PORTAGE, Ind. — The world got colder while he was locked away. He can’t stand to watch the news. It doesn’t show any of the good, he says. Just the dark. When he goes to the grocery store, he notices people aren’t as kind. They don’t look each other in the eye. They walk the aisles staring at their phones and everyone seems short-tempered.
“Just look at how people drive on the highway,” he says.
Darryl Pinkins tries not to be bitter about the stolen years. But at 64, starting over is hard.
For a quarter century, the world lurched forward, and he stayed stuck.
“A quarter century,” he says, shaking his head. “That sounds strange.”
In his first life, he was a family man. He had a wife and kids, a house, a job at a scrap metal factory in northwest Indiana. Then he was convicted of a rape he did not commit, and his second life began. His innocence isolated him from the other inmates.
“There’s a saying that prisoners are like crabs in a barrel,” Darryl says. “If one gets close to getting out, the others will do anything to bring him back down to the bottom.”
His third life began in April 2016 after an IU law professor and her students used DNA evidence to secure his release. Fran Watson spent 17 years trying to free Darryl and another man who was wrongfully convicted in the same case. Throughout her career, Watson has helped release five men from unjust prison sentences.
The public wants to believe the criminal justice system works and that Indiana’s prisons are full of the guilty. Watson knows better. Eyewitnesses can be mistaken. Memories are unreliable. Detectives, hell-bent on believing they have the right man, ignore evidence that suggests otherwise.
“What happened to Darryl happens all the time,” Watson says.
Darryl returned to regular life in a storm of cameras and publicity. But once the cameras went away, he was left alone. He’d gotten divorced in prison. His kids had grown. Some had moved away.
He doesn’t feel whole, so he prays to God every day, asking him to send someone he can share his new life with. As long as he's alone, his freedom feels hollow.
“If you don’t have love,” he says, “you don’t have God in you.”
From the very beginning, he’s been sure God had a reason for letting him be locked up for so long.
He’s still waiting for the answer.
At 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1989, a young woman’s car was rear-ended while stopped at a red light in Hammond, Indiana. When she got out to check the damage, a man got out of the other car and approached her.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She didn’t get to answer. The man grabbed her arm and yanked her toward his car. Other men emerged from the darkness and helped shove her into the backseat. They covered her eyes with a pair of green coveralls — a work uniform from Luria Brothers, a nearby scrap metal factory — and took turns raping her. They stole several rings off her fingers, dumped her back in her car and drove off.
From the beginning, the case simmered with racial tension. The woman, who was white, told police she’d been assaulted by five young black men. But she insisted she hadn’t been able to see well enough to identify any of them. The attack was the latest in a string of “bump, rape and robs,” where assailants rear-ended women’s cars, then robbed and assaulted them.
Darryl’s wife saw a piece about the crimes on the local news. He heard her yelling about it in the kitchen while he laid on the couch in the living room. How could anybody, his wife wondered, do that to a woman?
The police came for Darryl during his shift at the Luria Brothers factory in the middle of a safety meeting. They arrested five factory workers. Darryl still remembers the cold of the handcuffs against his wrists and the metallic insult of a detective’s gun pressed against his skull.
A few nights before the assault, Darryl had been out after work with friends from the factory. They had changed out of their coveralls before stopping at a liquor store. Someone broke into their car and stole all of their coveralls. Darryl and his friends reported the theft to their bosses so that their coveralls would be replaced.
The missing coveralls became the key piece of evidence connecting Darryl and the others to the crime.
In the middle of a pre-trial conference, after months of saying she couldn’t identify anyone, the victim saw Darryl holding his infant daughter and told police he’d been the first man to pull her from her car.
The identification should not have been admissible, Watson would later argue in Darryl’s appeals. Watson suspected the victim was pressured by police.
The lawyer who represented Darryl at trial had never had a case this big and was out of his depth, Darryl remembers. The defense attorney later testified that he had sleep apnea. He was taking over-the-counter medication to stay awake, he said, and told Darryl to nudge him if he nodded off in court. At trial, the attorney dozed during the DNA expert’s cross-examination. He missed his chance to object when she used outdated science to argue that Darryl’s DNA was present in samples from the scene.
Darryl was sentenced to prison for 65 years for rape, robbery and criminal deviate conduct. The cases against three of Darryl’s co-workers were dismissed. Darryl’s friend, Roosevelt Glenn, was convicted of rape and sentenced to 35 years.
None of it made sense to Darryl. He’d spent his whole life in Gary, Indiana and had never been in trouble with the law. As a child, he was a Boy Scout who loved exploring. He was obsessed with cowboys and Indians. His favorite western was “The Magnificent Seven.” He pounded drums in the Tolleston High School marching band. He was a guard on the basketball team at Jerusalem Baptist Church. After graduation, he served a stint in the Navy. He fell in love with a waitress, got married and started a family. He still went to church on Sundays. He taught his son to shoot 3-pointers.
Before the police put a gun to his head and took him away, Darryl had never been arrested. He says he’d never even had a traffic ticket.
How did he end up in a cage?
Darryl started his prison sentence June 14, 1991. He was behind bars for the next 9,082 days.
While he was inside, Beanie Babies invaded American houses. OJ was acquitted. Someone cloned a sheep in Scotland. The president lied about a blowjob. A new millennium began, and the world didn’t end. Towers fell. America went to war. Hurricane Katrina left Louisiana underwater. The United States elected a black president. A gunman walked into an elementary school in Connecticut and murdered 20 children. Netflix reigned. Han Solo came back, then left again.
Darryl wasn’t oblivious to the changes in the culture, the passage of history. He had a television in his cell. Inmates talked about what was happening outside. But he couldn’t feel the ways the world shifted.
He kept to himself and did things that would help him when he got out. He learned Braille, earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies, took Tae Kwon Do. He talked on the phone with his family every day and started storing all his letters in garbage bags when there were too many to stack.
Anything that broke up the monotony was welcome. On holidays, food was brought in from outside the prison. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Hostess snack cakes and Coke. He still remembers a piece of cheesecake he had one Christmas.
His family would come to visit, and he’d see the ways his kids had grown. Sometimes they brought him photographs, awards and report cards, and he’d save them in a photo album that he’d flip through when he sat in his cell.
At times he could feel himself hardening. The distance between him and the rest of the world grew and he could feel himself fighting to close the gap.
“When you’re locked away from society, you can become a cold and careless person because of your own pain,” he said. “I missed the realness of a person’s heart.”
When he felt the coldness growing, he stretched toward God. His prayers became less structured and more personal, like he was talking to a friend. It made him feel less alone.
His existence was almost monk-like in its discipline and order, each day an echo of the last. Early wake-up call. Head count. Breakfast. Work. Study. Lunch. Workout. Dinner. Television. Bed. Repeat.
Every scrap of time he had he put toward trying to get his conviction overturned. But for the first eight years, there was nothing. Then, after writing dozens of letters to wrongful conviction projects around the country, one stuck.
Fran Watson was running an innocence clinic at IU’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. Barry Scheck, the famous lawyer who’d worked on OJ Simpson’s dream team and ran an innocence project of his own, sent the IU professor a letter, suggesting she take a look at Darryl’s case. He explained the DNA evidence in the case should have excluded Darryl outright and asked her to take a look.
“We strongly suspect a thorough investigation would make this a fairly spectacular set of exonerations,” Scheck wrote.
Watson is a lawyer through and through. Her work with wrongful convictions didn’t — and still doesn’t — depend on the innocence of the accused but on whether the system had done its work.
But she knew the first time she met him that he could never have done it.
Watson has lived at the center of the case for a long time, and it shows.
One day, sitting in her office, she tried to recount how she had won Darryl his freedom. To her, every detail was vital. She wanted to explain everything, so she kept hijacking her own explanations mid-sentence and breaking off to brandish documents.
“Do you see?” Watson asked repeatedly.
The professor worked on Darryl’s case for 17 years. She drove to prison four times to tell Darryl they’d lost another appeal, but she never considered dropping the case.
In 2013, Watson brought the case to a scientist developing cutting edge DNA profile technology. When he analyzed the samples from Darryl’s case, he found five distinct sets of DNA — one for each of the alleged assailants.
Watson filed the new DNA analysis in May 2015. The evidence was strong enough that the court granted Darryl a new hearing, but not until April of the next year. In January 2016, after three years of studying Darryl’s case, “48 Hours” committed to airing an episode about his story. Watson used the media attention to pressure the court.
On April 22, 2016, the state moved to vacate Darryl’s conviction. He was supposed to be released the same day. Camera crews circled outside the jail. Darryl’s entire family came.
And then, more waiting. The paperwork was filed too late, the jail said. Darryl spent another weekend in prison, though the state had declared him an innocent man.
He got out Monday, April 25, 2016. Watson was the first one to see him, dressed in civilian clothes, looking fit in a navy blue polo shirt, blue jeans and Nikes. At his side, he clutched a newsboy cap and a Bible.
To her, it was a sad day. Even as she stood and watched him embrace his family, she couldn’t help but be angry.
“It never should have taken so long.”
When the family got home, Darryl’s nephew cooked him his first meal as a free man. It was a T-bone steak, well done, just how he likes it.
That night he slept easy.
He doesn’t sleep in a cell anymore, and he doesn’t have to wake for head count. But the rhythms of prison linger. He still wakes automatically before sunrise and can’t fall back asleep.
When he was released a year ago, he had no money or home of his own. So he moved into his nephew’s house. His nephew is a firefighter, so he’s gone for days at a time when he’s working shifts at the firehouse. Darryl says it’s like living alone.
From the start, Darryl prayed every day, asking God to send him a woman to share his life with. He didn’t want a girl. He wanted more than someone to flirt with, to chase and kiss. He wanted someone who would look at him and truly see him. Someone he could build a world with.
But he knew he couldn’t begin a relationship unless he had all the other pieces of his life in place. He needed a car and a house of his own, but he couldn’t afford either without a job. So he started searching. He put together a resume. He spent countless hours on the phone with his lawyers and with the Veteran’s Administration, asking them for help finding an opening.
He applied for dozens of jobs. His resume boasted of his experience in the blue-collar positions he’d held before prison. Cutting metal components, installing gauges — skills he’d mastered in jobs that had long since begun to disappear.
Several times, he came close to getting hired, only to lose out at the last minute. Summer turned into fall. Thanksgiving and Christmas passed and he was still looking. He knew his conviction was showing up when companies ran background checks on him. But he had been exonerated. So why was there still a problem?
One company offered him a job and took his photo for an ID badge. He was waiting on his schedule when they stopped answering his calls. They sent a letter saying they were “unable to continue with the hiring process.”
Not long after New Year’s, Darryl was still jobless, still stuck in his nephew’s house. If he wasn’t on the phone or watching sports, he was just sitting. He hated the silence, so he played music constantly. His taste was a mish-mash of things he liked before he went in, like The Dramatics and The Temptations, and music his son Dameon showed him, like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar.
Throughout his time in prison, Darryl stayed close to Dameon. They spent hours on the phone most days, analyzing scripture and talking through their daily lives. When Darryl was released, Dameon bought him an iPhone. Darryl had no idea how to work it. His little nieces and nephews had to talk him through the buttons and swiping. He couldn’t get comfortable with it, so he switched to an Android. He still spent a lot of time fighting with it. He typed with his index finger, hunt-and-peck style. It took him a few extra seconds to answer each call.
Months dragged past with no progress. His life was still on hold, just as it had been in prison. And then, in March, nearly a year after his release, things started coming together.
With some help from the Gary Housing Authority, he found a townhouse. His move-in date keeps getting pushed back, but he’s hoping to be on his own by the end of the month.
The City of Gary invited him for an interview. They wanted someone to test water around the city. The interview ended with a handshake and a congratulations. They told him he could start in a few weeks.
Shortly after Darryl got the job, his son surprised him by pulling into an auto lot while they were driving around town. Darryl’s license had expired while he was in prison, but he’d just retaken the written driving test and passed.
“See anything you like, Dad?” Dameon asked. Darryl couldn’t afford a car on his own, but Dameon told him he would co-sign for it.
Darryl tested three cars and came away with a used black Chrysler 200. It wasn’t his dream car, but it was handsome and would get him around. After the papers were signed, he got into the driver’s seat and turned the keys in the ignition. He found a radio station he liked and turned it up.
He and Dameon drove to a sports bar and shared a mess of nachos and drank Miller Lite while they watched the Bulls play. The Bulls lost, but Darryl didn’t care.
Finally, his life was moving forward.
On a Sunday morning in March, Darryl and Dameon brave the post-church rush and share breakfast at a Cracker Barrel.
They both order a little of everything: eggs, bacon, hash browns and pancakes, though Dameon added a couple extra eggs and got pancakes with blueberries. Darryl can’t compete with his son’s appetite.
“We’re gonna need a couple extra syrups,” Dameon tells the waitress when she set down three glass bottles of syrup with their meal.
Dameon scrolls through his phone and reads off the basketball matchups and recent trades while waitresses hustle around them.
“DeMarcus Cousins got traded to New Orleans,” Dameon says, raising his eyebrows.
“How about that?” says Darryl, cleaning his sunglasses with a paper napkin.
They debate about the Spurs and Lakers game that’s starting in a few hours and stretch back in the wooden chairs, both complaining that they ate too much.
This is what Darryl imagined for all those years — sharing meals with his son, talking about sports, being normal and happy.
If only his whole life could have been like this.
People have told him they can’t believe how fast he wrangled the pieces of his new life, but it doesn’t feel fast to him. He’s still pushing himself to move faster, so he can start searching for the one thing he really wants.
Darryl has seen the ways anger can warp a man, so he tries to keep his at bay. He does his best not to dwell on all that wasted time, but whenever someone tells him they’re sorry for what he’s been through or asks him what it all felt like, the fury returns.
“I don’t want to bury it,” he says, “regardless of the pain it causes me.”
When the anger comes clawing, he’ll step outside and sit on his little deck. He likes to watch the squirrels run across the lawn. He likes the sound of the wind.
“Sunshine still feels like a Christmas gift.”