Free Man

FreeManJPGThe cell phone ringing in the driver’s hip pocket startles the man in the passenger’s seat. It’s a sound he has never heard before. He asks if he can answer it. The driver, his sister, shows him how. On the line is his sister’s daughter, an adult niece he hasn’t seen since she was a child. She asks where they are.

David Scott takes a look around. He knows this place. He grew up here. But the world outside the car window doesn’t quite match his memories, the mental blueprints that he has held onto for so long: A furniture store still open for business behind boarded windows. A drive-in still bustling with carhops in gleaming white roller skates, now an empty lot. Virgin farmland still rolling beneath what are now flat fields of concrete, streetlights sprouting like giant weeds. He tells her that they are on their way.

The date is January 28, 2008, and, after serving 23 years for murder, David has just been released from prison. DNA pulled from the crime scene finally showed authorities what David, his mother, and his two half-sisters have been trying to tell them for more than two decades—that a different man was in Loretta Keith’s house the night she was killed. That he had been wrongly convicted.

There were plenty of reasons for no one to listen. At the time of the killing, David was a poor 17-year-old boy from the wrong side of the Wabash River. He had a learning disability, and he would lash out, sometimes violently, often running afoul of the law. Even worse, he was prone to telling outrageous stories about himself. And one night, goaded by a man who claimed to be his friend, he bragged about how he had done the deed. Twenty-three years gone, for one lie.

This morning he stuffed his inmate’s uniform into a lawyer’s wastebasket, hopped into his sister Bonnie’s car, and turned onto U.S. 41 out of Terre Haute, toward what he hopes will be a new beginning, a chance to resume his life. At his niece’s house in Youngstown, eight miles south, his mother is waiting to see him.

In the driveway, David springs from the car, up the steps, and into the house. Every night at 9 p.m., for the past 23 years, he and his mother have knelt and prayed, each knowing that the other was asking for this reunion. Hundreds of letters have passed between them, each one written in anticipation of the day they would be under the same roof again. He sees her sitting at the kitchen table with her back to the door. Her arms and legs are swollen, and an oxygen tube curls beneath her nose. He overhears her talking about the days when her children lived together back in West Terre Haute. Seeing his moment, he slips into the chair beside her. “I remember those days,” he says, “like they were yesterday.”

She turns to him, confused. “You do?”

“I grew up there,” he says.

When he was sent up, he was barely shaving. Today he is a sinewy, tattooed product of more than two decades in a state penitentiary, all menace and threat. Bald, rough, and wary. When he tells her who he is, speaking the name she gave him, she begins to sob so hard she can hardly catch her breath to speak. One prayer, for this, every night for 23 years. Now he’s here. And his own mother doesn’t recognize him.

 

David’s mother died 39 days later.

Sipping coffee at Bonnie’s dining-room table, David looks at a framed pencil portrait of his mother, propped up in a corner of the room. He sketched her, smiling, from a wallet-sized photograph in his cell. Now it’s the way he wants to remember her. The doctors said it was renal failure. But he knows better. For two decades the woman fought with everything to bring him home. And when he was finally beside her, and she saw what prison had done to him, it broke her heart. David has never recovered the hope he lost in that moment, almost a year ago now.

Read the rest at Indianapolis Monthly

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