Living With Freedom | Timothy Atkins still struggles to clear his name after being wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years

Living With Freedom | Timothy Atkins still struggles to clear his name after being wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years

Living With Freedom is a special series by MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that explores the lives of those wrongfully incarcerated after they are exonerated. Through these stories, we hope to give readers an insight into what it takes to start over.

When Timothy Atkins was released on February 9, 2007, after being exonerated for a crime he didn't commit, he had spent more of his life in prison than he had outside. He was 17 years old, a football player in the final year of his high school with the hopes of making it big, when he was incarcerated for charges of first-degree murder and armed robbery.

Meant to be put away for 32 years to life, Atkins was convicted after a witness named Denise Powell testified at his preliminary hearing claiming he had confessed to killing Vincente Gonzalez in an attempted carjacking. She told the police that Atkins had confessed to being an accomplice in the killing on the night of the murder but when his trail rolled around, she refused to testify. Curiously, authorities were unable to bring her in to confirm her statement and yet, the jury sent Atkins to jail based on her prior testimony.

Timothy Atkins was exonerated after serving 23 years for a crime he didn't commit (California Innocence Project)

It was with the help of the California Innocence Project that the truth came out two decades later. She admitted that her confession had been a made-up story and that she had been terrified of changing it after lying to the police.  In the years that followed Atkins' incarceration, the guilt had been overbearing to Powell, who sought refuge in drugs and had become homeless. The new confession left no reason for Atkins to stay back and the same judge who had heard his case 20 years ago, Judge Michael Tynan of the Los Angeles Superior Court, announced that he was a free man.

Atkins answers the phone with the sounds of his children laughing in the background. "Let me get away from the kids," he says trying to find a quiet place to talk. He now spends his days with five children and his family, taking care of them. "It's a lot to start over and I don't want them to go through this," says Atkins quietly, the years of suffering subtly welling up in his voice.  Soft-spoken, he sounds like a man who has spent years in his own company, introspecting and trying to understand the situation he was in — and how to get out of it.

Atkins was sent to prison at the age of 17, during his final year in high school. (California Innocence Project)

"When I wasn't playing football, I was running the streets," he recalls, "I was in places I had no business being in. It made it easy for them to pin the crime on me even if I didn't do it." Because he was hanging out with thugs and criminals, he was seen as the same.

It was all a blur to Atkins — the hearing, the trial, the conviction — everything. "I was in disbelief! It was like a nightmare," he says describing the time in court. He recounts being surrounded by people who were talking about him with utter disdain and he couldn't even defend himself. "I couldn't speak out for myself but I was telling my attorney, 'look they are saying these things and I didn't do them'."

As a young kid dealing with all this stuff is unimaginable, he says. "I kept thinking 'Why is this stuff happening to me?' but as you get older you understand more." He says his arrest, like the many others who were wrongfully incarcerated, was about closing a case and climbing up the promotion ladder — without question. "When the police get a case they know if the case is good or not — but because all people understand is winning and losing, they don't care about putting us in prison for furthering their careers, that's just how it goes. It's like they are trying to put certain people away," he says. He admits that although the justice system isn't perfect, it is the people in power who aren't taking the right decisions.

With the help of the California Innocence Project, his case was cleared. (California Innocence Project)

For the first 10 years, his heart was hard, he shares, but it was the thought of his grandmother that helped him get through. She would ask him to keep praying and holding on. "The first years, I felt that I was so wronged and I didn't care either. I was so angry," he says and adds that there were goodbyes he never got to say. 

Slowly, things looked up — he decided to get himself through school and find a way to get out and get back to his family. "Life isn't over just because I was in, I needed to fight," he says. With the help of the California Innocence Project, his case was cleared. Next, he had to fight the stigma of being incarcerated and then, there were ample mental health issues that prison had given him — he still struggles with anxiety and PTSD even though he went through prolonged therapy. Prison is degrading and dehumanizing, he says.

With the help of the Helper Foundation, formerly called Venice 2000, he studied his way through and graduated. When he got out, he worked in gang intervention in the community. "I was making sure kids go to school, we tried to keep them off the streets, took the elderly shopping for groceries," he recalls fondly. After four years, went on to work at a local school as a gang intervention specialist. "It was a big deal for me," he says.

Atkins with a family member after he was exonerated and released (California Innocence Project)

He recalls the time he wanted to work as a security guard but was denied even though he passed his firearm test. "When I took the paperwork in to get my license, the Department of Justice sent me a letter saying I can never own a firearm because of my first-degree murder charge," he says, the unfairness of the situation sharply cutting through his quiet voice. "It is something I was exonerated in, in an open court," he says. "These laws weren't made for the Latinos and the blacks, in my opinion. If they have money, the law is different for them and so is the treatment that we are subjected to." 

Growing up, he dealt with a lot, living in the ghetto — the drugs, the gang members and the violence and he does feel that he is somewhat responsible for being incarcerated. "It's the God honest truth,  if I hadn't been on the streets they wouldn't put it on me — so I have to take some of the blame for the incarceration," he says matter of factly. He has also made peace with Powell, whose testimony got him in. "I forgive her," he says, sharing that they had talked after he came out. "I understand she was on drugs and was pressured to give them a name. It was wrong but it is some of the tactics they use," he shares.

As for those who are going through what he did, he urges them to fight — even if things don't go in their favor. "Never give up, there's always a tomorrow.  If I had given up I would still be in prison. Find new friends, when you get out, some productive citizens just have to go from there," he says. "It's a rough road — I had so much help and it was still tough, but you have to walk it."

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