OKLAHOMA CITY - An Oklahoma man is paying the price for his freedom after he was wrongfully convicted more than 17 years ago. Now a group of law students us making an effort to raise money for him to regain control of his life.
Willard O'Neal was released from prison two weeks ago. He was set free for a murder he was convicted of in 2004. The Oklahoma Innocence Project has been working on his case since 2011.
"We did DNA testing subsequently," said OKIP Executive Director Vicki Behenna. "Found out his DNA was not on any of the items that were recovered from the crime scene."
Behenna helped negotiate O'Neal's release. She said he's still likely feeling the shock and euphoria that comes with walking away from a life sentence without parole.
"Well that euphoria wears off when the realities of life set in," Behenna said.
For O'Neal, reality will be particularly difficult.
For people who are exonerated of a crime they did time for, the state will compensate them with $175,000.
But O'Neal will get nothing.
That's because he took a plea deal with the district attorney, pleading no contest to the reduced charge of second-degree murder, and getting out on time served. It's not a guilty plea, but it does result in a conviction.
"He's innocent of this murder," Behenna said. "It happens all the time in post-conviction work where individuals have to plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit in order to get their freedom."
By taking the deal, O'Neal was able to avoid more jail time and the possibility that a judge still wouldn't exonerate him.
He wanted to get out to be with his aging mother as soon as possible.
"This made it worth it, for me to come home to her. This made it worth it," O'Neal said, pointing to his mother when he was released September 12.
Now with a second-degree murder conviction, O'Neal can't file a civil suit for wrongful conviction, and he's also not eligible for help through The Innocence Project.
"He's been in prison for 17 years and that's a large enough injustice in and of itself, but then to just be kind of thrown out with nothing is just not fair," said Jaime Campbell. She's the president of the Oklahoma City University Law School Fight Club, a student-run organization that supports OKIP.
Campbell and her fellow law students in the Fight Club helped work on O'Neal's case. They're now raising money for the man who lost nearly two decades of his life for a crime he didn't commit.
They've set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for O'Neal who needs everything from rent and a car, to basic things like clothes and shoes for work. Campbell said any small amount can go a long way.
"They've already been forgotten about for so long while they were sitting in prison," Campbell said. "I think it's just important to make sure that we're helping them."