I went to a reception the other night to celebrate the efforts of a group called the Innocence Project, which provides legal assistance to prisoners for whom the technology of DNA testing may now provide proof that they did not commit the crimes they’ve been found guilty of. One such man, Clark McMillan of Memphis, Tennessee, was in attendance that night, having recently been declared a free man. McMillan was 23 when he was sentenced to 119 years in prison. He is now 45.
He was in New York City for only one day. I figured he might like to take in a few sights while he was here, so I asked if he’d ever been to the Museum of Natural History. He looked me in the eye and took a second before answering my question. One of the things I now know about men who have spent large amounts of time in prison is that they are not in a rush.
“Well,” he said, “I haven’t been anywhere.”
So I asked if he’d like to go, and he would.
I have always loved this museum, but it was hard to know where to begin with a person who has never seen a dinosaur skeleton, or a diorama of kudus on the plains of Africa, or an exhibit of minerals, or a great white whale. I figured we’d just walk along and stop whenever something looked particularly interesting, which was often. After a while, we took a break and got a cup of coffee and a danish. “Food,” McMillan said, “is a wonderful thing to me now.”
As hard as it is for a person to take in the contents of the Museum of Natural History in a morning, it’s impossible to get a handle on twenty-four years a man spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. But I wanted to know how it was that this well-spoken and thoughtful person could emerge from prison, as he seemed to, singularly lacking in rage or bitterness. “What’s the point?” he said. “If I spent my time that way, I’d only be imprisoned again.”
Over the course of his many years in prison, McMillan was transferred frequently and without notice from one facility to another–a way, he said, “for them to keep you disorganized.” He received few visitors over the years. But he discovered a love of reading, and that sustained him. Things you think you can’t live without, it turns out you can, he told me. “I found other forms of bliss.”
He also wrote letters, hundreds of them. He wrote to people whose names he saw in magazines, authors of books he read, people he saw on television, religious leaders. He wrote to the Wall Street Journal one time and, as a result, got a free subscription for a number of years, during which time he followed the stock market and invested a hundred dollars in penny stocks. He did well, multiplied his money–felt, he said, “like this ultra-hip jet-setter”–and got the whole cellblock interested in the market, but then he was transferred to another prison, and he couldn’t keep up with his stocks anymore.
Mostly, when he wrote letters, he didn’t expect to hear back, and he hardly ever did, but still, it was some kind of contact with the world, just sending out that letter.
Not easy, though. First you had to get a pencil smuggled in.
No pencils in prison?
Not where they put him.
So what would he do when the point got dull? No sharpeners, probably.
You use your fingernails. Or your teeth.
How about paper?
“Paper,” he said. A group of schoolchildren had just filed past us, where we sat in the museum coffee shop, with our danish, and for a moment he seemed totally engrossed in watching the children noisily lining up, shifting their backpacks, getting ready to go into the IMAX theater.
“You hold a sheet of toilet paper a little ways over the sink,” he told me, “and let the water run hot, till the steam rises. When it gets a little damp, you rip off another sheet and press that against the first one. You do that again. You let them dry, pressing down so they hold together.”
I knew enough by now to guess the prison wasn’t providing any envelopes.
“You make those too,” he said. “The hardest part is sealing it. Maybe you use a piece of string, maybe hair. There’s a type of glue you can get off the inside of a mattress, the place where they seal up the edges.”
As for the words he put in his letters–well, when that much work goes into getting your materials together, you choose your words carefully. You might not have a lot of space, either. So sometimes McMillan would just write “Need writing supplies,” or “Not allowed paper,” and leave it at that. The idea was to get somebody’s attention, so they’d investigate. He might cut himself, and leave a drop of his blood on the paper. He might say more, too. In his letter to the Innocence Project, he did.
Last year a lawyer came to see him. When they tested his DNA it was definitively proven that he had not committed the rape of a young woman in a Memphis park, of which he’d been convicted twenty-one years earlier. The rapist had approached a couple in a park, pulled them out of their car and attacked them with considerable force before robbing them. During McMillan’s trial the information was never introduced that at the time of his alleged crime, his legs were virtually useless, the result of his having been shot in the spine by a Memphis police officer in another incident, unrelated to the commission of any crime, two years earlier. No evidence was ever found linking McMillan to the car, or the scene. His conviction rested entirely on the victim picking him out of a lineup he’d been forced to participate in. Testimony by the victim’s boyfriend–that it was too dark to see anything beyond the assailant’s facial hair–was brushed aside by cross-examiners, who bullied him into identifying McMillan in court. It is probably relevant to mention here that McMillan is black.
He was released a few months back, with a hundred dollars and one set of clothes. He’s living at his mother’s apartment now, looking for work. There is not much point in being angry, he says. When you’ve had everything taken away from you, you really appreciate the things that matter. You find beauty in the most unlikely places.
We were standing in front of a glass display case full of shells when he said that. He was studying the mother-of-pearl on an abalone. “The world is full of wonders,” he said.
It was time for him to head to the airport. Afterward, I walked through Central Park, back to where I live at the moment. I had to stop at Kinko’s to pick up a ream of paper. I was printing a document from my computer that day. A hundred pages shot out of my printer in the time it might have taken Clark McMillan to steam and press together three sheets of toilet paper.