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Free Man

David Scott spent two decades in prison, wrongly convicted of murder. But after two years on the outside, he wonders if he will ever truly be free.

The cell phone ringing in the driver’s hip pocket startles the man in the passenger’s seat. It’s a sound he has never heard before. He asks if he can answer it. The driver, his sister, shows him how. On the line is his sister’s daughter, an adult niece he hasn’t seen since she was a child. She asks where they are.

David Scott takes a look around. He knows this place. He grew up here. But the world outside the car window doesn’t quite match his memories, the mental blueprints that he has held onto for so long: A furniture store still open for business behind boarded windows. A drive-in still bustling with carhops in gleaming white roller skates, now an empty lot. Virgin farmland still rolling beneath what are now flat fields of concrete, streetlights sprouting like giant weeds. He tells her that they are on their way.

The date is January 28, 2008, and, after serving 23 years for murder, David has just been released from prison. DNA pulled from the crime scene finally showed authorities what David, his mother, and his two half-sisters have been trying to tell them for more than two decades—that a different man was in Loretta Keith’s house the night she was killed. That he had been wrongly convicted.

There were plenty of reasons for no one to listen. At the time of the killing, David was a poor 17-year-old boy from the wrong side of the Wabash River. He had a learning disability, and he would lash out, sometimes violently, often running afoul of the law. Even worse, he was prone to telling outrageous stories about himself. And one night, goaded by a man who claimed to be his friend, he bragged about how he had done the deed. Twenty-three years gone, for one lie.

This morning he stuffed his inmate’s uniform into a lawyer’s wastebasket, hopped into his sister Bonnie’s car, and turned onto U.S. 41 out of Terre Haute, toward what he hopes will be a new beginning, a chance to resume his life. At his niece’s house in Youngstown, eight miles south, his mother is waiting to see him.

In the driveway, David springs from the car, up the steps, and into the house. Every night at 9 p.m., for the past 23 years, he and his mother have knelt and prayed, each knowing that the other was asking for this reunion. Hundreds of letters have passed between them, each one written in anticipation of the day they would be under the same roof again. He sees her sitting at the kitchen table with her back to the door. Her arms and legs are swollen, and an oxygen tube curls beneath her nose. He overhears her talking about the days when her children lived together back in West Terre Haute. Seeing his moment, he slips into the chair beside her. “I remember those days,” he says, “like they were yesterday.”

She turns to him, confused. “You do?”

“I grew up there,” he says.

When he was sent up, he was barely shaving. Today he is a sinewy, tattooed product of more than two decades in a state penitentiary, all menace and threat. Bald, rough, and wary. When he tells her who he is, speaking the name she gave him, she begins to sob so hard she can hardly catch her breath to speak. One prayer, for this, every night for 23 years. Now he’s here. And his own mother doesn’t recognize him.

 

David’s mother died 39 days later.

Sipping coffee at Bonnie’s dining-room table, David looks at a framed pencil portrait of his mother, propped up in a corner of the room. He sketched her, smiling, from a wallet-sized photograph in his cell. Now it’s the way he wants to remember her. The doctors said it was renal failure. But he knows better. For two decades the woman fought with everything to bring him home. And when he was finally beside her, and she saw what prison had done to him, it broke her heart. David has never recovered the hope he lost in that moment, almost a year ago now.

At 41, David is a large, coarse man clomping around in motorcycle boots, head shaved, thick black beard, intentions often hidden behind dark sunglasses. People hear his rasp, the bark of his short, sharp sentences. They sense his jitteriness, his unease in a world that has no place for him. They feel the heat of rage that lurks just beneath the tattooed surface. David Scott has lived the life of a murderer, and in their eyes, guilty or not, that’s what he is. He has yet to be officially exonerated for the murder, and with the crime still on his record, lawyers have told him there is little hope of restitution from the state. As a felon, he has found getting work impossible. He can’t even get a library card.

And despite the thousands they have already spent trying to free him, his sisters now have to foot his bills, including medical fees for a shoulder he first busted in prison and treatment for hepatitis he contracted punching another inmate.

David lived with Bonnie’s family until a friend took him to a rundown farmhouse and told him he could have it if he fixed it up. David ripped out the stain-spotted carpet, knocked down yellowed sheet rock, and pulled up the bathroom floor. But he had been too eager. Rotted wood from the leaking toilet would take money to fix. The entire structure was sinking around the central staircase. And all he had accomplished was tearing the place apart. Over the past year, there have been many days that he has sat in that mess and wrestled with the urge to go back to prison, where, every day, he at least knew what to expect. There have been other days when he has sat there with a shotgun in his mouth.

Sitting here, drinking his sister’s coffee, David feels like a burden, as useless and helpless as a child—which, in many ways, he is. He lost the years between 17 and 40—the years when a boy leaves home, finds work, becomes whatever sort of man he is going to be. Without those years, it is hard for David to know who to be. All he has are nightmares, visions of the unimaginable, mental scars of a young adulthood in hell. Things he can’t speak of, that keep him up nights. Reasons why he refuses to be touched, not even by family, not even a hug.

To cope, David clings to the happier moments of his childhood, the only memories he cares to keep. He’ll share them with anyone who will listen. The result is a boy trapped in the beat-up body of a 40-something ex-con who has no idea who he is or where he belongs. And right now, all he wants is his mother.

 

West Terre Haute, Indiana, is the plain half-sister of its namesake. Today, 2,300 people—20 percent of whom live in poverty—dwell along crumbling streets in weathered one-level houses and mobile homes, pinned up against a levy on the Wabash River, which separates the town from Terre Haute proper. Eastsiders avoid the bridge to “West T.”

Near the corner of Ninth and Miller, there’s a lot overgrown with weeds where his mother’s tiny trailer once sat. He was the youngest of Nora Brown’s seven children, born August 11, 1967. David had a different father than his siblings, a man who left the family to work for the carnival when David was a boy. David clung to his mother and his two half-sisters, Carol and Bonnie, who were nine and seven years older, respectively. As kids, the three slept in the same bed.

Away from his family, David struggled. His teachers labeled him a “non-reader” of below-average intelligence who was “seriously emotionally handicapped.” He took one-on-one classes and didn’t fit in with schoolmates. Outside of school, he hung out with an older crowd, including Bonnie’s future husband, who took David fishing and camping and taught him how to build and repair motorcycles, which became his passion. David would tell the adults wild tales about his antics, like how he had ridden a Harley on top of a chain-link fence, or how he had shot a man in self-defense. Of course they didn’t believe him, but they humored him, perhaps out of sympathy. He wanted desperately to earn their respect.

When he was with kids his age, David was usually getting into real mischief. At 12, he punched a teacher and spent two weeks at the Indiana Boys School. Two years later, he was pinched for burglary and criminal trespass. David was arrested twice in 1983, once for allegedly stealing a bike, and again for purportedly lifting a stereo from an auto-parts store. And on the night of April 18, 1984, 16-year-old David and three other boys broke into West Vigo High School and made off with some audio-visual equipment. David returned from the heist to a friend’s West Terre Haute house.

The next morning, he was awakened by a state police officer banging on the door. But the questions were about a different break-in. The old woman who lived across the street had been found murdered in her nightgown, head split wide open. Yes, David had known Loretta Keith, a little. He had helped shovel her driveway in the winter. But he told the cops he knew nothing about the killing. He gave fingerprints and blood, neither matching evidence from the crime scene. And three days later, when he was brought in to admit to the school burglary, David was relieved to have an alibi for the murder.

Months passed, and no arrest was made in the Keith case. But as buzz around the homicide quieted, David started talking. He bragged to friends that he had killed Loretta Keith. The rumor fluttered through the town and landed on the ear of Clifford Allison, owner of a Terre Haute pest-control business. Facing legal troubles himself, Allison went looking for a deal and told police he could hire David and get him to confess.

On the night of September 25, 1984, after weeks working together in Texas, Allison and David flew to Indianapolis and checked into the airport Holiday Inn. Allison ordered a pizza and pressed the youth about the incident. He badgered David, called him a River Rat, told him, “I took you out of that f---ing hole of West Terre Haute … you’re going nowhere there, ever.” Allison told David that he would take care of him, get him out of that town, but David had to be honest with him, that there could be no secrets between them. The 17-year-old began to bluster. He told Allison that he had once “chopped a queer’s head off with a machete.” And he also described how he had killed Loretta Keith.

“Her eyes opened,” David told him. “She was laying there, looking around … then all of a sudden, I started shaking, getting real nervous. So I drawed the bar back … And I hit her across the top of the head … I just commenced beating her until it was just blood all over the place.”

State police were in the next room, making a recording that was played at David’s trial in March 1985. Those in the courtroom could hear David crying on the tape as he spoke. It was all the jury would need. David was found guilty of murder and burglary. Four days later, in Vigo County Superior Court, he was condemned to 80 years in prison. “At every bend in the road, David Scott’s life took the wrong turn,” the judge said at the sentencing. Then he turned to David: “I don’t think you are responsible for what you have become … but what you are frightens me a great deal.”

"You know I remember everything. 'Cause my life ended when I went in. Those are the only memories I had, and I relived them over and over."

David bangs on the door of the shabby Terre Haute house again with his fist, as if whoever is inside might not have heard the first two times. “I know he’s home,” David says. “Me and Danny’s been best friends since we were kids.”

He bangs again with his right hand. In his left, he holds a jewelry box. David looks down at the yard of thick winter mud littered with toys and cigarette butts. When the lock in the doorknob rattles, he turns to see the door crack about a foot. In the opening stands Dan Orman, shirtless in blue jeans, graying black mullet almost to his shoulders. Orman speaks in a deep, deliberate baritone. “Yeah?”

“Hey Danny,” David says, taking a step toward the door. Orman doesn’t budge. David steps back, silently acknowledging that the conversation will take place here on the porch. David lights up one of his wine-flavored cigars. “How’ve you been? Still got that ’77 Sportster bike?”

For the next 25 minutes, the two discuss motorcycles. David does most of the talking, describing what he’d do to fix up Orman’s bikes, and what he will do with his own bikes once he gets his money from a settlement with the state. Orman stands in the cracked doorway and nods and throws in the occasional “yeah.” David rattles off his plans like an auctioneer, as if he’s been rehearsing these subjects for 23 years. He spills mouthful after mouthful, pausing only to relight his cigar, which keeps going out from neglect. Then he brings out the jewelry box and opens it to reveal a woman’s watch.

 “I could sell it to you for $100,” David says.

Orman politely declines.

“Danny, you remember when we rode our bikes on the ice and jumped off and let the bike pull us across the ice?”

“Yeah.”

For another 20 minutes, David talks about the motorcycle stunts, the partying, all the girls they had and could have had. Orman stands in the doorway and nods. He starts pulling cigarettes from a soft pack in his pocket, chain-smoking them, tossing the butts in the yard.

Finally, after almost an hour, David takes a deep breath. “Well, we need to get together and talk more because I missed out.”

“Yeah,” says Orman. “Wish those days were back.”

“Me too,” says David, looking down at the cigar in his hand.

“You know I remember everything. ’Cause my life ended when I went in. Those are the only memories I had, and I relived them over and over.”

“Yeah.” Suddenly, there is a commotion behind the door, and a blond boy in a diaper pokes his head out from behind Orman’s leg. David looks down at the child. Orman opens the door a few inches more but doesn’t let the boy wander too far out. The child is intrigued. David is entranced. The child laughs. David looks sad.

David decides it’s time to go. He says goodbye to Orman and the little boy. The cracked door shuts. “Yep,” David says, walking away, “me and Danny’s been best friends since we were kids.”

 

On May 8, 1985, after a little more than two weeks in the Vigo County Jail, David was transferred to the Indiana State Prison in  Michigan City. The transport van slipped behind the 30-foot concrete walls and left the boy chained to men. David was numbered 852500 and shown to cell D-66—a bed, a sink, and a toilet in a six-by-nine-foot concrete space coated in filth and pigeon droppings. At lights-out, the cockroaches emerged. David pulled his bed to the middle of the room and tried to sleep.

One of the first things he discovered was that his fellow inmates were immediately interested in what he was in for—or more importantly, what he wasn’t in for. “In the penitentiary, you get judged by association,” he says. “If you ain’t a child molester, you don’t want to be hanging out with a child molester.” That same mentality also applied to race and orientation. “If you ain’t queer, you don’t hang out with queers; and if you ain’t a [black], you don’t hang out with [blacks].” David settled in with the whites, many of whom were into motorcycles, tattoos, and working out, just as he was. Just as he had outside, he gravitated toward the older inmates, who took him under their wing. David says they respected him because he stood up to anyone who tried to pick on and take advantage of him. “I wouldn’t tolerate bullshit,” David says. “I was like, ‘Look here, you don’t scare me because you can’t do nothing to me that I don’t allow you to do. You might whoop me. But when all’s said and done, you move on down the range and find someone else to mess with.”

Early on, most of the scuffles were within his circle, squabbles that started as two guys drunk on contraband liquor horsing around until somebody got hit too hard. “Next thing you know, somebody pulls out a shank, and it turns into a bloody mess,” he says. “Then it all calms down and you think, ‘Man, that was stupid.’” Battles waged outside the group were far more serious. David doesn’t talk about those altercations except to say, “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Like many inmates, David collected tattoos, a mural that gradually wound around his torso, down his arms to his knuckles and up his neck, barely visible above the collar. The images, most of which were penned with the tip of a sterilized guitar string, became a cryptic record of his time as well as a means to perpetuate an image of toughness. One in particular, the word “Whiskey” in big block letters across the top of his back, was a warning to others. Whiskey was David’s nickname, or rather the name of his alter-ego—the tough guy who would puff his chest, throw his shoulders back, and step to an enemy, nostrils wide open, when David felt threatened. As he got older, he says, he looked out for younger inmates. When David talks about this now, his voice breaks. On the brink of tears, he stares despondently into the distance when he refers to “the fags, the druggies, and the perverts,” he witnessed inside, as if they are still lurking somewhere in the shadows.

Much of David’s prison time was spent alone in his cell. There he would draw, and clip photos from home-design magazines—gargoyles, French doors, a ballroom—that would be inspirations for the mansion he would someday build. On wide-rule notebook paper, he designed his dream bike and laid out the parts he would need to acquire, the column for prices filled with question marks because he had no idea what things would cost when he actually got out. When David read that his mother’s purse was stolen, all of the pictures in her wallet gone, he traced his line back three generations on both sides of his mother’s family. He mailed his research to her along with dozens of photos of relatives, some of whom she had never seen.

David’s mother wrote constantly, usually taking about a week to finish a letter, then stuffing 15 to 30 pages, written on both sides, into four or five envelopes she would mail at once. She often wrote of the mundane—cousins he didn’t know who had married so-and-so and had a baby. Sometimes she would just describe what she had seen that day: A country road in autumn. The houses. What was in each yard, what kind of car sat in the driveway, leaves on the trees and how they seemed to float in the breeze along the roadside. She kept wall calendars and filled in the things she did each day—“Doctor’s appointment” or “Dinner at Ponderosa”—and at year’s end, she’d take it down, sign the back, and mail it to David.

Every night at exactly 9:00, the hour he knew his mother would be praying back in West Terre Haute, David would kneel at his bed, fold his hands, and plead for their reunion.

 

The couple walks out of the midday sun, past the early business-lunchers, and into the dimly lit restaurant bar. It’s 11 a.m. on a Wednesday. The woman orders a Bud Light and two shots of Crown Royal. David hesitates before asking meekly for a screwdriver. In prison, he went through 12-step substance-abuse programs. He doesn’t like to be out of control. “In there, I drank so I didn’t have to deal with reality,” he says. “Of course, out here, I still need an escape.”

For David, the woman, too, is an escape. Her name is April, and he met her at a gas station a few weeks after his release. She is a 28-year-old single mother of three, the kids the sort of baggage that Carol and Bonnie don’t think their brother needs as he tries to piece a life back together. April has been barred from their homes. That’s why she and David stayed in a hotel last night. They say they love each other, though the relationship is nothing if not turbulent. A recent blow-up was ignited when April pressed David about why he never smiles, to which he growled, I’ve got nothing to smile about!

The two settle into their drinks, speaking to each other sparingly. David orders some pasta for lunch. It has chicken in it. He doesn’t eat much meat. Prison food was so nasty, David stuck to fruits and vegetables and cereals he could buy from the commissary. He sips his screwdriver, picks up a fork with his right hand, and pauses. He says in 2007 he punched an inmate so hard that it knocked the man’s teeth out. David’s hand was crushed. They repaired it with a metal pin, but he hasn’t had feeling in it since. He was no longer able to draw. “I had lost interest in it by then, anyways,” he says. “I wasn’t inspired. I had lost interest in even trying … anything.”

After drinking up, the two hit a neighborhood dive for a couple more beers and a shot for April, who decides she’s hungry. They roll on to McDonald’s. From the parking lot, David can see the spires of the stately Vigo County Courthouse, where his trial took place. “April,” he pipes up in the car in the line for the drive-thru, “let’s get married.” Opening the box of her chicken ranch sandwich, she says she will.

David hides April’s pocketknife in a bush outside of the courthouse entrance and ushers her through the metal detector. He recognizes Joanie, an officer who helped process him when he was first arrested. They exchange hellos. David and April walk down the hall to the clerk’s office, where they quickly find out it won’t work. They don’t have the proper ID.

David storms out of the courthouse. To cool off, the pair heads to the local Harley-Davidson dealer. David eyes a black 2009 FLHX, straddles the $19,000 bike, and grips the handlebars. “Someday, April,” he says, “this is what you’re going to have to compete against.”

"We have not been convinced,” wrote Justice J. Givan in the ruling from July 1987, “that the new evidence would probably produce a different result upon retrial."

On May 2, 1985, just weeks after David’s conviction, a 22-year-old man came into the Vigo County Public De-fender’s office to give a statement. Trying to get out of some trouble for writing bad checks, Tom Abrams told investigators that a little over a year before, after a late night of drinking, he and a man named Kevin Mark Weeks had gone to Loretta Keith’s house looking for money. According to the statement, Weeks took a tire tool out of the trunk and told Abrams to drive around the block. When Abrams returned, Weeks had emerged from the house with a trash bag full of loot and blood on his pants and his arm.

When Carol got wind of this, she was elated. In the month since her brother’s conviction, she, her mother, and her sister, Bonnie, had been digging into court documents, looking for ways to establish their brother’s innocence. Now, they had found a man who had been spotted at the crime scene on the night of the murder. The women started their campaign, calling police and pestering courthouse bureaucrats. Their mother kept a daily journal of their battle in five-subject notebooks. But no one would listen.

Even when the Indiana Supreme Court reviewed David’s appeal, based largely on Abrams’s statement, the high court upheld David’s conviction. “We have not been convinced,” wrote Justice J. Givan in the ruling from July 1987, “that the new evidence would probably produce a different result upon retrial.”

The three women were distraught, but they did not give up. They wrote letters to politicians. They pleaded with police, called and visited jurors who had publicly expressed uncertainty in the wake of the verdict, and kept rereading the case files. David’s mother even penned a plea to Nancy Reagan. Meanwhile, they tried to shield David from their frustration. They sent all the money they could so he could buy items at the prison commissary.

And almost all of the rest of it was spent trying to set him free. Both Carol and Bonnie took out additional mortgages on their houses and properties, all of which they eventually lost. Their mother lost her car. Between legal fees and money sent to David inside, the women estimate they spent more than $500,000. Meanwhile, their mother’s blood pressure soared, and her kidneys weakened. She had to be hooked to an oxygen tank.

In 1992, the family’s request for another appeal failed.

Another 15 years of calling and writing passed without the legal system taking much notice. But in the summer of 2007, Carol finally persuaded the Indiana State Police to examine some neglected physical evidence from the case, particularly a bloody nylon stocking. A DNA analysis yielded a match—and it wasn’t David. His mother wrote a final entry in her journal: January 25, 2008; Kevin Mark Weeks was arrested. David gets to come home.


Today, David lives with Carol. She pulled him from the isolation of the rundown farmhouse and moved him into the six-by-nine-foot room behind the kitchen of her trailer. There he has a tiny TV, a plastic tote to store his few belongings, and a pallet of blankets for a bed. When Carol first gave him a key to the place, he asked what time his curfew was. “David, you’re a 40-year-old man,” she told him. “You can come and go as you please.”

Meanwhile, Carol stays put, seated at her kitchen table, smoking cigarettes, talking on the phone and going through David’s case files, just as she’s done every day for two decades. Kevin Weeks sits in jail, convicted of robbery resulting in serious bodily injury in the Loretta Keith case. Carol was in the courtroom to watch the man she had spent half her life searching for, the man she felt stole her brother’s life, be sentenced to 24 years in prison—a number Carol thought was appropriate.

Weeks was acquitted of the murder charges, however, and as a result Vigo County prosecutor Terry Modesitt—the very man who signed David’s petition for release—says he cannot take the crime off of David’s record. Instead, he says, it is up to David to take his case before a judge. After months of searching and sifting through law-office rejection letters, Carol finally found a pair of local attorneys to take the case for free. But the process is slow, and the lawyers say it could take months for anything to move, to say nothing of how long it would take to see any restitution once the crime is wiped away.

But even if David is exonerated, even if he receives millions of dollars in settlement, what would that fix? The money can’t replace the years of life lost. It can’t erase David’s memories of prison or make up for the countless hours his sisters spent poring over documents. It is difficult to imagine a court order that would clear up the confusion in the eyes of David’s young nephews and nieces, children who love their uncle but have been taught that only bad people go to jail.

David’s hepatitis is all but gone, and the Xanax a shrink prescribed has helped to calm him down. But there is no cure for David. There is no freedom. Sometimes at night, around 9:00, through the thin wood-panel walls, Carol can hear him in his room, talking to his mother.

Photos by Tony Valainis.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.