Show Me the Money

The state gutted years of Ellen Reasonover and Steve Toney’s lives and tossed them out without apology. Now that money’s short for both, will the state ante up?

Ellen faces similar challenges. Her clothes don't fit these days; they're all too big. "I don't care," she says. "I don't ever have any money to eat nothing." She had an assembly-line job and an apartment, but then she was laid off. She lost the apartment. Rent was just too much. She has $35 in her legal-defense fund. She wants to take 20 out so she can fill up her gas tank. Maybe borrow 10 from her mother. Another 20 from her sister. Just something to get some food, maybe. She received a letter from New York City a few weeks ago. Enclosed was a contract to purchase her life story -- movie rights, book rights, series rights, that sort of thing. More important, it held the potential for money. But Ellen hasn't had time to really even read it, and, of course, she doesn't have the money to take it to a lawyer. "I've been so stressed. I just, I don't know ..." her voice trails off. Ellen had been living with her daughter, Charmelle Bufford, when she had her own place. Now Charmelle stays with Ellen's mother.

And Ellen? Where does she stay? Sometimes at her mother's. At her sister's. At one of her girlfriend's. But she doesn't want to be a burden. She never wanted to be a burden. Sometimes she sleeps in her car.

"It's a very difficult road, especially when you've been in prison for a lot of years," says James McCloskey, whose New Jersey-based Centurion Ministries helped free both Ellen and Steve.

After 16-and-a-half years in prison, Ellen Reasonover has been free for 20 months. But now what?
Jennifer Silverberg
After 16-and-a-half years in prison, Ellen Reasonover has been free for 20 months. But now what?
Steve Toney: "I've given out a long time ago, but I just don't give up."
Jennifer Silverberg
Steve Toney: "I've given out a long time ago, but I just don't give up."

"It usually takes a good year, maybe two years, for them to find their place and get their feet on the ground and understand their environment and the world around them," McCloskey says. "First of all, they have got to develop some sort of financial footing so they can ultimately lead self-reliant, independent and productive lives. Now, that requires employment, gainful employment that has some kind of upward mobility to it. That usually is hit-and-miss, and it takes a few tries to latch onto the right position. And there's always psychological counseling that you should go through, because there's a lot of anger in people, whether they admit it or not. A lot of them try to hide the anger and repress it because they believe, and I think rightfully so, that if they show their anger, then the people will start to believe, well, maybe the person did what he or she was in prison for."

Anger. Steve won't show it; he never has been one to dwell on his misfortune. He doesn't dwell on the friends he lost while in prison; he doesn't dwell on the family he lost while in prison. How many times will people ask him whether he's bitter? And how many times has he told them he's not? Do they want him to be bitter? Well, he is, deep down. "Bitter? Yeah. Angry? Yeah. Mad? Yeah -- as hell. See, I always believe. I've given out a long time ago. I just don't have no more. I can go only so far, do so much; I can only pray and keep believing. I've given out a long time ago, but I just don't give up. You, yourself, can only take so much. The strength comes from not giving up. With every difficulty comes relief." So, bitter, yes, but usually he won't say it.

He's a praying man, but he's a proud man, says friend June Jeffries; he won't admit the hurt. He'll hide the scar. Look at him. Look at the way he walks -- he's always had that strutting gait. She remembers when he used to take her roller skating or to those block dances in Richmond Heights, where they would block the whole street off and just dance to Smokey Robinson, to the Supremes, to Sam Cooke, to Marvin Gaye. He had told her cousin way back then that June would be his friend one day ... he's a proud man. And this proud man will keep his emotions in check; instead of venting, he'll pick up his copy of the Quran from his bedside stand and read "The Expansion." The last two lines of the verse? So, verily, with every difficulty there is relief/Verily, with every difficulty there is relief.

Like 35 other states, Missouri has no mechanism to compensate the wrongfully convicted. State Rep. Betty Thompson (D-University City), though, has sponsored a House bill that would do just that. Indemnification statutes are a legislative phenomenon so scarce that even some attorneys are oblivious. "Wow," says Dan Gralike, deputy director of the Missouri Public Defender Commission, when briefed about the bill. "Is that some kind of award?" Closely tailored to resemble a New Jersey statute, the bill, which hasn't made it to the House floor yet, proposes a cap of $20,000 or twice the victim's preconviction salary for each year of wrongful imprisonment -- a higher compensation cap than most, which swing from the federal limit of just $5,000, regardless of duration of incarceration, to New York's unlimited-damages policy.

Claimants must shift gears from the criminal to the civil arena in order to qualify under Thompson's bill -- that is, after proving reasonable doubt of guilt to earn emancipation, they must show "clear and convincing" evidence of innocence to qualify for any damage awards. The task would prove smoother for someone like Steve, who was unequivocally exonerated by DNA evidence, and thornier for Ellen, who won her freedom through the dramatic introduction of exculpatory evidence that cast doubt on her murder conviction. Because her bill was originally drafted with Ellen in mind, says Thompson, she may push to include Ellen's name specifically in the bill's final version to ensure her an award.

« Previous Page
Next Page »