Samantha Melamed - January 23, 2020
As traffic roared down the four-lane road bisecting a bleak industrial corner of Chester, Terrance Lewis, 41, stood on the broken sidewalk outside the prison and gazed about, as if taking in a dazzling view. It was his first unobstructed look toward the horizon in decades.
It was May 2019, and Lewis had been imprisoned, by his calculation, for 21 years, five months, five days, 11 hours.
The day before, a Philadelphia judge had unexpectedly overturned his conviction for a 1996 murder and ordered him released. Suddenly, he was free — surrounded by family and friends, the world of 2019 rushing at him fast.
Eight months later, it has not slowed. It’s been a whirlwind of joy, anxieties, and obligations, opportunities that open and then fall out of reach, plans made and broken.
That journey has proved a reckoning with the devastating effects of incarceration, the hardships of reentry, and the scarcity that greets the exonerated, who are not afforded even the basic support given those on parole. He is one of more than 2,500 people exonerated nationwide since 1989, and his story shows how grueling it is to reclaim what was taken from them.
Lewis came home to find his family in disarray: his mother and aunt stricken by cancer; another aunt’s house, the only stable home in his tumultuous childhood, under threat of demolition; his son on indefinite leave from college, saving for tuition; his nieces, nephews, and little cousins all crying out for attention and discipline, the same care with which he’d raised young men who wound up in jail with him.
At the same time, he is haunted by the pleas of those he left behind, some of whom see this former jailhouse lawyer as their best hope.
He had not received a phone call for 21 years. Now his phone rings constantly, each call bringing a new demand.
“Where was you before?” he said, joking but not joking, as it buzzed yet again. “You didn’t contact me this much when I was in jail. You didn’t visit. Now I can’t get a minute of peace. I don’t think that’s fair.”
He’s in an unusual, and tenuous, position: the sixth of 12 people exonerated since Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner took office in 2018 and began grappling with cases tainted by decades-old misconduct. Pennsylvania is one of 33 states that do not provide any compensation for people who have been wrongly incarcerated. Lewis has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the city in federal court — but until that’s resolved, he often marvels at how, in some ways, he would have been better off if he’d been released on parole, with a six-month housing voucher and free job training.
For months, with strained finances and no credit history, even renting an apartment seemed out of reach. In crisp donated suits from an organization called Menzfit, he was perhaps the best-dressed homeless man in the city.
He has, of course, celebrated, marking a series of firsts: his first airplane ride, his first time seeing the ocean. There was the simple pleasure of letting slip a swear word without fear of discipline, the luxury of a restaurant meal of chicken Parmesan. “After eating the chichi for 21 years? That was delicious,” he said, referencing a prison concoction of ramen noodles, cheese curls, summer sausage, and pickles.
“I was out late for the first time in 21 years,” he said in June. “After being away for so long, locked in a box, you forget what certain things look like and smell like. I forgot what 10 o’clock smelled like. Ten o’clock got a smell to it. It got an odor. That odor is pleasant.”
As he fielded job offers and endless advice, he had the sense his life was finally starting. The road ahead didn’t so much fork as splinter. It seemed unclear: Which paths were treacherous? Which were dead ends?
Lewis’s father, a retired Army officer living in Arkansas, had a room set up for him.
“He wants me to have a fresh start. I have a second chance at life, and he wants me to soar,” Lewis said in Philadelphia. “However, this is where I want it to begin. I want it to start right here.”
‘Every Man for Himself’
Lewis was just 19 on Dec. 17, 1997, when he was surrounded by police, dome lights flashing, guns drawn. He’d just come off a graveyard shift, headed to the masjid for noon prayer. The ride to the police station seemed like an inconvenience, a mix-up that would soon be corrected.
Then he learned he was under arrest for a role in the killing of Hulon Bernard Howard, a 58-year-old West Philadelphia man who’d been shot in his home over a $15 drug debt.
It was a scramble to hire a lawyer. Often, Lewis’ mother did not have money for food, rent, or heat. Throughout his childhood, Lewis and his three younger siblings drifted from house to house as their mother wrestled with addiction and poverty. When they were evicted, they’d pile in with his aunts and cousins, sometimes sleeping eight kids to a room.
“It was every man for himself,” said Jerome Conquest, a cousin, who remembers building a bed out of milk crates and blankets. “Terrance said it was cozy. That’s the most Terrance thing.”
It fell to Lewis to raise his siblings. In 11th grade, he dropped out of school, focused on working two jobs and planning for his first child.
In January 1998, a month after Lewis was arrested, his son, Zahaire, was born. Lewis promised he’d be home soon.
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