Life after prison: Exonerees struggle to pick up where they left off

Posted at 10:51 PM, Mar 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-04 10:27:17-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—  Donya Davis spent seven years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but even after finally getting people to listen to his pleas of innocence, Davis’ life outside the prison walls has been unforgiving. Now, he blames a system that took everything from him and gave nothing back.

He was released from prison three years ago after serving time for a crime he didn't commit out of Wayne County.

In April 2006, a 23-year-old black woman was confronted by a black man as she was moving boxes from her apartment after there was a fire in Wayne County. The man ordered her into her apartment at gunpoint. He raped her in her kitchen and then locked her in the basement pantry. The victim was able to eventually break out of the pantry and call 911.

The victim’s description was that her attacker was 5'9" tall, dark complexion, and Afro hairstyle. She could not remember if he had facial hair or not.

Only six days later, a woman called police and implicated then 28-year-old Donya Davis in the crime. The police put his photograph into a lineup and the victim identified him as her attacker. Despite Davis not matching the description as he is 6'1", medium complexion, has close-cropped hair, and a thin mustache, he was picked out in the line-up anyway.

DNA test on skin cells from the victim’s thighs developed a partial male profile that excluded Davis. A mistrial was declared when the jury didn’t reach a unanimous verdict. It was then that Davis went to a trial a second time, a bench trial, in October of 2007.  The judge convicted Davis of rape, carjacking, and use of a firearm by a convicted felon. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

“You are definitely crying more than inside. You are crying outside. It’s frustrating trying to tell. It’s like you are begging someone to listen and no one will. So, I cried outside and inside,” said Davis.

Prior to the conviction, Davis was on his career path to become a paralegal.  The misidentification in the rape case lead to a false conviction and Davis was forced to serve seven out of the 22 years, until he was exonerated. However, Davis says even after the exoneration, the justice system didn’t just take years of his life away from him, but it took any hope he had for a future.

“The system took everything from me and gave me nothing. They said, ‘ok, well, we made a mistake. We are sorry. Go home.’ Who said I had a home? Who said I had anything after 7 years? I don’t,” said Davis.

Davis told FOX 17 News the night the crime was committed he was at home with his mother and his son and girlfriend at the time, but the prosecutors thought he was just being protected by his family. DNA would confirm his alibi was right.

In March 2013, a petition for DNA testing was filed on Davis’ behalf by the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School Innocence Project. The motion was granted. DNA testing isolated the partial profile of an unidentified male who was not Davis. In other words, no biological material from Davis was found.

“A simple apology would have done it, but no one even did that,” said Davis.

Davis recalled the day he was exonerated and his 8-year-old daughter whispered a frightening thought into his ear.

“I leaned down to hug my daughter and she said, ‘should we leave now before they come out and get you?’ It kind of scared me because great minds think alike. I said, ‘yeah baby we should leave.’”

On June 20, 2014 a defense motion for a new trial was granted without opposition by the Wayne County District Attorney’s Office and Davis was released from prison. He was a free man, but did not have a fresh start.  Parolees and those released after serving their time get assistance.  Exonerees get nothing.

Marla Mitchell-Cichon is with the Innocence Project at WMU Cooley Law. Davis is just one of the three cases they have overturned.
“There are no programs in the state of Michigan that I am aware of that specifically focus on exonerees,” said Mitchell-Cichon.

Donya Davis isn't alone.  In 2015 the nation saw a record number of exonerations. There were 149 exonerations in 29 states, including one in Kent County. The Innocence Project sifts through hundreds of cases searching for the truth. Even after they fight for and win a rare exoneration, there are new worries.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about, and frankly worrying about, what is going to happen to my client,” said Mitchell-Cichon.

There is no compensation law in Michigan to get people like Davis back on their feet.  A proposed bill in senate, SB 291, would provide $60,000 for every year of incarceration if it passes.

“It’s not just me. It could happen to you. Believe me, it’s not just a black and white thing. I have seen many guys of many races that are locked up. I tell everyone it can happen to you. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong friends, wrong anything, it can happen,” said Davis.

Davis says the wrongful conviction didn't just impact him, but his entire family, including his 12 children.

“People tend to forget about my children. Everyone asks me about my pain. But my kids suffered without a father for seven years.  My mother went broke trying to get me lawyers and get my out of prison.  I’m an only child. It’s a lot that can’t be fixed,” said Davis.

While he was in prison, he had his identity stolen. His credit report was a mess when he got out. On top of all that, he had to fight to get his record cleared so he could try to get a job. Right now, he’s trying to find work as a chef.

“They are barring me from employment. I couldn’t even feed my children. I’m barely feeding myself. I couldn’t get a job based on their mistake,” said Davis.

Three years after he was exonerated, Davis says he is still trying to get back everything the system took from him.

“They just threw me back in the jungle.  So it’s not like I’ve been home enjoying life. I can’t say that. I haven’t had a chance to enjoy life yet,” said Davis.

Davis studied on his own time in prison before the Innocence Project took his case. He filed a lot of his own appeals before someone took his case. Now he goes back to the prison to help any guys with their cases in his spare time. He is currently working different catering jobs, but he is looking for steady employment.