OKLAHOMA CITY — After 32 years, he’d forgotten what she looked like.
The last time Thomas Webb III had seen her, she’d glared at him from across a courtroom with a hatred that still haunted him.
He’d spent more than half his life wondering why she’d picked him from photo lineups and pointed him out to a 1983 jury as the man who’d raped her. After more than 13 years in prison, and an even longer descent into addiction and homelessness, he’d learned to accept that he may never know the answer.
And now here she was.
She’d tapped him on his shoulder as he was about to take the stage of a high school auditorium in February 2015 to share his epic tale of injustice. They were about the same age, mid-50s, and her brown hair was streaked with gray. “Could I talk to you for a minute, please?” she asked.
He followed her into a hallway, where she told him her name. His gut skipped.
She stepped back, afraid of how he’d react.
“Thomas, I’ve been waiting so long to say this: I’m so sorry,” she said. She crumpled into tears. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Webb, who is 6 feet tall, with a broad chest and dark, weary eyes, listened in amazement. It was the first time anyone had apologized for what had happened to him. “It’s OK,” he told her. “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago.” He put his arms around her. He began to cry, too.
They embraced, minds racing, until he remembered why he was there. They exchanged awkward goodbyes. Then he went onstage to explain how a man can be convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, why innocence, when stolen, can never be fully returned, and that exoneration is just the start of the struggle for justice.
But as he spoke, he experienced an odd sense of relief, like an old injury that had stopped aching. In the audience, a similar response washed over her. It felt like healing.
He wrote her a letter once. It was 1982, soon after he’d been charged with breaking into the apartment of a white 19-year-old woman in Norman, where she attended the University of Oklahoma, raping her at knifepoint and stealing cash from her purse. He was 22, a black man new to Oklahoma who didn’t attend the school but partied with students there. He’d previously been arrested for a dormitory break-in, which was why his picture had ended up in photo lineups where the victim had picked him out — twice.
His note, penned from the Cleveland County Jail, said he felt terrible about what happened to her, but she’d made a big mistake. He pleaded with her to admit she’d chosen the wrong man.
She never saw it. It probably wouldn’t have swayed her, anyway. She was not lying. She was sure he was the one.
She took the stand against him. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, prosecutors offered Webb a plea deal that would have put him in prison for 15 years. His court-appointed lawyer urged him to accept. That was the moment when he realized that no one, not even the man being paid to defend him, believed he was innocent.
The second trial lasted one day. It included testimony from the victim and a state expert who said hairs found at the scene matched Webb’s. The jury deliberated for an hour before convicting him. The judge sentenced him to 60 years: 30 for rape, 15 for burglary, 10 for forcible oral sodomy, five for grand larceny.
In prison, he was a sex offender, at the bottom of the inmate hierarchy, a status that made his life a horror that he still does not like to talk about.
His appeals failed, and he grew to accept that he would die behind bars. He shut himself off to the outside world — an adjustment exacerbated by the fact that, other than a visit from a friend in the first year, no one, not even his family, came to see him. He began to doubt his own innocence. But he prayed, building a relationship with God that kept him from going mad.
Meanwhile, the victim — who asked that she only be identified as K — tried to reassemble her life. It helped to know that her attacker had been locked away. Or so she thought.
In late 1992, as Webb closed in on a decade behind bars, a church choir visited Joseph Harp Correctional Center to put on a Christmas musical. One of the singers was Gail Snow, a single mother who was drawn to Webb from the moment her group began working with the inmates; she found him attractive, good natured, devout, respectful. They wrote, then spoke by phone, and then she began visiting him. He told Gail he hadn’t raped anyone, but he didn’t press the issue, saying God would show her the truth.
Two years passed, and they prepared to marry. As the wedding day approached, Gail heard about a new development in criminal justice, something that had come up during O.J. Simpson’s trial: DNA. She mentioned it to him, as did his father, during his first visit to the prison. Webb agreed to explore his options. Gail cashed in her retirement account to hire a lawyer and arrange for semen samples lifted from K’s robe to be examined. Gail had trouble finding someone to take his case. But she did. They found the old evidence and submitted it to a lab.
The results came back in early 1996: the DNA was not Webb’s.
“It was like I came back from the dead,” Webb recalled. “All of a sudden, I started to believe in my own innocence. They really didn’t have to release me. It was just the fact that someone else knew that I didn’t do it.”
Prosecutors confirmed the results. A judge granted Webb a new trial, then allowed the charges to be dismissed. “There’s nothing I can do to correct the 13 years of injustice that he has endured in this case,” the district attorney at the time, Tim Kuykendall, said in court.
Kuykendall also stressed that blame did not lie with the victim. “I do not believe she lied,” he said. “I think she truly believed Mr. Webb was the perpetrator.”
Webb’s first glimpse of freedom, on May 24, 1996, was from the top steps of the courthouse in Norman, flanked by lawyers and lawmen, blue sky above and a throng of reporters and photographers at his feet. They’d gathered to capture his moment of vindication, but Webb, now 36, couldn’t help wondering where they’d been when he was charged, convicted and imprisoned. In a blue work shirt and blue jeans, he raised his arms and thanked the only one he believed had known the truth from the start.
“Hallelujah!” he shouted. “Praise God!”
Webb went home with Gail, who helped him find work as an AutoCAD operator at General Dynamics, converting engineering blueprints and fiber optics maps to digital for corporate and military clients — a skill he’d learned in prison. He seemed to have what he needed to rebuild his life.
But something was missing.
In the early days of the movement to free the wrongly convicted, there were few resources to help rebuild their lives. That was particularly true in Oklahoma, where Webb was the first person to be cleared by DNA. Webb, who grew up in St. Louis and Chicago, had moved to Oklahoma with a friend months before he’d been arrested. He had no connection to the area, no friends or nearby family. No one, not even his wife, could relate. He felt like an alien.
“I went from 14 years in prison to the streets in less than eight months. No halfway house. No integration. No nothing,” he said.
He also had no opportunities to explore the trauma of having been locked up and treated as a criminal for nearly half his life.
Only recently, as the use of DNA and other forensic techniques uncovers more wrongful convictions, researchers have begun to understand the scope of the damage to the falsely accused: lost identity, anxiety, depression, helplessness, chronic anger and distrust, failure to maintain personal relationships.
Exonerees’ ability to adapt — and to be accepted by others — often depend on three factors outside of their control, research shows: whether they receive an apology from those who prosecuted them, whether they receive compensation from the government, and whether the true culprit is caught.
Webb wasn’t thinking of that at the time. He was trying to follow the advice everyone gave him: put it behind you and start living again.
Things seemed to go OK at first. Webb was sharp and sociable and organized, traits that helped him manage the first couple years. He made more money than he ever had, and felt he deserved to spend it.
He wanted to go out and have fun. Gail, devout and conservative, insisted he stay home and go to bed early. He recoiled, and began to think of her as his warden.
At the clubs, he rediscovered how much he liked to drink. He made new friends, met other women. He stayed out for days, weeks, months at a time. Gail was upset, but she loved him, and believed he would come around. But the drinking blossomed into alcoholism. After repeatedly missing work, he was fired. He saw it as an opportunity to party more.
Webb can now see why he crumbled. He was emotionally stunted, and clueless about how to be a good spouse. And, deep down, he didn’t feel worthy of his freedom — a remnant of his prison “institutionalization.”
“I had expected that all I needed to do was just get out, and then I can pick up where I started off,” he said. “But what I didn’t understand was that I didn’t know how to live life. I had lost the ability to cope.”
K heard about Webb’s exoneration from authorities in Norman. She knew they were seeking DNA in the case, but she’d thought little of it, because she was sure there’d been no mistake — she’d even traveled to prison to fight his parole. So the disclosure was hard to accept. It brought back terrifying memories of the attack — and the realization that Webb was not the one responsible. She suddenly found herself facing a terrifying truth that was being exposed in DNA exonerations across the country: the fallibility of eyewitness identifications, including those made by traumatized victims.
“I truly thought I was right for so many years, that he was my monster,” K said. “It was Thomas, and it wasn’t anyone else.”
Authorities told her to stay at home on the day Webb was set free. Instead, K ran. She knocked on the door of a church, weeping, and asked to see a pastor. “I told him I just needed God’s mercy,” she said. “I needed forgiveness and mercy.”
Despite their troubled marriage, Webb and Gail partnered in a campaign to have the state compensate people who had been wrongly convicted. Twice, the Legislature passed a bill that allowed cash payouts, and twice the governor, Frank Keating, vetoed it. Webb took each defeat hard, as if he was being denied his own innocence. He blunted the pain with alcohol.
On the third try, in 2003, newly elected Gov. Brad Henry signed the measure into law, making it possible for exonerees to receive up to $175,000. The amount was a pittance, but for Webb it was less about the money than getting the system to acknowledge it had wronged him. On the day the measure passed, Webb and Gail went to the state capitol, where lawmakers applauded them.
Then the state denied his claim, telling him in a terse letter that the new law didn’t apply retroactively.
Gail told Webb they needed to keep fighting. He replied: “I’m done with this. Screw it.”
The rejection told him that he was, in the state’s eyes, still guilty, and still undeserving of help.
“If there was some injustice that could be done to Thomas Webb, it’s going to be done,” he recalled thinking. “That’s the kind of despair and hopelessness I was in … I just disconnected with life after that.”
Webb got arrested for drunk driving, so he turned to pot, which aggravated his depression. Then he got hooked on methamphetamines, which made things even worse. He was picked up for drug possession and received a suspended prison sentence. By now he rarely came home, and when he did it was usually because he needed help. Gail was heartbroken. She is white, and her family had disowned her for marrying a black inmate. She wanted to prove them wrong, and her faith demanded she do all she could to save the marriage. But his addiction did not allow it. He became unrecognizable: he lied, suffered frightening mood swings, took things from the house to maintain his habit. She kicked him out, and eventually divorced him.
Webb ended up homeless and unmoored. “I didn’t fit in the world that I was trying to run from, and I didn’t fit in the world that I was running toward, either,” he said.
One day, six years or so into Webb’s release, K worked up the nerve to call Gail’s house. She’d been following the case in the news, first in the flurry of coverage of his release, and then as they fought for compensation.
K reached Gail, and the two women spoke for a long time. K said she was sorry, and wanted to know if Webb was OK.
“There was just so much sorrow about her,” Gail recalled.
But K did not ask to talk to him. She was afraid of how he’d respond.
K and Gail spoke a few more times after that. Gail hoped to learn more about how prosecutors had built their case against Webb: the two photo lineups; the hair analysis, a method that has since been discredited as “junk science;” the adequacy of his public defender. She pressed for information, but there’d been no conspiracy, as far as K was concerned. She’d simply been wrong.
In the fall of 2012, Webb was walking on Southeast 44th Street in Oklahoma City when he had an epiphany. He was 52 and had fallen about as low as a person could get. He couldn’t see a way forward. So he stopped and prayed.
“I need help. Help me,” he said. “I need to be able to do something different. I don’t want this to be the end.”
That was the start of his journey back.
First, his application for public disability payments — based on an earlier diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome — was approved. A little after that, his application for public housing came through.
He also met up with a friend he used to do drugs with; she was clean, and invited him to a 12-step recovery program for addicts. His first meeting was on Jan. 24, 2013.
“That,” he said, “saved my life.”
He was six months clean in June 2013 when a reporter from nonprofit journalism website Oklahoma Watch visited.
The reporter asked what had come of the DNA: had the actual rapist ever been caught? Webb didn’t know. The reporter went to the police, who arranged for a search in a national DNA database and found a match: Gilbert Duane Harris, a former Norman resident now living in Mississippi. The search also revealed that the DNA match had first been discovered in 2006, but authorities failed to act on it.
Court records uncovered more potentially troubling consequences of Webb’s wrongful conviction. In late 1983, as Webb was starting his prison sentence, Harris had raped a 13-year-old Norman girl. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He got out and was sent right back, this time for burglary and possession of a gun. After being released, he ended up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where in 2004, he was charged with molesting his girlfriend’s 9-year-old daughter. That case fell apart and he was not prosecuted.
When Norman police found out about Harris, they sent a detective to K’s home to tell her. If any doubt remained in her mind about Webb’s innocence, that news erased it. She and the detective spoke about what would happen next: prosecuting Harris would require her participation, and reliving the 30-year-old attack. She didn’t want to do it, but she thought she could prevent other people from being hurt — and bring some closure.
Prosecutors charged Harris with first degree rape and forcible sodomy, and in late 2014 brought him back to Norman. He denied the charge. While Harris sat in a Cleveland County jail, his court-appointed lawyer argued that the statute of limitations on the case had expired, despite the DNA match.
It was looking as if justice might never come.
In February 2015, Webb was invited by the Oklahoma Innocence Project to join other victims of wrongful convictions on a panel discussion at Heritage Hall, a local high school. K, who happened to be an alumna, saw a notice for the event on Facebook, with Webb’s name. She interpreted it as a sign from God.
“I didn’t want to die and not ever meet Thomas and just tell him how sorry I was,” she recalled.
On the way, she bought a copy of “Picking Cotton.” It was a memoir about a woman in North Carolina who was raped as a college student in the early 1980s and picked the wrong man out of a lineup. He spent more than a decade before he was exonerated by DNA. The story ends with reconciliation and friendship.
She put the book in an envelope, along with a card in which she wrote her number. She handed it to him in the hallway, after they’d hugged and cried.
His embrace changed everything. She felt safe and comforted, that she didn’t have to hide or be scared anymore.
Webb felt a similar shift. For a long time, he’d seen himself as K’s victim. But once he met her, and listened to her, he understood that they were both victims of the same man.
“It wasn’t her fault that she got raped. And it wasn’t her fault that she went through a system that allowed and facilitated a mistaken identity,” he said. “That gave me a lot of compassion and empathy for her.”
After he returned home from the panel, Webb called K. They spoke for hours. They realized that they needed each other, and they decided to follow Harris’ case together, a united front. They planned to go to a preliminary hearing, the two victims, side by side.
“I thought that possibly the one who caused all these problems and caused all this pain and suffering would get a little taste of it himself,” Webb said.
But in May 2015, a Cleveland County judge ruled in favor of Harris, saying the statute of limitations on the rape had expired — DNA notwithstanding. The charge was dismissed, and Harris walked away a free man.
The ruling didn’t make sense to Webb. He’d been convicted on flimsy evidence. DNA had cleared him. But that same DNA was not enough to prosecute anyone.
Webb still cannot forget what was stolen from him. A stray memory triggers tears. A friendly question dooms friendships. Wrongs resurface.
This is the curse of the exonerated: no longer locked up, but never really free.
“It’s a story of inability, it’s a story of helplessness, it’s a story of injustice,” Webb said. He is disarmingly affable, a charm that, to someone just meeting him, masks his pain. “But then there’s another part of it that shows miracle after miracle and shows things that no human power, no system, could stop. It shows another side that is full of power, full of justice. Full of hope and faith and inspiration. And that’s the part that is my guide.”
He knows that he’s far luckier than the countless other victims of wrongful convictions who never made it out.
Webb has a job he enjoys, organizing shipments for Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores, given to him by a company executive who heard him speak at Heritage Hall. And he is back to fighting for compensation, this time with help from a lawyer found through the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
He finds comfort in simple routines: work, sports and documentaries on TV, trips to lakes and casinos, and his daily 12-step meetings. He stays in occasional contact with Gail. He lives in a small apartment in a public housing complex south of downtown Oklahoma City, where he tends a patch of plants, including a prized Bougainvillea given to him by K.
“I have the opportunity to just enjoy my life,” he said. “I spend a lot of time with just me.”
Every so often, he and K meet on lunch breaks. They check up on each other. He calls her sis. She says she loves him like a brother.
Their friendship has brought each of them a level of peace that neither thought possible.
“She’s able to move on with her life now instead of being stuck in fear and guilt because of me, and I’m able to be free from the resentment, the anger, the disappointment,” Webb said.
They’ve been in touch with the co-author of “Picking Cotton,” Jennifer Thompson, who runs a nonprofit called Healing Justice. Thompson arranges retreats for exonerees and victims who mistakenly identified them, guided by the philosophy that the damage can only be repaired by sharing it with people who’ve been through the same thing.
Webb attended a session earlier this year, and it marked another turning point.
“It’s knowing that someone understands you, that someone gives a damn and can connect to what you’re saying,” he said.
K says she is thankful for Webb’s acceptance, but regrets waiting so long to reach out to him. Introducing herself at Heritage Hall turned out to be the most important moment in her recovery. Because of it, she finally knows the real Thomas Webb III. “He is a good man,” she said.
In March 2017, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office reversed its denial of Thomas Webb’s compensation claim, allowing him to receive a check for $175,000, the maximum allowed in the state’s Tort Claims Act. The agreement required that he wouldn’t seek further claims from the state. Webb celebrated the news. “For the first time, the state of Oklahoma has accepted the fact that I have been wronged,” he said.
Contact Jon Schuppe at firstname.lastname@example.org