Bittersweet liberty: Dwayne Dail struggles to adapt to life outside prison and bond with his son

Standing before a wall of coolers at the 7-Eleven, Dwayne Dail is paralyzed. Dail stares at the rows of sparkling waters, milky coffee drinks and teas infused with fruit he has never tasted.

He spots a shiny, slender can and asks his son, Chris Michaels, if it is a beer. Chris pats his shoulder and explains it is a high-caffeine drink designed to give a blast of energy. Dail hunts for something familiar, then settles on a Diet Pepsi.

For Dail, it's another small step beyond prison. It's also a reminder that freedom can bewilder, that a life unbarred still has constraints.

In August, Dail, 39, left prison after serving 18 years for a crime he didn't commit. A 12-year-old Goldsboro girl pointed to him as the man who raped her; a jury believed her. Dail languished behind bars for half his life until DNA evidence found this year proved that another man committed the crime.

There's much Dail will never get back, never be able to forget. He went to prison labeled a child rapist and suffered the abuse that inmates unleash on those who hurt little girls. He didn't go to college, buy a house, build a career or raise his son.

Prison made the father and son strangers. In October, Chris joined Dail in southern Florida, in a quiet town where Dail spent his childhood and his family resettled over the years. Three generations of Dails now share a modest home far from the Wayne County Courthouse, where father and son were robbed of each other in 1989.

Dail is a grown man stunted at age 19. He leans on 18-year-old Chris to guide him.

"This is the world Chris grew up in and never left," Dail said. "This is a world that is completely foreign to me."

At 19, the hardest part of Dail's day was rising before dark to join his drywall crew.

It was 1987, and Dail danced his nights away at Goldsboro's nightclubs, rocking out in leather pants to Ozzy Osbourne and Rick Springfield. Dail bleached his hair blond like Billy Idol's and conspired with buddies to form a rock band.

One October day, a Goldsboro police officer came by his mother's house looking for him.

Days before, Dail had been goofing off with friends near a Goldsboro apartment complex. The 12-year-old girl saw him, froze and told her mother that Dail was the man who had crawled through her bedroom window the month before and raped her.

Dail never noticed the girl nearby whisper the words that would change his life.

Police asked to pluck his hair for crime scene tests. Dail obliged, eager for the detective to realize the girl was confused. A grand jury indicted him the following spring.

In March 1989, the Dail family crowded onto benches in a Wayne County courtroom, convinced they would take their scrawny brother home that day and put the whole misunderstanding behind them. Dail was indignant when the prosecutor drilled him on the witness stand.

He collapsed as the judge read the jury's verdict.

The judge handed down the stiffest punishment the charges allowed: back-to-back life sentences. Plus another 18 years.

Dail clutched benches and tables as deputies dragged him from the courtroom. He screamed at his sister, his mother, his father, his brothers, begging them, "Don't let them take me."

Not 10 feet away -- unknown to everyone -- Chris Michaels grew in the womb of Dail's teenage sweetheart.

* * *

Chris inherited his father's dark eyes and thick eyebrows.

As a boy, he couldn't travel far in Goldsboro without one of his dad's old buddies asking whether he was Dwayne Dail's son.

Chris would nod, say something pleasant and find an excuse to move along.

Growing up, Chris told few people about his father's imprisonment.

Chris' mother, Lorraine Michaels, eventually moved on with her life. Over the years, tension developed between her and Dail. Michaels raised Chris alone and is now fighting Dail in court to collect back child support. The battle tears at Chris, and he refuses to take sides.

Dail told Chris once that he did not commit the crime that put him in prison. Chris believed him and always has.

When he was 14, Chris asked for a copy of the trial transcript. He stopped reading halfway through.

"I just couldn't think of my dad like that, those words, those accusations," Chris said.

Chris got into trouble often during his childhood. He lit a friend's yard on fire, stole, skipped school and sassed probation officers charged with keeping him in line.

He dreaded telling his father of his misdeeds. Guilt gnawed at Chris as he told his father, a man he knew shouldn't be in prison, about the crimes that could have landed him in the same place.

* * *

The morning of Aug. 1, prison guards woke Dail. They escorted him to the visiting room where a pair of smartly dressed women waited.

Christine Mumma introduced herself as the director for the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence. Dail had written the center for years and had been told staff members there had closed his case after searching in vain for new leads.

Dail had given up on the center and just about everybody he had badgered since 1989 to help free him. He had turned his energy to a possible parole, instead, and resigned himself to registering as a sex offender.

Mumma and her associate, Sharon Stellato, spoke about rape kit tests and Goldsboro police and appeals. They said that evidence in his case had been destroyed. Then, Mumma uttered words that didn't register at first: "Or so we had been told."

"That was my whole world in one sentence," Dail said.

Stellato had called Goldsboro police that week, checking again for what might have been overlooked in Dail's case. An evidence room clerk looked again and discovered a box ignored for more than a decade. Inside was a 20-year-old nightgown -- Dail's ticket out of prison. DNA tests of the semen stain proved that Dail wasn't the rapist and have pointed to another man, whom police have not yet named.

As lawyers worked to undo the 18-year-old conviction, Mumma kept asking Dail how quick a release would be soon enough.

"How about if we get you out by Christmas? Thanksgiving?" she asked.

"I need to be out by Oct. 20," Dail said.

* * *

Chris turned 18 that day. He stood on a beach, his dad beside him, the Gulf of Mexico puddling around their feet. Chris told his dad about a rap song he thinks is brilliant.

Dail, bare-chested and giddy, drew down a Marlboro Red and resisted the urge to lecture his son about the vulgar, violent lyrics.

"It's not fair for me to shove the experiences I had down his throat," Dail said later. "One of the hardest things is to try and not live my life over again through my son."

Side by side, Dail and Chris look like brothers. A cruel gift, prison's routine seems to have preserved him. He looks like Chris' senior by years, not decades. The two pumped fists and kicked the surf together as they walked Fort Myers Beach toward the pier.

During sporadic prison visits, father and son vowed to reunite if Dail was released. Soon after his release, Dail flew Chris to Florida, and he hopes he'll stay.

Neither imagined Chris' childhood would be over by the time they finally lived together. For many years, Dail thought his release would be swift.

"As disappointing as that is for him, I'm grown," Chris said. "I'm done, but he missed parenting, and he wants to make up for that."

Dail is a stern, protective parent, sometimes to his own surprise. He threw a fit when he noticed his son's jeans sagged below his boxers. Dail hauled him to the store to buy pants that fit. Before Chris left the house one day, Dail smoothed down a cowlick on Chris' brow. He has forbidden him to buy a motorcycle.

* * *

Both Dail and Chris got their driver's licenses last month.

Mumma loaned Dail money to buy a car -- a shiny blue Toyota Camry with doors that shake as Dail blares his music.

Dail almost always insists on driving. Chris doesn't mind. He sees Dail's mind at ease when he drives, blank except for the clouds and palm trees and signs dotting the road.

Dail leans his driver's seat back and pops in Osbourne's "Diary of a Madman," a tape his sister saved for him when he went to prison. He gets lost on the flat, endless roads of southern Florida as he bellows "You Can't Kill Rock and Roll."

Sometimes he checks with his sister on his cell phone for directions home. Most times, he just enjoys wandering. Often, father and son end up at the docks, where Dail tells Chris about the summer days he spent there as a child. They stare at the speckled fish in the shallow water near the river's edge.

Dail searches for the initials he carved under the drawbridge where he and his siblings sipped grape-flavored wine on warm summer nights. He lights another cigarette and chats with a fisherman.

Here, Dail is not a guy who lost half his life to a girl's mistake. He is not a father getting to know his son. He's not a brother who, in prison, sometimes wished himself dead so his family could mourn and move on.

He's just a guy, squinting in the morning sun, wondering whether he has enough cigarettes to last the day.

These are Dail's best moments, when freedom feels a lot like independence.

These moments are fleeting.

At home, Dail fires up his laptop and fields another call from a reporter curious about how he is getting along. He hunts on the Internet for other exonerated men, hopeful they'll help him lobby for changes in the criminal justice system. Dail brainstorms the next chapter of the autobiography he started writing in prison.

And he broods. The governor's pardon and the compensation due for his wrongful imprisonment occupy his mind. The coldness of the pardon -- a piece of paper his attorney was called to pick up -- and the meager $54-a-day compensation sting anew.

His mind wanders to dark corners of tough prisons. To the man he watched being stabbed to death in the yard of one prison camp. To months he spent in the "hole" -- punishment for cursing at a senior guard.

* * *

At 20, Dail knew what became of men like him in prison. At a slight 115 pounds, Dail had bright eyes and full lips that drew droves of ladies on the dance floors of Goldsboro clubs.

In prison, his looks promised both doom and salvation. His conviction guaranteed trouble.

"I was little, white, pretty, and I stuck out like a sore thumb," Dail said. "I was prey."

Months later, two men cornered him in an isolated cell block and raped him. He swallowed a cry for help, knowing it would bring more problems than safety.

Dail quickly learned how sex is swapped in prison. Beatings were negotiated and rendered based on connections.

Dail formed some liaisons to keep him safe. Others he sought to keep himself sane.

Dail found intimacy with men for so long, he is certain he will pursue men now that he is free. Dail didn't prefer men before he went to prison, but like so many of the identities he claimed there, he is not sure which are real and which are pretend.

"They locked up a 20-year-old kid, and I don't know who that kid is anymore," Dail said. "You wear so many masks that you lose track, lose yourself. I don't know which I've had on so long they stained."

Dail phoned Chris before he moved to Florida.

"Chris, I don't want you to feel trapped once you get here, so I'm telling you now: I'm gay."

"What's that got to do with me?" Chris asked. The question needed no answer.

There is much Dail won't tell Chris about his years in prison, fearing the weight of it could break him. He wishes the burden could fall from him, too. Some days, Dail drinks to numb his pain; other days, he thinks better of it.

Chris wishes his father would bury the past.

"Sometimes, I wish he'd just shut up and live life for all we want it to be, not what it was," Chris said, yanking his cap against his forehead. "We've got so much time to get back."

* * *

Sleep cheats Dail, coming only in restless bits between familiar nightmares.

While his family slumbers, Dail wonders.

Sometimes, he strolls down the street, half-expecting a prison guard to bark for his return. Other nights, he tiptoes into Chris' room and watches the moon light his sleeping face. Now and again, Dail brushes his finger against his son's cheek and hopes Chris won't stir and catch him.

"Some days I treat him like he's 5 because I didn't get 5. Or 10. Or 15," Dail said.

When Chris moved to Florida, he brought a scrapbook filled with pictures of his childhood. He pulls it out from time to time and flips through pages filled with photos of visits with Santa and Little League feats. Dail tries to smile as Chris brags about one baseball game or another.

Later, in the shed his siblings set up as a place for Dail to stay as he gets on his feet, Dail sometimes weeps, heartsick to meet his son through a scrapbook.

Eventually, Dail picks himself up and starts making plans.

He hopes to use part of the $360,000 the state owes him in compensation to buy a house around the corner from his family's home. Dail dreams of standing on the floor of the N.C. General Assembly as he implores legislators to reimburse more than $20,000 for each year an innocent man spends in prison. He practices the speech in his head and thinks about how he will look each lawmaker in the eye.

"They need to see me, see what they've made," Dail said.

In the spring, Dail will start classes at a nearby community college to finish an associate's degree he started in prison.

Dail already knows one of his classmates. Chris has enrolled, too.

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