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As innocent Black men wait in prison to be exonerated, their families share the toll

Wrongful convictions have long-lasting consequences spanning generations — and Black families are affected the most.
Termaine Hicks
Termaine Hicks, center, celebrates with his brothers Tone Hicks and Tyron McClendon after he was released from SCI Phoenix Prison on Dec. 16, 2020, in Collegeville, Pa.Jason E. Miczek / AP for The Innocence Project

Tomekia Hicks-Gaskins was 29 when her brother, Termaine Hicks, went to prison for a rape he did not commit. She was 48 when he was exonerated and freed from prison. Over those 19 years, Hicks-Gaskins said she “aged a great deal — I felt like I was 40 years older.”

Now 50 and exhilarated that her brother has been home in Philadelphia for nearly two years, Hicks-Gaskins said the burden of her loved one being wrongfully convicted persists.  

“It was hard,” she said as her eyes welled up with tears. “I hated going to prison to visit my brother. I had to keep a straight face for him. But it was hard leaving him there, knowing he was innocent. It took such a toll on me. It was the first time in my life I was skinny, I lost so much weight. There were financial burdens. There’s so much to how a family is thrown into turmoil that people don’t know with someone being wrongfully convicted.”

The Hicks family represent an often overlooked aspect of wrongful incarcerations and exonerations: that families suffer along with those wrongfully convicted. With every wrongful conviction, studies show that there are long-lasting ramifications that can span generations. And Black families are affected the most.

While Black Americans make up around 13% of the population, the National Registry of Exonerations say they account for 53% of the 3,266 exonerations in the registry. “And that means more Black families are impacted,” said Samuel Gross, the registry’s founder and senior editor. “It’s heartbreaking. They’re no happy endings with exonerations. Almost all had their lives deeply damaged. And ... It’s devastating to families.”

Karen Thompson, a former attorney with the Innocence Project who now works with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said that exonerations represent more than justice delayed, as Black families are already “deeply impacted.”

“You hear in conservative quarters about Black men abandoning their families, and they don’t look at the ways Black men, in particular, are being separated from their families through wrongful conviction,” Thompson said. “This has caused deep wounds to Black families.”

Thompson’s point is easily seen in Termaine Hicks’ family dynamic. Hicks said the life of his son Tyhease, then 4 years old, was forever changed when he went away. He vividly remembers the night in November 2001 when he was arrested in Philadelphia. He had heard a woman’s cries for help as she was being raped and came to her aid as the assailant fled. The police arrived shortly after, mistook Hicks as the rapist, and shot him in the back three times. He was then charged with the rape.

Hicks professed his innocence. Nearly two decades later, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed with Hicks and his lawyers, civil rights attorney Susan Lin and the Innocence Project, that the case was built on lies — possibly to cover up an unjustified shooting. He was freed in December 2020.

While in prison, Hicks wrote a letter to his son every month for 16 years. “I didn’t want to lose that connection,” he said. “That was the hardest part for me, being taken away from my son.”

Through prison visits, Hicks worked to maintain his relationship with Tyhease. “We talked about life and girls, and I saw his maturation over the years,” said Hicks, who now travels to schools teaching conflict resolution by speaking about his case. “I get emotional thinking about how much I missed as he grew up to be the outstanding man he is today.”

Thankfully, Hicks’ family was there to help raise Tyhease, but Hicks says he knows that his son still feels the effects of not having his father around during his formative years.

Herman Atkins of Los Angeles also struggled with re-entry and reconnecting with his family after he was exonerated of a 1988 rape. When he returned home after serving 12 years in prison, Atkins said his mother had fallen ill with throat cancer and his stepfather, a state trooper at the time, had doubted his innocence.

“The family was in upheaval,” said Atkins, who lives in San Diego. “My pops was law enforcement. So, he sided with them over me.”

Atkins said his parents’ marriage eventually ended after he was convicted. He became his mother’s primary caretaker after his release; she died 18 months later.

“I never got to spend the time with her I should have before they took my life from me,” Atkins said. “That’s hard to accept.” Atkins said he forgave his stepfather, but his mother died “deeply disappointed” in her former spouse.

Thomas Raynard James at home in Miami.
Thomas Raynard James at home in Miami.Saul Martinez for NBC News

Then there’s Thomas Raynard James, who was freed in April after 32 years in prison when he was exonerated for a murder he did not commit near Miami. He was released after a key prosecution witness recanted her story and additional evidence helped to support his innocence. He was 23 at the time of his conviction and sentenced to life in prison. Now, at 55, he lives with his 82-year-old mother, who is on a fixed income.

“She’s suffered,” James said. “Her only son was in prison for something he did not do. It ate at her, pushed her to borderline depression. All the worrying, the not knowing if I’ll ever get out. At some point, after so long, your family begins to give up.”

Anjali Ferguson, a psychologist in Richmond, Virginia, said incarceration and wrongful incarceration in particular “is traditionally considered a possible trauma experience for children. And especially families … ”

“The disproportionate representation of communities within our prison systems tend to impact Black families and communities more,” she said. “It’s like re-learning your family, which can be challenging.”

James, who said he’s had trouble landing a job since being released, currently supports himself with the sales of a book he wrote while incarcerated and GoFundMe contributions. He said his relationship with some family members became damaged because they didn’t believe in his innocence, or went as far as to discourage his mother from having hope that he’d be cleared.

“Some family members would say, ‘Come on, man. I don’t think you’re guilty, but they’re not going to let you out,’” James recalls. “They never knew someone who had been innocent and released from prison. And there are some who, even though you’ve been exonerated, they still think you’re guilty. All of that affects relationships — in the family, my mother. … It’s hard to make people understand how far the pain reaches.”

James added that that pain also extends to the victims’ families who “want closure.”

“When we are exonerated, the wounds are opened back up for them. And, in my case, they don’t care that I have been proven to not have committed the crime. They want someone to pay for the loss of their loved ones. So, wrongful incarcerations are just bad for everyone.”