For all but two years of his adult life, Elmer Daniels has been incarcerated. In 1980, at the age of 18, he was convicted of raping a teenage girl and sentenced to life in a Delaware prison. By the time he was exonerated in 2018, the world he had known had grown unfamiliar.
Since being freed, Daniels’s life has been difficult. He has received no compensation from Delaware nor an apology for the 39 years he spent in prison, and has struggled to support himself on the limited skill set he obtained while incarcerated.
“I think it’s important to understand that when you released me, you basically released me to nothing,” Daniels told The Appeal. “The reality of this is I’ve done nothing wrong but I’m still paying for something that never happened.”
Soon, Daniels could receive some relief. This legislative session, which began on Jan. 14, Delaware lawmakers will push a bill that would compensate people who have been wrongfully convicted. Legislators are proposing to pay $50,000 for every year spent behind bars. If passed, Daniels would receive $1.95 million.
In most of the country, there’s a system that guarantees some type of payment to exonerees; 15 states provide nothing.
“Right now in Delaware, there’s absolutely no process,” Daniels’s attorney, Emeka Igwe, said in an interview. “So what the state is telling the citizens of Delaware is essentially we can convict someone wrongfully, have them spend many years in jail, and come out and absolutely have no remedy whatsoever in the courts. It’s fundamentally un-American.”
Five months after Daniels turned 18, he was on trial for rape. The prosecution’s case rested largely on the testimony of the 15-year-old victim, who picked out Daniels from 350 photographs that police showed her in the days after the attack, and her friend, who was with her moments before she was raped. An FBI analyst, Michael Malone, also took the stand to testify that hair police had collected from Daniels and the victim resulted in a significant match pointing definitively to Daniels as the attacker.
Daniels said police arrested the wrong man and he had an alibi to prove it. His defense team presented witnesses who testified that he was playing basketball and running errands at the time of the rape. Their story, however, was not enough to sway the all-white jury and he was sentenced to life in prison.
While incarcerated at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Daniels said he earned his high school diploma and learned how to cook while employed in the prison’s kitchen. There were few other programs for him to participate in, he said.
In 2015, he was released on parole. As part of the conditions of his release, he had to register as a sex offender. He got a job at a restaurant but was quickly fired after a police officer threatened to tell people a sex offender worked there. And in a sex offender therapy program he had to take, he refused to admit he was guilty of rape, a requirement for graduating. Without a job and certificate from the program, Daniels violated the conditions of his parole, and soon he was back in prison.
That same year, federal investigators revealed that Malone, the FBI analyst, had provided flawed testimony or reports on hair analysis in 96 percent of his cases. In 2018, the groups investigating Malone told then-Delaware Attorney General Matthew Denn that Malone’s testimony “exceeded the limits of science.”
That information alone was not enough to free Daniels, however, and it would take months of investigation for Denn to dismiss his conviction, though he did not declare Daniels innocent. “The state cannot conclusively state Mr. Daniels was not the victim’s assailant, but when coupling this information with the double-match testimony of agent Malone, the prosecutors continuing duty to seek justice requires re-examination,” wrote Denn in the filing.
Daniels was released from prison on Dec. 13, 2018. Since then, he has moved to Maryland to live with his fiancée. He’s had difficulty finding work and is finding it hard to navigate the job market without computer skills. To teach himself, he checks out books from the library. Daniels, who does not have his driver’s license, obtained his learner’s permit but cannot afford to pay for classes for the road test. To get around, he said he either has to wait for someone to drive him or walk alongside a busy highway near his home.
“We’re struggling from paycheck to paycheck. Struggle to keep a light on, pay the rent, struggle to keep the heat on,” he said.
To receive money under Delaware’s legislation, people who have been wrongfully convicted must file a complaint with the state’s courts demonstrating that their conviction was either reversed or vacated and that new evidence shows they weren’t involved in the crime. It’s a popular model used by 10 other states that have wrongful conviction compensation schemes in place.
In addition to or in place of monetary compensation, other states offer benefits such as help paying school tuition, securing housing, and finding a job. Montana offers tuition at a state university, but it does not provide a payout. States like Wisconsin and New Hampshire have caps on how much money someone can receive. In Missouri, people are only eligible for compensation if they are exonerated by DNA testing. Some states deduct settlements paid to wrongfully convicted people in lawsuits from their total compensation.
Jon Eldan, the director of After Innocence, an organization that works with people who have been wrongfully convicted, told The Appeal that states should begin to pivot toward systems in which courts evaluate each person’s loss to determine the compensation they receive instead of relying on a set amount. This system is in place in New York.
“I think we should be asking what we’re doing when we compensate people. The answer is we’re not really valuing their loss,” he said. “To generously compensate the wrongfully convicted in America would break no one’s bank. This will never reflect a massive cost with respect to how much we spend generally.”
Last year, Daniels spoke at Legislative Hall in support of Delaware’s compensation bill, which was introduced by Representative Sean Lynn. The bill made it out of the House Judiciary Committee but was never put on the floor by Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf for a vote.
Schwartzkopf did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.
Senator Brian Pettyjohn, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, told The Appeal, “I’m hopeful we’re going to pass some version of it, whether it’s this session or next, because we need to hold ourselves accountable and need to help these individuals.”
If passed, at least three people freed in the last five years—Daniels, Jermaine Dollard and Isaiah McCoy—would qualify for compensation.
Daniels said any money he receives is only part of what he needs to regain his life in the free world.
“It’s hard for me,” he said. “I’m not trying to put everything together at one time. I basically have to take it step by step to make sure Elmer’s OK right now.”
He added, “You can’t give me back 40 years, but you can do something to make the process of me moving on in my life a little bit better.”