MEBANE — Ronald Cotton gently lifts his right arm with his left and rests it in his lap, scowling as he remembers the limb is useless to him.
His right leg is no good now. Cotton's face droops as he talks, yet he tells one story after another, every 10th word or so incomprehensible. They are the burdens left by a stroke in July.
"I was living a pretty good life. Nothing amazing. Then bam," said Cotton, 49. "I never saw it coming."
It has been 16 years since Cotton walked out of prison, free and clear of a rape charge that, at age 23, had doomed him to a prison cell for the rest of his days.
Cotton was among the first of a cluster of men in North Carolina exonerated by DNA evidence long after they were sent to prison based on victim's statements, coerced confessions and jailhouse snitches. As the state began to find more and more wrongful convictions, lawmakers and judicial advocates have tried with limited success to make things right, creating networks and compensation to help ease these men back into society.
But those networks of help have been flimsy, and for the earliest of those exonerated, such as Cotton, they didn't exist.
Cotton and some others are now floundering. A few have found their way, landing secure jobs and housing, and maintaining the good health needed to enjoy it. Some ended up back in prison. Others are too traumatized to hold a job. Health issues have crept up on many.
"They want us to be independent and learn how to do all this stuff and think everything should be OK," said Darryl Hunt, who was exonerated in 2003 and has worked with others who are adjusting to life after prison. "They put you out with no help as to how to adjust."
Cotton was exonerated before the state had much, if any, help for innocent men who had been locked up. After much lobbying from his advocates, legislators agreed to pay him $110,000 for his 11 years behind bars.
For years, Cotton did better than most expected. He met a nice lady, married her and had a little girl. He got a job in the warehouse of LabCorp, the company that tested the DNA evidence that proved his innocence.
He paid cash for a piece of land in Mebane and signed a lease for a modular home to anchor there. He made peace with Jennifer Thompson, the woman who mistakenly identified him as her attacker; the two since have forged an inexplicable bond.
But Cotton's life, like that of so many of the 273 people exonerated by DNA nationwide, has been spiraling downward in the last few years.
His stroke last month came after months of taking his blood pressure medicine haphazardly. Without insurance, he couldn't afford the medicine and took it only when he had some.
Cotton is partially paralyzed.
The medical bills pile up, and he can't figure how to pay them.
"They can't get blood from a stone," Cotton said. "They'll get it when I get it."
An unusual bond
For a while, Cotton's prospects looked good.
He enjoyed local celebrity, in part because of the extraordinary friendship he forged with Thompson.
The two have traveled the country together, speaking about how commonly errors occur with cross-racial identification. A reporter wrote a book, and a producer made a movie about their experience, "Picking Cotton."
Over the years, Cotton and Thompson have propped each other up. They've celebrated births, mourned deaths and cried over strained marriages.
The two remain tight, and Thompson is devastated that Cotton is struggling. Her sanity depends largely on Cotton's well-being.
"When he falters, it undermines a lot for me," said Thompson, 49. "I failed him once, and the state keeps failing him."
The state legislature has increased the annual compensation for those exonerated to $50,000 for each year they were wrongly jailed, but little has been provided in terms of health care, housing assistance or mental health services. That higher rate was not retroactive to Cotton.
Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, a Republican who heads one of the House judiciary committees, said the compensation should be enough to get these men on their feet and provide a decent life.
"This is not a welfare issue," said Stam, who noted that they could apply for public benefits such as Medicaid or disability like anyone else. "The last thing we need to do is to set up a new program just for people who've been exonerated."
Last week, at a restaurant in Elon, Cotton and Thompson giggled over sodas. They ribbed each other like siblings. Thompson scolded Cotton for not getting a "handicapped" sticker for his car. She asked whether he ought to be driving. He teased her about her tan and insisted on showing her the latest scar on his leg.
Cotton has spoken to audiences as large as 3,000, describing his journey for people who otherwise wouldn't give him a second look. He gets approached at bars by women who've seen the movie about him and want to get to know him.
"They smell money," he said, "but the truth is, I got none."
These days, Cotton feels no fame. Some days, he said he feels little at all.
Cotton tries to downplay his frustration. He jokes about falling off his bicycle. He insists he is committed to rehabilitation, even though he can't afford to see a physical therapist.
"This ain't gonna beat me," he said.
Hoping for work
In some ways, the challenges that those exonerated of crimes face are no different from those many Americans encounter: lack of health care, unemployment, rocky relationships. What's different, advocates say, is the tools they have to manage those difficulties.
"They languish," Thompson said. "They can't fully get it together."
Many say they are plagued by flashbacks and panic attacks. They struggle with relationships. Some experience difficulties accepting direction from bosses after years of being ordered around by prison guards.
Cotton quit his job in February 2010 in a burst of frustration. He'd been missing work to take speaking gigs. The boss confronted him, and he responded in anger. It would be weeks before he told anyone he lost his job. With the sour economy, work for an uneducated laborer had dwindled.
When Cotton was exonerated in 1995, state officials offered him $5,500 and told him he needed to repay $5,000 for court-appointed lawyers.
Thompson personally lobbied at the legislature for Cotton to get more compensation from the state.
Cotton long ago spent his $110,000 payout. He invested some of the money he got from the book project in stocks, but he said he had to cash that money out in recent years while he was out of work.
Before his conviction, Cotton worked as a cook and did other odd jobs. Now, he makes a mental list of all the jobs he could do: raking leaves, detailing cars, fixing bikes.
He rubs his hand and prays for the feeling to return.
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