI Camp Hill, where he stayed from 1975 until 1989. While there, Baker continued to develop his skills in electrical work and received outside clearance. Being an electrician while in prison helped him to cope with the incarceration. “That was the best part of my life,” he said.

During this time at Camp Hill, he met John Heapes, a sociology professor at Harrisburg Area Community College, who taught him while he was in prison. With funding from a Pell Grant, Baker eventually went on to earn his associate degree from Harrisburg Area Community College while incarcerated. Heapes thought Baker was innocent, according to Jim McCloskey.

In 1987, Baker wrote a letter to Centurion Ministries, founded by McCloskey, detailing his claims of innocence. Included with Baker’s letter was a letter from Heapes. This was the first time that McCloskey and Kate Germond, who was now working with him at Centurion along with a couple of volunteers, had heard of Ed Baker. Baker had found out about McCloskey and his work through a People magazine article shared with him by his friend in prison.  The article detailed “the freedom and exoneration of Nate Walker” of Elizabeth, New Jersey in late 1986, according to McCloskey.

McCloskey began doing the work to free the wrongfully convicted in 1980 while he was still a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. A precursor to the Innocence Project by 12 years, Centurion is known for taking the difficult cases, according to Germond, now the senior advocate and investigator at Centurion. Germond said most of their cases do not have a scientific component that could produce results that could get someone exonerated.

Nevertheless, they have freed 67 men and women who were serving both life and death sentences. McCloskey pursued the seminary at 37 years old after working at a management consulting firm and living in Paoli, a suburb west of Philadelphia, according to his book, “When Truth is All You Have: A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for The Wrongly Convicted.”  He felt a call to become an ordained Presbyterian minister and while studying to become one at Princeton, found a new calling to free the wrongfully convicted after securing the freedom of Jorge de los Santos as a prison chaplain. 

In order for McCloskey and Germond to consider taking a case, they first made sure to get the entire written record of it before making a move, according to McCloskey. For Baker’s case, Centurion was having a hard time getting the trial transcripts. Meanwhile, Baker was transferred from SCI Camp Hill in 1989 to Pittsburgh for about two weeks and then on to a federal prison in Williamsport after what was at the time called the Camp Hill prison riot. He was then eventually moved to a federal prison in Texarkana, Texas, where he stayed for two years.

McCloskey still did not have or read the record from Baker’s case, outside of Baker’s correspondence with Centurion, but he wanted to meet him. While he was in Texas working on the death row case of Kerry Max Cook, McCloskey drove over to the federal prison in Texarkana to meet Baker in 1992 or the early part of 1993. He was Baker’s only visitor in Texas and the one person who “finally listened” to Baker’s claims of innocence, according to Baker. McCloskey was “very impressed” with Baker and he agreed to take his case.

McCloskey received the trial transcripts for Baker’s case from a federal district judge in 1993 and conducted his investigation in 1994 and 1995. During this time, McCloskey knocked on doors in South Philadelphia where the crime occurred and spoke to numerous people, including the bartender of the bar where Steven Gibbons was earlier in the evening before his murder and Marva Richardson, Baker’s aunt. McCloskey’s primary goal was to find and speak to Donahue Wise. This almost happened at the beginning of his investigation, when Richardson introduced McCloskey to Wise by phone.

During this phone call, Wise agreed to meet with Richardson and McCloskey at Richardson’s house, but he never showed up. The same thing happened a month later. But McCloskey received help through brothers Vincent and Harold McKendrick, who were friends of Wise. McCloskey added that everybody in the South Philadelphia community who knew anything about the case or knew anyone associated with the case knew that Ed Baker was innocent and that Wise did it. This was because Wise told people that he committed the crime and that Baker was innocent.

McCloskey said without the McKendrick brothers as his advocates and intermediaries with Wise, he’s not sure that Wise would have come forward to meet him. “I got credibility with Donahue Wise through the McKendrick brothers,” he said.

The brothers, Wise, and McCloskey met at Harold McKendrick’s home and it was here that Wise admitted to McCloskey that he killed Steven Gibbons, that McLaughlin, Scott, and Walker participated in the murder, and that Ed Baker was innocent. Wise also agreed to put that statement in an affidavit, which he signed and dated on November 8, 1995. In November and December of 1995, McCloskey gathered 10 additional affidavits to corroborate Wise’s recantation, according to McCloskey.

Wise’s affidavit, along with these additional affidavits, were filed by Attorney Leonard N. Sosnov on behalf of Baker in a third petition for post-conviction relief in January of 1996 to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge C. Darnell Jones II. Sosnov was a former Philadelphia public defender “of well repute” and a professor at Widener Law School, according to McCloskey.

Judge Jones then conducted an evidentiary hearing in December of 1996, with the key witness being Wise along with the other people who gave affidavits, according to McCloskey. Wise testified at the hearing and recanted again, telling the judge that he murdered Steven Gibbons. After an eight-month wait, Jones finally issued his opinion to vacate Baker’s conviction in August of 1997, calling it a “miscarriage of justice,” according to a Philadelphia Inquirer story published on December 14, 1999. 

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, then run by former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, appealed the ruling. Jones would not release Baker until the state appeals by the district attorney had exhausted themselves, which took two years, according to McCloskey. Because of this, Baker was not released from prison until December 14, 1999, after Jones posted bail at $50,000 and McCloskey paid the required 10 percent, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer story.

 After his release, Baker got a part-time job working as a laborer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 at their office in Plymouth Meeting, a town about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer story published in 2002. McCloskey got him the job and was a friend of Wendell Young III, the labor leader who ran the union.

 The District Attorney’s office did not retry Baker and all charges against him were dropped after he refused to accept a plea deal, passed a polygraph test, had a list of 12 alibi witnesses, and Wise died. He was exonerated on February 11, 2002, while agreeing not to seek compensation.

“The fact is, you know, I got a bum deal. Period. All the way around,” Baker said.

Life After Release: The Challenge of Resuming a Life Interrupted 

Ed Baker’s story is just one among thousands of wrongful convictions in the country. According to The National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 3,149 exonerations since 1989 as of this writing, and more than 27,080 years of lives lost due to these mistakes. 

In addition to this, racial inequality continues throughout the criminal justice system. In an article for the Innocence Project, writer Daniele Selby states, “Black people account for 40% of the approximately 2.3 million incarcerated people in the U.S. and nearly 50% of all exonerees — despite making up just 13% of the US population.” 

Attorney Nilam Sanghvi, the legal director and interim executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said there are so many reasons why compensation is important, with a primary one being that people who are wrongfully convicted lose the years where they would be getting an education or entering the workforce. She added that having a state statutory compensation scheme is predictable, provides an official acknowledgment of the wrongdoing, and helps people to stabilize their lives when they are thrust back into a world they do not know at all with few skills and no income.

Baker, an only child who had a “really good, nice childhood,” missed his mother’s funeral in 1990 because of his incarceration.

Attorney Patricia Cummings, the former supervisor of the Conviction Integrity Unit in Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office who was hired by current District Attorney Larry Krasner, said that we all as a society have a responsibility to compensate the folks that the government has deprived of their freedom. Under Cummings’s supervision from 2018 to December of 2021, the Philadelphia CIU exonerated 24 people. In May, she joined The National Registry of Exonerations as the first executive director.

Although Baker was never given the opportunity to seek compensation, his skills and education in electrical work helped him land a job after his release. He bolstered his electrical repertoire while still incarcerated, receiving his electrician’s apprenticeship certification within two years following the advice of his supervisor. He became the go-to person to repair televisions in prison. 

“Otherwise they had to send it out, wait three months … They bring it to me. Boom. I fix it,” Baker said of his time as the television repairman. His talent for righting broken electronics started at an early age when he would fix the television for his mother.

 After exoneration, he sat for the city of Philadelphia’s electricians’ tests, two written and one hands-on, and received a high score. Before long, he was working at Veterans Stadium. His three years working there were “amazing.”

***

In addition to professional development, Baker’s personal life expanded while at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy in Frackville, Pennsylvania in 1990. He began receiving visits from Luzetta Thorne, who said she had liked him when they were in school. When Thorne came to see him, it was like “hitting the lottery,” according to Baker. His mother had been the only person in his life up until that point, but she had passed away that same year.

Baker said Thorne “opened my life up.” Outside of her arrivals, he did not receive visits from other people at that time. They wrote to each other constantly, and Baker accumulated “bags of letters” spanning from 1990 up until his release from prison in 1999. 

Thorne and Baker adopted two children together, Adrohn and Jasmine. After Baker got out, his motivation for adopting them was to create a family because he did not have one.

Baker and Thorne got married in 2003 at Gospel Temple Baptist Church in Philadelphia. McCloskey was in Baker’s wedding. Baker bought a house in May of 2003, the same one that he lives in today, and a car.

He provided for his family and recalled taking Adrohn to work with him at “The Vet” and driving around with him in a Cushman golf cart on the concrete walkways around the stadium.

Eventually, Baker and Thorne divorced in 2010, but he still talks to her, Adrohn, and Jasmine on occasion. 

After his time at Veterans Stadium, he moved on to work at the Southwest Water Department in 2004 and became a supervisor.  He retired in 2015 after a 16-and-a-half-year career as an electrician working for the city of Philadelphia.

***

Blanca Castro, a social worker at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project who works with Baker and other exonerees to navigate life after exoneration and reentry into society, said that there is a “persistent impact of the wrongful incarceration” on folks after they are released as they face psychological trauma, obstacles in obtaining everyday needs and the stigmatization of having been in prison.

“What haunts me the most is the fact that I was in jail for something I didn’t do,” Baker said.

Castro added that a lot of folks who have been wrongfully convicted encounter long-term mental health challenges that have resembled extreme forms of trauma experienced by military veterans and torture survivors, based on some research.

One such study that nods to Castro’s explanation is a 2005 journal article by Dr. Adrian T. Grounds, a forensic psychiatrist who researches the psychological impacts of wrongful imprisonment, titled Understanding the Effects of Wrongful Imprisonment.” On page three of the article, Dr. Grounds writes, “Studies of other groups exposed to exceptional and chronic psychological trauma, particularly war veterans, contain accounts of problems identical to those experienced by the wrongfully imprisoned.”

Baker suffers from breakdowns at night and thinks about the wrongful conviction, even though he said he shouldn’t be thinking about it.

All of the exonerees that Kate Germond knows and works with have PTSD, which strikes them at different times to this day. The PTSD usually comes in the form of night terrors, Germond said. One exoneree has day terrors. One is a successful entrepreneur who has a large family that is “crazy about him,” yet the exoneree will be driving somewhere and finds that he can’t stop crying.

In a 2016 article from Advocates’ Forum of The University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice entitled “Right to Counsel: Mental Health Approaches to Support the Exonerated,” Christing Kregg writes, “The psychological sequelae of wrongful imprisonment include severe mental health problems, such as persistent personality changes, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and adjustment difficulties, relationship impairments, feelings of chronic estrangement and isolation, and complex feelings of loss.”

Another challenge that Baker faces, along with many other exonerees, is loneliness. “That’s just a part of my life. I don’t have people in my life. That’s why I leave my phone in the car,” he said.

Castro said a lot of loneliness experienced by exonerees is not just physically being alone, but it’s also folks who have been released who feel misunderstood by their family and end up self-isolating. It is often difficult to rebuild relationships with family and friends after being released from prison because oftentimes a person has been away for so many years. The people who support them also “lack the perception” of the traumatic after-effects that prison can bring to a person, according to Castro. Her goals include building a relationship with Baker and helping him build relationships with his community.

 ***

There is some hope that the wrongs of the past will continue to be righted. Innocence projects, like the Pennsylvania chapter, continue to free men and women who have been wrongfully convicted. Conviction Integrity Units have become part of district attorney’s offices nationwide. “As of the end of 2019, fifty-nine prosecutor’s offices across the country had established Conviction Integrity Units to review possible cases of wrongful convictions,” McCloskey writes in his memoir.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has a “collaborative relationship” with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, according to Sanghvi. The CIU and the district attorney’s office as a whole began giving the Pennsylvania Innocence Project access to investigation and prosecution files, which has opened up a lot of legal avenues for their clients in a state like Pennsylvania where discovery is so limited, according to Sanghvi.

Baker has found camaraderie among other exonerees. He opened up his home to New York-exoneree David Bryant, who was also freed with help from Centurion Ministries after close to 40 years of wrongful imprisonment and allowed Bryant to live with him after his release, according to Germond. 

Germond said that Centurion encourages exonerees to go to therapy to address the torture that was done to them, but often times this idea of therapy is rebuffed. Because of this, the nonprofit has now pivoted to hosting an annual gathering for exonerees to address the trauma that was done to them. A gathering for the families of the exonerees will be offered as well.

Baker is still thinking about whether he will go to speak to a counselor about his wrongful conviction. 

He has also written a book, “Travesty of Justice,” which details his upbringing, his first day in jail, and the failure of his court-appointed lawyer in giving him a fair trial. 

But he tries to focus on the positives in his life.

“Since I’ve been out, you know, I got married. I got a house. Had a car. I had two kids … I went through it and I’m still here. I’m still here. Amen.”

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