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    Cover photo: Kerry Porter // by Chris Witzke
    Editor's note: This story originally ran in our March 2016 issue. On March 12, 2018, Kerry Porter, who spent 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, settled his case against the city of Louisville for $7.5 million.
     

    THE KENTUCKY INNOCENCE PROJECT

    Kentucky Innocence Project investigator Jimmer Dudley (second from right) teaching University of Louisville law students. // by Chris Witzke

     

    When Linda Smith started as a public defender in the ’90s, the general public didn’t take police brutality, false confessions and wrongful convictions seriously. “When you talked about it, people would laugh at you,” Smith says of those assuming the system was perfect, without a reasonable doubt. “Even some judges.”

    During her days as a post-conviction attorney with the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, she sniffed out the ways honesty goes unserved. She paid attention to unyielding prosecutors, to the larger cases abounding nationally, particularly the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994 and its experts in DNA — a mark of evidence unknown to most lawyers at the time. In 2010, after working capital-punishment cases, Smith joined as supervising attorney at the Kentucky Innocence Project, a section of the DPA devoted to exonerating the wrongfully convicted. KIP is located in Frankfort and was formed in 2001 — one of the first in the country — by then-head of the DPA Marguerite Thomas, who used to say, “It takes a gentle breeze to blow someone into jail and the perfect storm to get them out.”

    When Smith took the job, already seven men had been exonerated because of KIP. Two were Louisvillians. One: William Gregory, falsely identified, convicted of attempted rape and burglary, locked up for seven years and freed in 2000 by mitochondrial DNA testing — the first to be exonerated based on DNA alone (with the help of the original Innocence Project in New York). Two: Edwin Chandler, coerced to confess (falsely) to a murder charge, imprisoned nine years and exonerated in ’09 by DNA testing — his fingerprints were not the prints on the evidence, which the prosecution withheld in trial. (Kentucky doesn’t require retribution payments. Gregory sued the police department and was awarded $4 million. Chandler was compensated $8.2 million after a lawsuit and now lives in Georgia.) Smith has helped exonerate two more Louisvillians: Michael VonAllmen and Kerry Porter, who both shared their stories with Louisville Magazine.

    Part two of KIP’s current two-part crew is investigator Jimmer Dudley, whose resume includes the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. He now leads post-conviction DNA-related cases, which require physical evidence, and non-DNA cases, too. “It’s going back and trying to find someone that maybe lied back in the day. Or were unreliable. Someone new that didn’t come forward before because they were scared. That’s the long, hard part,” Dudley says.

    With help of University of Louisville, University of Kentucky and Northern Kentucky University law students, plus funding from the Kentucky Bar Association and occasional grants, KIP works on 20 to 30 wrongful-conviction cases per year pro bono. The waiting list is 300 deep, always new names claiming innocence. So far, KIP investigations have led to 15 exonerations, or one a year. (“We investigate a lot of cases that don’t go anywhere,” Dudley says.) Nationwide in 2015, the land of the free freed a record 149 people, most with an average 15-year sentence, some even sentenced to death row.

    Why only one freed soul a year in Kentucky? “We have the burden of reasonable certainty,” Dudley says. “That’s why DNA is so big. It’s scientific fact.” On average, it takes five to eight years to investigate, litigate and finalize an exoneration. “It becomes this game: ‘How little info can we give the defense attorney,’” Smith says. “We want to look at police files, prosecution information. But it’s always, ‘No, no, no.’” In Kentucky, there is no post-conviction access to evidence from the prosecution that could determine innocence versus guilt. “And prior to 2013, if I found your biological evidence at the county clerk’s office, I couldn’t even get it tested,” Smith says. (Until former Gov. Steve Beshear signed a DNA bill, only inmates on death row were allowed to get their DNA tested as evidence post-conviction. And even now, you must petition for that evidence in court.)

    “We say, ‘Once the bell has been rung, you can’t un-ring it,’” Dudley says.

    There are other factors. Plenty. The dependency on eyewitness testimonies — which can be skewed by trauma, a suggestive comment from an officer, only one person in the lineup who resembles the described suspect — even though, Dudley says, approximately 75 percent of wrongful convictions are due to eyewitness misidentification. The use of faulty or improper forensics. Cops coercing confessions with threats of an exaggerated sentence. Jail informants with incentives (usually time off their sentence, maybe money) to testify. (“The snitch is paid and defense attorneys never know that during trial — only prosecutors and police do,” Smith says.) There is taping over important videos — in Chandler’s case, a questionable surveillance tape of him supposedly murdering a cashier was “inadvertently” erased before trial and replaced with a TV show. There is the overworked public defender unable to gather enough evidence, call enough witnesses and who, Dudley says, might even fall asleep during trial. “Unfortunately it’s the poor and less educated that slip through the cracks,” he says.

    “I can’t tell you how many defense attorneys say, ‘I can tell my client is lying,’” Smith says. “Who are you? Jesus? Until we all have a computer chip in our heads, the best way to ensure reliability is to improve criminal-justice reform.”

    KIP proposes offering a sequential photo I.D. lineup instead of all at once. “Six people on a page, you feel compelled to pick one of those,” Dudley says. KIP also seeks complete interrogation recordings. “A lot of time, you can spend four or five or six hours being interrogated and there’s only a 30-minute tape of the ‘final story,’” Dudley says. To avoid snitches, KIP says the credibility of witnesses must be questioned, their background information and possible motivation accessible. “It could easily be me or you (on trial) just because somebody said something,” Dudley says.

    Smith and Dudley live the stuff of Serial and Making a Murderer, which have started conversations on prosecutorial tactics and the true meaning of reasonable doubt. They’ve raised awareness of a bent (broken?) system. The public finally learning what Smith and Dudley have known all along — that wrongful-conviction cases happen everywhere, all the time, with the following two stories closer to home. 

     

    MICHAEL VONALLMEN

    Convicted in 1983 of rape, sodomy and robbery and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Served 11 years before being paroled in 1994. Eyewitness misidentification led to his exoneration in 2010.
     
     
    Michael VonAllmen, exonerated after 27 years wrongfully convicted. // by Chris Witzke

    Michael VonAllmen’s voice is soft, but loud enough to be heard over the world’s muddles and messes. It is the voice of the common man, a “knucklehead.” It is an accommodating voice that wants you to be comfortable. He will switch seats with you to save bright sun from your eyes at a Starbucks on Central Avenue and Third Street, where he talks for almost seven hours about his exoneration. His voice is the voice of a 58-year-old glad to work as a plumber, pay the bills, occasionally bicker with the “old lady,” wear T-shirts, order Chinese take-out and eat it in his South End home.

    When he was young and growing into a man, his voice swelled with pride. Provenance prominent: high school and the strength to shove shorties against lockers; Lynyrd Skynyrd and sweaty Rolling Stones concerts, the wild ’70s; two Navy tours in the Mediterranean; age 23 and back in Louisville’s South End, where he grew up. “Didn’t know life could be so good,” VonAllmen says. He got a job revamping water wells in Louisville and dreamt of Colorado — drilling for oil and mulling old memories of a family vacation to the beautiful Rockies, prairie dogs darting across the campground, kids cuddled in the pop-up trailer.

    The good life: a lady in his arms and more ladies at his door. Could’ve been the charm in his maturing voice. Could’ve been the Mac Davis hairdo, the curly ’fro he still has now. But most likely it was the weed.

     He says he sold it. Lots of it. Says he got caught with a quarter-pound brown bag of marijuana once. Was pulled over for speeding and cuffed for being drunk in a public place (still buzzing from two-for-one Wild Turkey night), reckless driving and possession of marijuana. A misdemeanor and his first scrape with the law.

    Back then, he says, he was a pot-smoking, beer-drinking whiner and complainer. “Destined to grow up and be Walter,” VonAllmen says, referring to the ventriloquist voice by comedian Jeff Dunham. “Typical Republican type: old, grumpy white guy.” Much like VonAllmen’s own father, who mailed his son far-right propaganda all the way till the end. VonAllmen says his father believed criminal justice was best served by public hangings, a “let the dirty bastards get what they deserve” attitude. Would Dad call that justice even for his own? His then-24-year-old son was convicted of the Oct. 10, 1981, rape and robbery of a 22-year-old woman in Iroquois Park. Would Dad arrange the noose around the neck, righteousness in the wringing? Would there be sunlight caught in his tears, or sternness? Who removes the base on which his good son stands? Who lets the body dangle free?

     

    On the night of Oct. 11, 1981, VonAllmen says he went to what was then called Ernie’s Bar on Taylor Boulevard. It was a Sunday night, technically Monday. Late. Four a.m. and VonAllmen drinking a Sterling. “It wasn’t my regular spot, but I was there to sell this junkie some weed,” he says. Wasn’t much happening at the place. Bartender chilling. Owner closing up shop.

    At no point did VonAllmen see the composite drawing inside the bar, the one that had been circulated to all the bars in the area the day before; nor did he know that the woman who was raped in Iroquois Park had been abducted from this very drinking hole. He didn’t see the similarities in the sketch, the mess of dark curly hair. Didn’t see the filled-in blanks: white male, 5’11”, 200-plus pounds. A lot like him.

    But the owner of the bar did. VonAllmen later found out that the owner followed him home that night. Saw VonAllmen pull his blue Volkswagen into his apartment’s driveway, park next to a green car. Green car. Ding, ding. That was another blank on the composite drawing at the bar. The owner dialing: nine, one, one. Ring, ring.

     

    VonAllmen showed up at the police station when he found out cops had been knocking on his door, said, “Heard y’all have been looking for me?”

    He told them what he knew. The green car? The neighbor’s Chevy. Did he have a red plaid shirt? Uh, he guessed so, yeah. (He says now: “When I told my girlfriend they asked me that later, she held up the plaid shirt and said, ‘This isn’t red, it’s brown!’ Turns out I’m colorblind.”) The night of the 10th? That was three weeks past. He scrambled for an answer. Oh, yeah, the movies, An American Werewolf in London. The morning of the 10th? He forgot. Couldn’t really recall the night of the 9th, either.

    The uncertainty must’ve been encouraging for the police officers. VonAllmen’s previous possession charge was no help. And worse, the victim elsewhere with her finger on VonAllmen’s mugshot — the only big, curly-headed dude in the photopack lineup. So certain, despite the fact she’d written “blue” for eye color in her initial statement, and the mugshot eyes were brown. (At our Starbucks meeting, VonAllmen is prepared with a manila folder. In it, the composite sketch and a mugshot of him and the mugshot of the man whose crime he was punished for. “This is how easily it can happen,” he says.)

    After his arrest on Oct. 29, 1981, came the January trial. The losing of the voice. VonAllmen listened to his public defender saying there isn’t enough evidence to be certain of guilt. Police never searched VonAllmen’s apartment for the gun the perpetrator had threatened the victim with or the Lindy star ring that was supposedly stolen; didn’t check for fingerprints in the victim’s vehicle; didn’t canvass the area or bar for witnesses. The results of a rape kit, which sampled and analyzed the victim’s combed pubic hair, proved inconclusive. “They couldn’t prove the hair was hers or mine,” VonAllmen says.

    He listened to the TV brought into the courtroom. A taped testimony from VonAllmen’s girlfriend — the defense’s primary witness, whose agoraphobia prevented her from attending the trial — saying that she was, in fact, with him at the apartment when the woman was raped in Iroquois Park.

    He listened to the prosecutor cross-examining VonAllmen’s old high school buddy, the one who threw a party just because on the night of the rape. The prosecutor asked wheres and times. The buddy said he remembered seeing VonAllmen at the keg by a tree out back. The prosecutor replied, “What, do you have a clock on your tree?” VonAllmen remembers that chillingly. “I hated seeing the pain in my friend’s eyes being drilled into like that,” he says. “I think he felt some guilt afterward, like he didn’t say the right thing.”

    The verdict. Guilty. VonAllmen sentenced to 35 years in prison on Feb. 18, 1983. “Immediately I’m thinking, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ I’m going through all the bad things I’ve done. Even small stuff. Is it because I pulled that girl’s pigtails back when? Shoved that kid against the locker?” he says.

    In the courtroom, VonAllmen’s family sat behind him. His mother, who had tried to bring her son to God — “Boy, you need to repent and give to the Lord” — probably prayed. His father knew his son was innocent because he asked him if he did it and VonAllmen said, “No.” You couldn’t get a lie past Dad, whether it be about a stink bomb or the rape of a woman. His youngest sister wailed at the word “guilty.” VonAllmen says he couldn’t turn around when he heard that shriek. Couldn’t bring himself to speak.

     

    At the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, VonAllmen’s voice lost its depth, went fast, sounded like, “You rat mother fucker punk ass bitch!” It was like an alter ego, this inmate voice. “When in Rome,” he says, “you gotta be Roman.”

    Wasn’t easy at first. Wasn’t right being away from his family, his girlfriend’s kids who’d started knowing him as Dad. He’d known tight quarters because of the Navy, but, oh, the thought of his apartment and the heated water mattress that kept him warm through winter. He got used to the conversations that always began: “What are you in for?” VonAllmen always proclaimed his innocence.

    “Of course, when I first got convicted, I had to say, ‘Why the hell is this happening?’ I moved to Christianity. God’s got a reason for it. When I got convicted: ‘Mom, I think I’m listening to you now. What ya got to tell me?’” VonAllmen says. The voice of God wore off after a year. “For the wages of sin is death...” and other Romans verses lost their touch, replaced with, “Whoa, God, you crazy?!”

    At KSR, he played the game, waged the bets. Cigarettes, Nutty Bars, Honey Buns for 41 cents. “We played cards and bet on pride,” he says. Pride soaked with what were called “cockroaches” and “hound dogs.” “If I owed you a cockroach, we could be in the chow line, 100 people deep, and you say, ‘Bitch, give me my cockroach.’ I’d have to get down on my back, kick my feet in the air and go eek, eek, eek like a dying cockroach. Hound dog is get on all fours and bark.” VonAllmen played ball in the yard, called himself “Commander.”

    He worked toward his associate degree in liberal arts. Worked for the prison making desk nameplates. Went to counseling. “It was the first time I’d ever really reflected on my emotions,” he says. “Before it was always, ‘Rock on.’” He read rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, realized “shit happens.” He dismissed reason and rolled on. 

     

    Freedom is a waiting game. For 11 long years it was ups and downs. News of other serial rapists convicted had VonAllmen thinking, “This has to be the guy!” and “God is real.” Then his hope deflated: One rapist didn’t confess to the Oct. 10, 1981 crime; the other was “as black as the ace of spades.” VonAllmen almost made parole five years in, even packed his junk and got “caked.” “The other inmates smash cake in your face. It’s part of the ritual of leaving,” he says. But, nope, false alarm.

    He went back in front of the parole board for the fourth time in 1994. “Like the surprise in Shawshank Redemption, I was released,” he says. (His father had managed to get the chief of police to write a letter to the parole board on VonAllmen’s behalf; he thinks this helped.)

    VonAllmen ran out of his meeting not knowing what to feel. “I’m wanting to cry, but I’m still in prison and you better man up quick,” he says. It’s like that Lynyrd Skynyrd song VonAllmen likes. The one that goes, Give me three steps out the door, and I’ll take it from here. “All I needed was a chance to show them who Mike VonAllmen was or who he could be,” he says.

    Day one, the world whizzed by. All the cars down the Watterson Expressway moving so fast they made VonAllmen nauseous. He had his first meal at his father’s: take-out from Mike Linnig’s. He rode to pick up the food, followed his father and brother inside, not expecting anything. “I swing that door open and it intimidated the hell out of me. Too many faces. It was overwhelming,” he says. “Straight out of prison, you’re looking at everyone as a potential aggressor.”

    Quickly, the world slowed down — with routine, responsibility. The parole monitoring, the required 40-hour workweeks. The embarrassment of having to tell a potential employer, “I’m a convicted sex offender.” The eventual steadiness of plumbing, pulling a pretty union check.

    The heart sped up. Once at a stoplight and VonAllmen still fresh in the old world he once knew. A corrections officer pulled up next to him and VonAllmen spit at that car with the rage of injustice. Hit his own side mirror instead.

    The heart sped up again when he heard William Gregory was exonerated in 2000. VonAllmen went to see Gregory at his job at Sears in Oxmoor Mall. “I was like this man out of nowhere, bubbling with emotion, choking up,” VonAllmen says. He remembers saying something like, “Man, you ain’t the only one! I am with you, brother. I am with you!”

    The heart pumped again 16 years into parole. Front page of the Courier-Journal: “Kentucky Gets Grant to Investigate Wrongful Convictions.” VonAllmen at the kitchen table sputtering and stuttering: It can’t be. “I drove to work crying,” he says. A hopeful cry. Could this really be the end?

     

    With help from the Kentucky Innocence Project’s then-attorney Ted Shouse, a DNA test was administered on the rape-kit hairs and determined all 16 hairs were the victim’s. So KIP looked to other sources, other witnesses. They found a new confession from one Rayetta Smith, met with her, investigated her testimony.

    VonAllmen first knew Smith as the girl down the street, his sister’s friend, dolls and cooties. VonAllmen’s mom once ran into Smith while visiting KSR, and Smith was shocked to hear VonAllmen was in for rape. Smith wrote VonAllmen’s betting buddy in prison, and ended one letter with: “Oh, by the way, do you know Mike VonAllmen? I believe my ex committed his crime.” VonAllmen was still locked up at that point.

    The ex: Ronald Tackett. A 200-something-pound guy with pale blue eyes and a shock of curly brown hair. The driver of a green Mercury. A convicted felon charged with abducting a 16-year-old girl in 1978 and beating, raping and robbing her in Iroquois Park. (He was given a plea bargain — a misdemeanor assault, 90 days in jail.) A dead man done in a high-speed car chase with the police in ’83.

    “That was a huge deflating moment for me, really,” VonAllmen says now. “I was looking for someone to confess.”

    VonAllmen recalls Smith’s testimony: In the six years she was married to Tackett he often took her to Iroquois Park and beat her. Sometimes Tackett would come home with strange lipstick on his belly and shirt. Around the time of the 1981 rape, she said he pulled his finely functioning green car into the backyard, let it sit there for several days.

    “How do you mess that up?” VonAllmen says. “Because it was too damn easy. You see this picture of me looking almost like the guy and say, ‘We’ve got our man.’ I was there first. Don’t give it a second thought. I know people that work like that — they take the easy road.”

    VonAllmen was exonerated in 2010. The conviction erased. No successful lawsuit; VonAllmen lost. The judge saying, “Well, sorry, Mr. Tackett isn’t here…” then, whish, the pen across the page. There were no right words to say, but there was the feeling of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, victory on the mat. 

     

    He calls it a long pause. VonAllmen, the same guy on both sides of the sentence. The common man, the knucklehead. Same lady in his arms, now his wife, and back in the South End. If he would’ve made it to Colorado, he says he’d still be the same knucklehead in a different location. But perhaps then, as he believed destiny intended, he would’ve grown into Walter, the grouch. “I wouldn’t have been voiceless, but I wouldn’t have raised my voice, either,” VonAllmen says.

    Twenty-seven years wrongfully convicted, and VonAllmen knows there are certain people who probably think he’s actually guilty. “Look, if you don’t trust me, then turn your back,” he says. “I’ve lost some people; others are more open to me. There’s nothing I can do about it. Got to roll on.”

    Twenty-seven years wrongfully convicted, and VonAllmen feels like he has purpose. He advocates for double-blind eyewitness identification, which requires interrogating cops to have no prior information on a suspect. He attends the annual Innocence Conference with members of KIP and shares his story of exoneration, listens to others’. He advocates for felons’ right to vote, works with the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and speaks directly to legislators, shares his story. “An obvious point to laser in on: It took almost 30 years to prove my innocence,” he says. “It’s an imperfect system and a penalty as final as that is — how can we put ourselves in the position to declare perfection? Only we can eliminate the possibility of killing an innocent person.” 

     

    VonAllmen believes his friend at KSR, Ed Maynard, died an innocent man. Maynard was almost 60, real reclusive, in on a murder charge. He had been locked up for 16 years already when a seasoned inmate pointed VonAllmen his direction, said, “I’ve heard every story in the world since I’ve been doing time. Yours sounds as believable as Maynard’s.” Maynard said a jailhouse snitch got him in.

    Soon as VonAllmen earned some credibility after his exoneration, he tried getting Maynard out. The KIP initially couldn’t find enough further evidence to fully free him. (After Maynard’s death, hairs were discovered from the victim’s dead body belonging to an African-American; the truth that did not set Maynard free.)

    VonAllmen’s first time back at KSR was to visit Maynard. Maynard’s first visitor since 1973.

    “I haven’t forgotten you,” VonAllmen said.

    “Von,” Maynard said, “you ain’t changed a bit.”

    Two years ago, VonAllmen received a call from University of Louisville Hospital. Maynard had had a stroke. He was motionless but still shackled to the bed. VonAllmen remembers saying, “I’m a liberator, not a confiner” and “You’re free, brother.” The nurse pulled the plug. VonAllmen scrambled last words and scrambles now as he relays the story, tears forming, a lump in the throat. He says he remembered Sister Helen Prejean, a staunch advocate against the death penalty, a representative of love in the execution room. “Without control of my own mouth, I say” — it takes a second for him to tell me — “‘Ed, I love you.’ Words I know nobody has said to him.” The numbers rose on the monitor, then fell straight to the flat line.

    His second visit to KSR: Maynard’s funeral. Chicken Hill. A cemetery for unclaimed bodies VonAllmen always thought was a myth. “It’s a much more tranquil place than I could have imagined,” VonAllmen says. “Even though Maynard is there with some of the worst people.”

     

    KERRY PORTER

    Convicted in 1998 of murder and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Locked up for more than 14 years. Eyewitness misidentification, government misconduct and invalidated/improper forensic science led to his exoneration in 2010.

     

    Kerry Porter, exonerated after 13 years wrongfully convicted. // by Chris Witzke

    Like a .22-caliber bullet bouncing in the brain. A .22: force enough to enter the skull, then slowing till forever stuck inside. That’s the best way Kerry Porter knows how to describe it. This is the case for Porter. Rattling every day, every hour, “18 hours a day.” The 53-year-old sits in his living room in Fern Creek, his Nascar jacket and slippers on, the blinds pulled shut, rattling because of the conviction — the 1996 murder of Tyrone Camp.

    Porter had known Camp before his death. Porter’s ex-girlfriend, Cecilia, married him. He did his research. The name Camp didn’t ring on the street. “Not being a street player — buying weed, shooting dice, riding motorcycles, fighting pit pulls, woo, woo, woo — you have to be a Boy Scout, a square,” Porter says. Good news for him. He didn’t want “some hoodrat” raising Little Kerry, Porter and Cecilia’s child together. Before the couple split, Porter used to take Little Kerry hunting and fishing, camping at Taylorsville Lake. “Pillow fights, pizza parties, a plane trip to Minneapolis,” he says.

    Porter says his drug use hurt his relationship with Little Kerry. He spent the money he made laying bricks getting high. One Christmas, Little Kerry tried to wake his passed-out daddy; the boy thought Dad was playing dead on the couch. Three-day stints on crack cocaine, that first hit making Porter feel like “Ultraman.” “Say if you were buried in an avalanche, the first hit you’d come popping out the snow, ready to take on the world,” he says. “When you’re out (of drugs), it’s like you’re handcuffed and thrown to the bottom of the sea, Houdini in a straightjacket.”

     

    It was the night after Christmas in 1996, and the original plan was to steal some cars, an art Porter says he mastered with a screwdriver and a slingshot. “Could get a car in 60 seconds,” Porter says. “The Cadillac was my favorite.” He says he stole hundreds of cars — El Caminos, Camaros, Monte Carlos — from all over Louisville. But Porter says the cops were out that night. “The streets were hot,” he says. So he went to his buddy Andre’s, smoked until goodbye called his name.

    He says he was on his sister’s couch early the next morning after catching a ride. She lived at their childhood house in Newburg — eight miles from the murder — and was up at 6:30 a.m. with the routine of a nurse. She saw Porter asleep on the couch and put a blanket on him, got him a glass of water.

    The next night, the voice of God. Porter still at his sister’s all day with a crack hangover. The news on and Porter telling everyone to be quiet. The news: Tyrone Camp shot dead with a 12-gauge shotgun at a truck stop, bullets to the back and face. The slow motion. The trance between Porter and the TV screen. “It was the most focused I’ve ever been,” he says. The shadow at Porter’s back that wouldn’t let him turn his head, this voice saying something like, “This is on you.”

    Porter asking, “Why me?”

    The only answer: “I’ve already told you.” 

     

    At the six-day trial in August 1998, Porter says he was represented by an eight-months-pregnant public defender who had never tried a murder case before. Porter had been arrested some 30 times before, mostly for drugs, three trials to his name. “Not the best track record,” he says. (At the time of the trial, Porter had served a year of a five-year sentence for auto theft.) He admits he was high when he gave an alibi — a month after the murder — that he’d been with a girlfriend at the time of the murder. But that girlfriend had been at a drug-treatment center. “I messed that up,” he says. An eyewitness testified against him. Two people claimed he’d talked up the kill in jail. Porter was accused of making the homemade silencer out of some carpet and duct tape. “Up against a mountain and you’re the size of a fingernail,” he says.

    The prosecutors argued that Porter was jealous Camp was raising Little Kerry. Porter had wrecked the Camp apartment in 1990, and the prosecution used that against him. Porter knew they’d be on him about that. But if the prosecutors only knew the truth behind his kicking down that door. “I broke into their apartment to get my money and weed,” he says. “Saw a shadow coming down the hall. Tyrone. If I wanted to kill him, wouldn’t I do it then? In a room alone with a gun in my hands?” 

    The defense argued Cecilia and her then-boyfriend, Juan Sanders, killed Camp so they could collect on his $150,000 insurance policy. Cecilia pleaded the Fifth to almost every question thrown her way at trial. Sanders didn’t plead anything, because Sanders wasn’t at the trial. According to a C-J article, Sanders was a prime suspect in the case but was dismissed by the prosecuting detective when he “lawyered up.” Seven months after Camp was murdered, Sanders shot three people, killing one, and was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 17 years in prison. The same C-J article mentioned how, at a bench conference during Porter’s trial, prosecutor McKay Chauvin said Sanders was “capable of killing everyone in this courtroom just for fun.”

    Porter remembers the jury deliberating for 30 minutes — enough time for him to get to a holding room and take a bite of sandwich. Then, the verdict. Guilty. Sentenced to 60 years in prison. 

     

    No calm time. No peace, no sleep. Last time he got any real sleep was when he found out he was being indicted. “I slept for two or three days in a window at the Hall of Justice. I was so depressed. Barely ate,” Porter says.

    At Northpoint Training Center, a prison some 80 miles southwest of Louisville, he was wide awake with the need to fight. Like his mom said: “Fight now, cry later.” Awake in his metal bunk, papers stacked under his head. Highlighters and ink pens nearby. “You’re only supposed to have two, but I’d have at least 10,” Porter says. More papers — sentences underlined, margins a mess of notes — shoved under his thin mattress, a layer of case laws. Legal work sliding from his top bunk and landing on his cellmate’s head. Locker and laundry bags filled with news articles related to his case or to government corruption, along with books of law: Kentucky Rules of Court, Successful Techniques for Criminal Trials, How to Win Every Argument.

    The guards called him “Fire Hazard” and the inmates called him “The Walking Encyclopedia.” Porter calls it “Paper Law.” Give him cases involving illegal search and seizure or eyewitness misidentification, he says he’s got you. “On the yard I was in high demand, hounded by people wanting help working their cases,” Porter says.

    You could find him in one of his many offices, which he’d set up anywhere, typing on his see-through typewriter nicknamed “Typee” (clear so no shanks or drugs could be hidden). Porter worked as a legal aide in the law library, where it was, “Follow me to the law library and follow me home.” He was thankful he’d always paid attention to legal and detective shows as a kid — Perry Mason, Adam-12, The Rookies, Columbo.

    From 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. he’d work on cases for other inmates. Several needed letters accepting responsibility, showing remorse, reflection. “Same routine questions, different names and dates,” Porter says. He reserved his afternoon shift and the rest of the hours for his own case. “I was and am beyond obsessed. Part of my DNA,” Porter says. He’d investigate his case, open-records laws becoming his best friend. No time for visitations. “When I’m getting a visit, that’s two hours off my case that I could’ve been typing,” Porter says. “Even during visits, I’m talking law. If my mouth was open, I was teaching law, period. I eat law, breathe law, shit out law.” No time for ball or poker or haircuts or nothing unless the pen was on lockdown — lack of guards, bad assault, fog threatening escapes, kitchen utensil missing — and the law library closed.

     

    When Porter was locked up, he’d look out the windows, memorize the weather, watch the planes fly over, wish himself there. After 9/11, no planes for days. Thought it was a joke at first, 9/11. Thought the goofy guard was setting him up for a punchline. Porter in the TV room and everybody shocked and silent. “Quietest I ever heard the pen in my almost 15 years stuck there,” he says.

    Only other time he’d find quiet like that was in “the Hole.” Solitary confinement. Porter always looked forward to the Hole. “I found my best joy there. Peace,” he says. “At chow and in the shower, people asking me about this case law and that.” In the Hole: freedom. Each walk there accompanied by a couple big guys with 60- and 70-pound laundry bags full of law on their shoulders (the weightlifters demanded the heavier ones), stepping in time, like soldiers, Porter in the back of the formation, typewriter in his arms. He trusted no one with his typewriter. “You can break my CDs, Walkman, cooler, but not my typewriter,” he says. Porter would step in time to the beat, sing slow and low, like a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz: “Oh-we-oh. On the way to the Hole.”

    The Hole. Where he read John Grisham’s nonfiction The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, one of the only books he’s read in full, along with Nelson DeMille’s The General’s Daughter and the learned quote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Then the quote from The Innocent Man’s innocent man. Porter remembers the exact page number. “What was the reason for my birth? If I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t be born.” Had to put the book down for two whole days because it struck such a chord. “I laughed for two days because I couldn’t bring myself to cry, couldn’t understand any of it at all,” he says.

    The Hole. Where he typed and typed, added to his piles of brainstorms, letters, poems.

    Brainstorms. Lists of reasons it couldn’t be him, one starting RED FLAGS IGNORED OR KNOWN. Another a handwritten diagram with a center circle screaming JURORS DEPRIVED OF ISSUE ABOUT OTHER SUSPECTS OF REASONABLE SUSPICION. The 25 lines shooting from that circle are like spokes from a wheel.

    The letters. Addressed to judges, proclaiming innocence, asking for a retrial. A fair one. He believed the murder trial was corrupted. The eyewitness originally said he would not be able to identify a suspect because of distance and darkness. The same eyewitness was shown a picture of Porter before the photo lineup and subsequently picked him. Corrupted by snitches. Porter signed each letter “The Fall Guy” or “Falsely Con-victed” or “Actually Innocent” or “Neverending Fighter” and folded it into a self-made envelope. (He learned a lot of tricks in jail to save money. Deodorant as glue to reseal a used stamp. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says.)

    A poem he sent to the judge called “I Do or I Die”:

    Now, for thirteen years,
    living in my cell in fears and tears.

    That I could die,
    but no time to cry,
    I must try.
    I do or I die. 

     

    Four-thousand-eight-hundred-and-fifty-eight days. That’s how long Porter was in prison for the murder charge before being exonerated. That’s 13 years, three months and 18 days and two different prisons till freedom. (He’d transferred to Eastern Kentucky Correction Complex, aka “the pink place,” in 2003. “They’d make you wear pink shirts and underwear. Try to break your spirit,” he says. At one point, Sanders lived on the same block as him. “I slept with one eye open,” Porter says.) Porter walked the gray “Road to Justice” (which is Eastern’s street name) on Dec. 19, 2011. On the drive home, he marveled at the car with its new amenities, the anti-theft system. He ate McDonald’s. “I ate it slow and embraced the feeling of being free,” he says. He wore his favorite hat — a frayed thing an inmate gave him and that he considered good luck. That night, he slept under the Christmas tree on his mom’s floor like he’d done as a kid.

    “The Legend,” as he calls himself, credits the Kentucky Innocence Project, which he wrote in 2001 after he learned about them in the newspaper. KIP started working on his case in ’06 and issued a DNA test that showed Porter’s fingerprints were not the male prints found on the gun silencer. (The case is still open because those prints haven’t been matched.) His attorney, KIP’s Melanie Lowe, called the prosecution out for “tunnel vision,” pursuing only one suspect. Porter also credits cold-case worker and current state representative Denny Butler, who joined the cause in ’09. He uncovered withheld evidence: Francoise Cunningham, a part of the gang Murder Inc., stated in a C-J article that Sanders had offered him 50 grand to kill Camp, but then just did it himself; the article says Sanders was unavailable for comment. Cunningham setting Porter free.

    What Porter wants is sorry, but there’s no sorry. What he’d like is the lawsuit he filed in 2012 against the city of Louisville and eight police officers to result in compensation. (Porter knows it took 27 months after exoneration for Edwin Chandler to receive his $8.2 million.) Porter believes his time behind bars is worth $18 million. (He figures this by dividing Chandler’s total by the number of years locked up. Takes that total and multiplies by 15.) Though, he says: “Whatever amount they give me is an insult. It’s all blood money, because someone’s dead that can’t be brought back.”

     

    Four years since freedom and freedom isn’t free. Still, the .22 bullet bounces. “It’s the deadliest gun because the bullet stays stuck there,” he says. “Like a ricochet.”

    Porter is but a shell of a man, hollow on the inside. Scraped like fruit from the rind and the flies do gather. All his beliefs inverted. He doesn’t look at his family the same anymore. Resentment toward his mother for not showing up at his trial. His brothers for not doing the lightweight work he’d wanted them to do, like asking around on the street about what really happened. Still no word from Little Kerry, who Porter heard joined the Marines. Porter last saw him at the ’98 trial. The last words he heard him say: “Hi, daddy.” Porter sent his son so many letters from prison, all unanswered. “I will never get closure. I’ll always wonder: Why did they decide to make me the fall guy? Why did Little Kerry not get in contact with me?” he says. “I can’t get Little Kerry back.”

    So many unanswered questions. What’s been lost: Teeth that didn’t need to be pulled. “They’d rather numb you up and yank it out your mouth than do the right thing,” Porter says. What’s been gained: Pain. The stress on his light-skinned face, beard, everything. The idea of swallowing all those sleeping pills that he fights so well. His girlfriend’s grandkids who keep him alive, who he shakes orange-and-black pom-poms for and takes camping. “All those years vanish when they’re around,” he says.

    Everything — everything reminding him of prison. The Sunday meal he cooks for his girlfriend — Salisbury steak, potatoes, gravy, broccoli, the fixins’ — tainted by thoughts of spoiled meat and bologna you could see through. Even cutting the grass, his main line of work these days, reminds him of the crazy triangle formations inmates would make mowing the yard. Some people think Porter has already received a retribution payment. All those funerals, people staring. “They look at my shoes first, then my pants,” he says. If only they’d realize it’s plastic jewelry, the chain looping his neck but a couple bucks. If he had the money, he says he’d pay back all those people he stole from in the past. “In the 15 years in prison, I thought of all the horribleness I caused,” Porter says.

    There’s the fear of being alive. The death threats. He was encouraged by Butler, the cold-case worker, to leave town the day Sanders was released on parole. Porter hid out far from home in some expensive hotel. Now he’s in his apartment decorated by his girlfriend in rich browns. Basically hiding out. “Blinds always pulled, door always shut,” he says. Security alarm with its red eye. Trash stacked against the back door so it will fall and alert Porter if somebody breaks through. Fishing line a tripwire, rigging doors to stair rail and to a clangy decorative tin on the landing. Tupperware of stuff blocking the top of the stairs.

    The spare bedroom is a makeshift law library with papers scattered all over the bed. “You could put them in a blender and I’d be able to arrange to original form,” he says. Newspaper clippings jam up the filing cabinet. All these papers that he could stack into a paper throne if he found a crown. This space is some sort of refuge for when Porter can’t sleep at night. Because he can’t sleep at night. He’ll get naps in during the day, sleep on the floor. “But at night, it’s guard duty,” he says. At night, the demons come, and they’re worse every night. “Every night, back in the penitentiary,” he says. Mad at himself if he dozes off because when he wakes it’s a vision of Sanders, his full lips whispering, slowly, surely, “I promise, I’m gonna make it quick....”

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    About Arielle Reyna Christian

    Oh me! Just a screamer and dreamer. Poet, know it. Righter writer. Too much wordplay is good for the soul. Arts all around. Hooty hoo!

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