Crime & Courts

Archive | Exonerated man's freedom short-lived

When Perry Mitchell walked out of a South Carolina prison a free man in 1998, he had high hopes of starting over.

He always wanted to start his own restaurant. He wanted to marry and have a family.

Mostly, he wanted to live his life in peace.

The 42-year-old former Lexington man spent 14 1/2 years in prison for the rape of a 17-year-old girl in 1982. He was freed after a DNA test showed he didn't do it.

It made him the first and, so far, the only, inmate in South Carolina to be exonerated by DNA, the most scientifically conclusive way to prove innocence or guilt. If it weren't for the test, he could have spent 30 years behind bars.

Mitchell never cared about setting a legal precedent. All he wanted was his freedom.

"I was thinking about home, being able to see my family as a free man, being able to see my mom eye to eye," Mitchell told The State recently.

But Mitchell's freedom was short-lived.

These days, Mitchell is serving time for another sexual assault in Polk Correctional Institution, a 1,200-inmate prison about 30 miles southwest of Orlando. He says he didn't do it, though he pleaded guilty to two charges.

Family members say he kept the pain of his years in S.C. prisons to himself, and that, they say, eventually led to trouble.

Mitchell is angry that S.C. officials haven't compensated him for the years he spent behind bars. He says he wasn't offered counseling, new clothes or a bus ticket back to his hometown of Orlando.

He claims South Carolina owes him at least $14.5 million - $1 million for each year he spent in prison.

"Right now I'm furious with South Carolina," he said. "Nobody came to me and said, 'Mr. Mitchell, this is what we're going to do for you.'"

South Carolina is not among the 19 states, including North Carolina, that have laws providing compensation to exonerated inmates, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit New York group that studies exonerations.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

Mitchell, the youngest of seven children, graduated from high school in Orlando, married and moved in 1982 to the town of Lexington, where his wife's family lived. He got a job as a cook at a steakhouse.

About 11 p.m. Dec. 29, 1982, a 17-year-old girl was walking along South Lake Drive between Red Bank and Lexington when she was grabbed from behind, dragged into nearby woods and raped at knifepoint.

(The State generally doesn't identify sexual assault victims.)

The girl was shown two photo lineups at the Lexington County Sheriff's Department but didn't pick out a suspect.

She identified Mitchell, whom she didn't know, in a third photo lineup about a week after the attack. Mitchell, then 21, lived several hundred yards from the crime scene. He was arrested immediately.

Mitchell's trial lawyer, Lex Rogerson Jr., then a Lexington County public defender, said police had a mug shot of Mitchell because he had been arrested earlier on a "domestic matter." Records of that case were not available; his State Law Enforcement Division criminal record shows no prior convictions.

Mitchell's blood type was found in semen left on the girl's undergarments, though no test existed then to prove conclusively it was his, according to testimony.

The victim testified her attacker was a short black male in his 20s, with an average build. He wore tennis shoes, blue jeans, a dark windbreaker-type jacket or shirt, and a dark baseball cap, she said.

The 5-foot-6 Mitchell testified he was at a nearby party earlier that night and was using the phone at a neighbor's home when he heard someone yelling.

Mitchell said he was wearing cowboy boots, a peach-colored jacket, black pants and a lime-colored shirt that night.

Although the wooded area where the rape occurred was dark, the girl testified she got a good look at her attacker's face.

"I stared him down. . . . I made sure I knew what he looked like," the victim, who is white, told jurors.

Eyewitnesses often are wrong, because their encounter with the individual is brief and stressful, said Gary Wells, an Iowa State University psychology professor and an identification expert.

"It is the primary cause of wrongful convictions, and therefore, it is the primary area to look for improvements," Wells said.

In more than two-thirds of 138 DNA exonerations tracked by the Innocence Project, mistaken identification played a "major role" in the convictions, according to the organization.

Race also is a factor in mistaken identification, experts say. For example, the U.S. Justice Department says fewer than 10 percent of all rapes involve black men and white women. But a University of Michigan study released in April found that of 120 rape exonerations nationwide since 1989 in which racial data was available, half of the cases involved black men and white women.

Mitchell said he doesn't blame the girl for mistakenly identifying him. But she has yet to apologize to him, he said.

LIFE IN PRISON

A Lexington County jury of 11 white jurors and one black juror convicted Mitchell of first-degree criminal sexual conduct Jan. 23, 1984. The victim's testimony was key, recalled Mitchell's lawyer, Rogerson.

"She was very emotional, and that emotion was compelling to a jury," he said.

The late Circuit Judge George Bell Timmerman Jr. sentenced Mitchell to 30 years in prison - the maximum penalty for rape.

Mitchell said other inmates physically and sexually assaulted him in prison, though he declined to discuss details.

Prison records were not available to verify the incidents, though they show Mitchell was transferred at least a dozen times to various prison medical units.

Records show Mitchell had three major disciplinary infractions in 1992 and four minor infractions from 1989 through 1994.

Mitchell's mother, Lillian Mitchell, who lives in Orlando, said her son got "messed up" in prison, noting he was "calling me all the time, crying."

NEW TEST, NEW HOPE

Mitchell's first appeals, which went as far as the state Supreme Court, were unsuccessful. But in June 1996, Circuit Judge Sidney Floyd, a now-retired Horry County judge assigned then to Lexington County, ruled Mitchell had a right to have DNA testing done on the victim's undergarment.

Mitchell said, "God led me to get that," after an inmate showed him a newspaper article about DNA testing.

His court-appointed lawyer, James Randall "Randy" Davis of Lexington, argued in court papers that a 1990 state Supreme Court ruling allowed DNA to be admitted as evidence, though it never had been used to clear someone who had been convicted.

The testing cost about $1,500, which was paid by the state's indigent defense fund, Davis said.

At a June 23, 1998, hearing, Davis presented the results showing the DNA evidence did not match Mitchell's DNA.

"It was crystal clear," Davis said in a recent interview.

Mitchell got a new trial.

Eleventh Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers of Lexington, who prosecuted Mitchell in 1984, announced after Johnson's ruling he would not retry the case because the victim could not be located. He didn't say he believed Mitchell was innocent.

The State newspaper could not locate the victim. Neither investigators nor Mitchell's former lawyers know where she is.

LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE

Mitchell said no one from the state offered help when he walked out of the Turbeville Correctional Institution on Aug. 4, 1998.

A friend from Lexington bought him clothes at a local thrift shop. His mother and her friend drove him back to Orlando.

Mitchell said it was hard adjusting to life outside prison, even though he had been exonerated.

"I was looked at real strange," he said. "You could see the fingers pointing at you."

Mitchell said he eventually found work at an Olive Garden restaurant in Orlando, where he washed dishes and then worked his way up to a food preparer. He said he later got a job at a nearby Motel 6, supervising maids and doing maintenance work.

His last job was handling passenger luggage in Orlando for Walt Disney Resorts and Port Canaveral.

He married again in March 2000. His second wife, Luvenia Mitchell, a childhood friend, had four children, giving him a new family.

DARK DAYS AGAIN

The happiness ended Feb. 27, 2002. Mitchell was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd or lascivious conduct with a minor under 16 and was sentenced to five years in prison, to be followed by 10 years' probation.

Mitchell said he pleaded guilty after his lawyer told him he would face life in prison if convicted by a jury. He also said he wanted to spare the girl the ordeal of a trial.

Mitchell said he hasn't heard from his wife since September.

Luvenia Mitchell said she considers Perry Mitchell to be a "good person," but she cannot accept what he did and plans to divorce him.

She said she knew about his criminal case in South Carolina, but he didn't want to talk about it.

That was his main problem -lack of communication - said Mitchell's mother. "Prison had changed Perry," Lillian Mitchell said.

She said although her son went to church and even talked of becoming a minister, he did not receive the counseling she felt he needed.

SEEKING JUSTICE

Mitchell said he is once again trying to turn his life around. He provided The State with certificates from several Bible correspondence courses; another certificate says he is an ordained minister through the Universal Life Church in Modesto, Calif.

But Mitchell still is angry about his time behind South Carolina bars. He claims his trial lawyer, Rogerson, offered to file a lawsuit against the state. But Rogerson changed his mind, he said.

Mitchell provided The State with a July 2003 letter from Rogerson explaining his decision. In the letter, Rogerson said he believed his only legal shot was to try to show that a Lexington County deputy concealed a report by a witness about another suspect confessing to the rape. But the witness didn't want to get involved, the letter said.

Rogerson declined to discuss specifics of the letter. Sheriff's spokesman John Allard also declined, pointing out that because the case was expunged, the department has no records on it.

Mitchell said he is looking for another lawyer. He said he had written to a firm in Charleston but had not heard back from them.

"It will never die out as long as I'm alive," he said.

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