Wearing black-and-white striped, prison-issue scrubs, his hands cuffed in front of him, Johnnie sat in a small cinderblock office inside the Dallas County jail and let a technician swab the inside of his mouth with a Q-tip. For Johnnie, after two and a half decades of professing his innocence, this would be a test of his sanity. “The results will be negative,” Johnnie told Moore calmly. “I was not the person that committed the rape.”
In the forty cases initially tested under the new program, eighteen men, including Johnnie, were exonerated. “Something like this is obviously a tragedy on so many levels,” Moore tells me, “but one of the worst parts is that it’s not just one man wrongfully convicted. You have entire families sentenced to life, sentenced to this injustice and frustration and pain.” The children, she says, are often the most innocent victims. “Jay is a good kid who’s had a really tough life. You’d really like to see him get the chance to have a dad.”
Jay has a wide scar with a pink hue that stretches from one side of his abdomen to the other. He spent much of childhood in hospitals and doctor’s offices. From the very beginning, life was hard.
His mother used a variety of drugs when she was pregnant, and Johnnie was born premature, without a fully formed excretory system. A quick, botched surgery made the problem worse. Jay spent his first four months in the hospital, attached to a colostomy bag. Relatives would later tell him that a concerned Johnnie never left his side.
After his father was sent to prison, Jay’s mother battled addiction, and he lived on-and-off with a number of aunts and uncles. When Jay was still a little boy, Johnnie would write him occasional letters from the penitentiary.
Eventually Jay got into his own legal trouble. Just three days before his high school graduation, Jay accidentally shot his girlfriend in the stomach. (He’d been showing off his .9mm pistol and thought the safety was on.) Her injuries weren’t fatal, but Jay was charged with misdemeanor deadly conduct and spent three months in jail. (And his girlfriend broke up with him.)
When he got out, Jay moved to Arizona and attended a small visual arts college. In 2002, before his graduation, Jay’s mother died—complications from diabetes. He finished school and moved back to Dallas, where he started a video production company.
He was just getting adjusted to life back in Dallas when, on September 17, 2008, he got a call. It was 11 p.m., and Jay has just gotten into bed after a long day at work. The woman on the other end identified herself as a reporter for a local TV station. “Your father was just proven innocent and he’s getting out of prison,” the reporter told him. “Can we have an interview?’”
Jay told her to call back in the morning, rolled over, and went to sleep. When he woke up, he thought the whole conversation had been a dream.
Two days later, Jay sat in the last row of a downtown Dallas courtroom. He wore jeans, an untucked button down, and a Yankees cap with the flat brim cocked slightly to the side. Johnnie—sporting a new black suit, with a blue shirt and tie—stood near a Texas flag in the center of the courtroom. After a thorough apology on behalf of the state, Judge Mitchell leaned down from his bench to shake Johnnie’s hand. Then came another apology, this one from District Attorney Craig Watkins.
Johnnie turned to the courtroom full of relatives, reporters, and even a handful of fellow exonerees. “Where’s my son?” he asked the crowd gathered around him. “Where’s Johnnie Junior?” Microphones and flashing cameras crowded the room. Jay felt thick, heavy pressure in his chest. The walls seemed to tilt and spin.
When Johnnie and Jay were finally introduced, it was in the cramped back pew of the courtroom. They could barely hear each other, but the intensity of the moment finally got to Jay. “I was so caught up in the moment,” he says later. The tears were slow at first, but he couldn’t help himself. Soon everyone was weeping.
Johnnie took a seat next to his son. Reporters fired off questions too fast to understand. “He wasn’t even 2 when I left,” Johnnie told the crowd. “His name is Johnnie, but we call him J.J.” Johnnie put his arm on Jay’s shoulder.
“Nah,” the son said, his eyes red, his cheeks wet with tears. “It’s just Jay.”
Johnnie stayed with an aunt, but nearly every morning Jay’s silver Mazda Protégé came by and the two went out to breakfast. Jay took Johnnie to the doctor, to the dentist, to the Department of Motor Vehicles. He took him shopping for clothes, for a cell phone (he gave him a quick tutorial on texting), and for the small personal items of which life outside of prison is comprised.
As they spent hours together in the lobbies and waiting rooms of Dallas, Jay began asking his father questions: What was prison like? What was my mother like when you were together? What were you thinking during the trials and all that time away?
“It was like everything he put away in his mind came out all at once,” Johnnie says later. “I did the best I could trying to answer him.”
Though exonerations like Johnnie’s are hardly rare in Dallas—the county leads the nation in such cases; Johnnie was the nineteenth since DNA testing began in 2001—it still gets a lot of attention. His photo was on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. He flew to New York with Craig Watkins for an appearance on The View. His case was featured in the Investigation Discovery show Dallas DNA.
Instead of hanging out with Jay, Johnnie began spending more time with women, especially an ex-girlfriend named Margie. Jay told his father he thought Margie only liked him for the money he’d been promised—$80,000 for every year of wrongful incarceration. For the first time, the budding father-son relationship was strained, tense.
After parking his car by the coffee shop, Johnnie walked up to where Jay and I were sitting. Johnnie wore a straw hat, sunglasses, a golf shirt with pictures of palm trees, and blue pleated shorts. His muscular legs poked out of the bottom like weathered trunks. A small gold cross hung on his broad chest. That morning he’d returned from a cruise to Jamaica with Margie and her family.
Father and son shared a brief, timid hug on the patio, then sat at a noticeable distance from each other around the iron table. The small talk was stilted and at times painful to witness. There were long silences, filled only with the dull shuffle of afternoon shoppers and passing cars.
When Johnnie invited me to spend Father’s Day with him and Jay, it seemed like a sweet story: Father and son share a Father’s Day together after so many years apart. But as the day got closer, he said he wanted to show me how difficult it can be to pick up where you leave off. “This is no fairy tale,” he said.
Soon Johnnie was telling us how much he enjoyed having cocktails on the Jamaican beaches. He’d like to have a big family reunion of his own sometime soon, he said, maybe even another cruise. Jay wasn’t invited on this trip: “It was really my fiancée’s trip, a way to connect with her family,” Johnnie explained. “One step at a time. We have nothing but time now.” He smiled and patted Jay on the shoulder. Jay was still and quiet.
“I know he has his own life going on,” Johnnie said, looking at me. “He’s a full-grown man.” Jay nodded in agreement. His father continued: “I don’t want to interfere with that. I want to work myself in, do it the right way.”
Both men want this to work. Each showed it that day in his own hindered, damaged way: the empty staring into space, the uncomfortable attempts at affection. But there was a block, a disconnection, like the slippage in worn gears.
Jay would later explain that he felt an anxious pressure build in his chest. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible. He mostly kept his head down, exchanging text messages with his girlfriend, Kayla.
Eventually Jay couldn’t stand it anymore. He had to go. He mumbled something about picking up his girlfriend and stood up. Johnnie stood up, too. He leaned in and offered Jay another awkward handshake turned brief half-hug.
“We’ll talk soon,” Johnnie said.
“Yep,” Jay said. “Sounds good.”
Then, for a moment, they just stood there in silence. Two men on a sidewalk. Jay put his phone in his pocket and disappeared around the corner. Their first Father’s Day in twenty-six years lasted about forty-five minutes.
But Johnnie didn’t leave. We went inside, into the air conditioning, where he ordered the same kind of strawberry shake Jay had. Inside, his demeanor darkened a little. His smile faded. He talked about his time in prison. More than 9,000 days. Nearly 225,000 hours. It’s a horrible place, he said, but like any living condition, you adapt. You become less human. You speak less and listen and watch more. You’re always on guard.
“People come and go in there,” he says. “You learn that everybody that smiles in your face in there is not your friend. That’s not like a light switch you can turn on and off.”
When he first got out, several people warned him that freedom might come with unexpected struggles. Most of the time he’s fine; he can speak to large groups of law students or reporters without a problem. And he certainly doesn’t want to seem the slightest bit ungrateful.
But on rare occasions—maybe once a month—he can’t bear to get out of bed in the morning. He won’t leave the house. He wants it dark and quiet and can’t talk to anyone, not even his fiancée. In those moments, it seems like everything is so complicated, so tedious, that life is impossible.
“I know it sounds weird,” he said, “but sometimes it was almost easier in there.”
He told me he knows how important it is for a man to have a father in his life. (His own dad died when Johnnie was 11, and he said that played a large part in why he was always in trouble.) He wants to get to know Jay better, “but I’m still trying to catch up with myself,” he said.
In a little boy’s fantasies, the long-estranged father might knock on the door one night, out of the blue. He’ll have a big ham for dinner and a funny story about why he’s been gone for so long. The next day the father proudly walks his son to school and beats up the bullies on the playground. At the end of the day, they play catch or go out for ice cream. Then the father comes home and goes to sleep next to mom. The house feels safer than it did before.
But the reality is rarely so convenient, and Jay and Johnnie’s story has yet to have a happy ending. Sitting in his living room nearly a year after their brief meeting at the coffee shop, Jay tells me that he hasn’t seen his father since. They’ve spoken once on the phone. Jay doesn’t remember what they talked about.
Jay says he understands his father’s been through an extraordinary situation. “Who knows what kind of horrible things that man’s seen?” he tells me. “But for me, the reality is still that my father doesn’t call me. In that respect nothing has changed since he got out.”
But a lot has changed in Jay’s life. There are little changes: He reads every story he can find about the exonerated and wrongfully convicted. He watches every TV show on the subject and follows every new case. And he speaks with a confidence I didn’t see a year ago.
There are also some big changes: His business is taking off. He’s making commercials for local politicians, music videos for local hip-hop artists, even doing some corporate work. He’s also engaged to Kayla, who is pregnant. The doctor said it’s a boy, due in late August.
Jay says he’s happier than he’s ever been. If anything, he tells me this experience has taught him how not to be a father. “A woman told me one time that the biggest problem black men have is that they don’t communicate at all,” he says. “I’m not going to be like that with my son.”
I ask if he thinks finally reuniting with his father, however awkward and messy it was, has had anything to do with his recent success and happiness. He thinks about the question for nearly a minute before answering. “No,” he tells me. “I don’t think I would say that. I did this on my own. I have what I have because I worked hard, because that’s just always been what I have to do.”
Jay’s feelings about his father vary from day to day. Sometimes he feels guilty for not reaching out to Johnnie more. Other times he’s sad he didn’t have the same chances other children had. Today, he’s angry.
“People tell me, ‘You should just give him a break, he went to prison,’” Jay says. “And yeah, he didn’t do the crime he went away for. But other fathers weren’t in situations where that could happen. Other kids’ dads didn’t get sent away. He and my mother both did a lot of drugs. That’s not the right way to raise a child, plain as that. They didn’t take the responsibility of a child the right way at first and that’s what it led to. He didn’t commit that rape, but he put himself in that spot.”
It will be different with his son, Jay tells me. He doesn’t do drugs. He works hard to provide financially. “No matter what,” he says, “I’ll be in his life. That’s the most important thing: I’ll be there.”