TULSA, Okla. – A man freed from a wrongful conviction after nearly 20 years in prison is in a new battle to survive, released with no money, and few possessions or skills.
“My cousin Joyce, she’s gone,” said Willard O’Neal as he perused photographs in his mother’s (and now his) Tulsa home.
The photos are a grim reminder of the family members and loved ones who have grown up or passed away during his 18 years in prison, including his father, Willard O’Neal Snr.
“That man fought for me every day,” he said.
O’Neal was locked up in 2001 for a murder he didn’t commit, sentenced to life without parole.
“I feel I was let down by the state I lived in, you know what I`m saying? The town I grew up in,” O’Neal said.
He sat in prison with those feelings until he was released September 12, after the Innocence Project of Oklahoma proved his innocence through DNA evidence.
Rejoining the world after that long comes with a number of obstacles.
“I’m finally learning how to work a cellphone, finally,” he said.
But really frustrating is working to get back on his feet, starting from scratch at 52-years-old. By this time, he would have hoped to at least have a house and a car.
“That`s another fighting dream I have to fight for. And I`m going to fight for it,” O’Neal said.
To make matters worse, O’Neal was only given his freedom this year because he agreed with the district attorney to plead no contest to the lesser charge of second-degree murder, a crime he’s also innocent of.
It’s a deal his attorneys said many in his position have taken because it guarantees their release, and the fight for full exoneration could tack on years in prison.
“It hurt. It hurts very much,” O’Neal said. “We`ve got to drop our pride and drop our understanding to plead to a case we didn`t do.”
O’Neal did it to get home to his 87-year-old mother, Elreno O’Neal who supported him emotionally, spiritually, and financially every step of the way.
But without being technically exonerated, he doesn’t get the $175,000 given to wrongfully jailed Oklahomans.
O’Neal said he doesn’t want money for himself, but for his mother so she can finally retire.
“It’s time for me to step up and be there for her because she was there for me for 18 years of her life,” O’Neal said.
Now he’s hoping people who hear his story will recognize that he, like other wrongfully convicted people, are not criminals just because they were in prison, but victims whose lives were stolen from them.
“When you`ve been wrongly convicted of a crime, it takes a whole lot out of you. It breaks down your spirit, breaks down your soul,” O’Neal said. “But if your mind ain`t strong, your heart ain`t strong, you`ll be left behind.”
Law students at OCU Law School who helped work on O’Neal’s case started a GoFundMe account for him to help raise money for things he needs to get back on his feet and be successful in his new life and work.