Steve Barnes is spending the holidays with his family this year for the first time in two decades, and he still can’t believe it’s real.
(Above: Barnes and his mother leave the Utica, New York, courthouse on November 25 following his release. Utica Observer-Dispatch photo)
“Christmas was always one of my favorite holidays,” he said. “I would help my Mom decorate the tree and we’d spend the holiday all together as a family.”
But in 1989, Barnes went to prison in upstate New York for a murder he didn’t commit. For 20 years, he spent the holidays in a prison cell, and his family didn’t celebrate much either, he says.
“Christmas is a depressing day in prison. They lock you in your cell early on Christmas Eve so the officers can go home to be with their families,” he said. “Those of us with families were wishing we could be with them, and I know it was even harder for the guys with nobody on the outside.”
This year is different. DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved Barnes’ innocence, and he was freed two days before Thanksgiving. He helped his mother decorate the Christmas tree, and he’ll be ringing in 2009 with a new life ahead of him. On January 25 he will turn 43 years old, and his friends are planning to throw him one big party to celebrate the 20 birthdays he missed.
“I was a walking dead man. In order to get parole, I had to admit guilt, and I couldn’t admit to something I didn’t do,” Barnes said. “Now, after 20 years, it feels like a miracle to spend the holidays with the people I love.”
Donate online today to help the Innocence Project free the innocent in 2009
. All gifts in December will be matched dollar for dollar by a group of Innocence Project donors.
Learn more about the 14 people exonerated by DNA testing in 2008 below. (At least 10 more people around the country – including Barnes – are waiting for their exonerations to become official)
was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas based on improper forensic testimony and several eyewitness misidentifications. He served nearly 14 years on Texas death row for a murder he didn’t commit.
was sentenced to death in 1995 for a child murder he didn’t commit. He was freed when DNA testing secured by the Innocence Project led to the identity of the real perpetrator. His exoneration also led to critical reforms on handling evidence and state oversight for autopsies.
was exonerated by DNA testing in Chicago after spending 12 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.
served 27 years in Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing secured by the Innocence Project of Texas set him free.
served 26 years in a Florida prison before DNA testing led to his release. He was convicted based on an eyewitness misidentification, testimony from a jailhouse snitch and unreliable testimony of a police dog handler.
was 17 years old when he was arrested for a carjacking and rape he didn’t commit. He served 10 years in Michigan before he was cleared.
spent 16 years in Mississippi prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing won by the Innocence Project New Orleans led to his release.
served 25 years in Louisiana prison for a rape he didn’t commit before the Innocence Project secured DNA testing that proved his innocence. The test results pointed to the identity of a Louisiana inmate who was convicted of committing another rape in the same neighborhood after Johnson was convicted.
was exonerated by DNA in August in a joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch. He spent 17 years in Ohio prison for a crime he didn’t commit before he was cleared.
Thomas McGowan served 23 years in Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved his innocence. He was convicted based on a faulty identification procedure.
was exonerated in October after serving more than two decades in Texas prison for a series of rapes he didn’t commit. DNA testing obtained on Phillips’ behalf by the Innocence Project pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator of the crime.
was convicted in 1993 of a rape he didn’t commit based on faulty forensic tests at the troubled Houston crime lab. His exoneration became official in January, just days after he married his longtime fiancee Jeanette Brown. The couple now lives in Atlanta.
served more than 15 years in Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He is the 21st person cleared by DNA testing in Dallas County.
, exonerated in November, was the first person cleared by DNA testing in Nebraska history. His five co-defendants are awaiting pardons from the governor in order to be fully exonerated.