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 is 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’ 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.”
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.
Instead, the next year, he was tried along with two other men on the testimony of a single eyewitness, a crack user who had identified one of the perpetrators as “Stink,” Lewis’ childhood nickname. Lewis’ lawyer did not call the detectives on the case to question the investigation, or even raise a challenge over a juror who slept through parts of the trial. The jury convicted all three, and they were automatically sentenced to life without parole.
In prison, he drifted into despair.
“I almost drove myself crazy trying to piece it together. I dreamed of the why and how. Even to this day, I ask myself: ‘Why me? What’s it for?’ ”
After appeals lawyers, paid with his aunts’ pooled tax refunds, further botched the case, Lewis spread his legal paperwork across his bunk and took up his own fight.
Over the next decade, his luck slowly turned. His sister, Tanisha Thornton, happened to strike up a conversation with a woman who had seen the killers arrive at the scene and then flee — and could testify that Lewis was not present. A codefendant, Jehmar Gladden, also now was willing to testify Lewis wasn’t there.
“The court found the testimony of these witnesses to be credible, hence, the court believes that Petitioner is innocent,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells concluded after a 2009 hearing. Then she recommended that his petition be dismissed on technical grounds.
After that, Lewis’ only hope was David Laigaie, a lawyer who was appointed to represent Lewis in federal court and stayed on for the next decade without pay, fueled by Lewis’ determination to clear his name.
In 2017, Laigaie persuaded the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit to share the investigative file. Inside were crucial police notes and witness statements — including one pointing to an entirely different Stink, identified by name, the color of his car, even the house-arrest ankle bracelet he was wearing, and who was arrested with an illegal gun in West Philadelphia six days after the murder.
But progress was slow. And Lewis now had another way out of prison, pursuant to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing automatic life without parole for minors. By May 2019, Lewis had resigned himself to giving up his fight for exoneration, instead seeking a new sentence and release on parole.
Then, Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott decided not to resentence him. Instead, after reviewing the evidence, she vacated the conviction. The district attorney dropped charges. The next day, Lewis was free.
On June 6, home two weeks, Lewis assessed the feel of freedom. It was not light as he had expected — already, the weight of obligation was settling in.
“Now I’m basically ready to get down to business,” he said.
He was fielding job offers — at a warehouse, a commercial laundry, a supermarket, as a valet parking attendant. There were also more compelling prospects: A lawyer needed a freelance paralegal. And a professor from Chestnut Hill College had reached out. Lewis figured he’d start college that September.
That morning, he was getting a trim at a West Philadelphia barbershop owned by his former cellmate Jamel Workman. Even such a mundane event felt surreal.
“Three weeks ago, I was condemned to die in jail. Now I’m sitting here,” he said.
Many people released after long sentences find the pace of life outside dizzying, the changes confounding. Lewis, too, got lost in the city, and puzzled over how to work his iPhone.
“But what breaks my heart,” he said, “is, ain’t too much changed from where I come from. Just walking from the train station to here, I seen everything: needles, beer bottles, opened condoms, abandoned buildings. I didn’t see no recreation centers. That’s why I got to do something.”
First, though, there were so many details to manage: his learner’s permit and driver’s license, health insurance and car insurance. He planned to get an apartment in the next month.
“However, here’s the thing,” he said. “I don’t just want to lay my head any old where.” He wanted someplace safe and quiet. Flashing lights or police sirens started his heart racing, he said: “Just the idea of being pulled over, questioned, shot, or taken back to jail.”
Slowly, though, he was assimilating. He made appointments to remove a prison tattoo, a mark of anguish inked in window caulking, etched with a guitar string rigged to a Walkman motor.
And one day in July, he arrived at Chestnut Hill College, passing smooth green lawns and stately stone buildings, to meet with Lauren Barrow, a professor of criminal justice.
“You will have access to some of the most brilliant minds,” she promised, walking him past the Garden of Forgiveness, the all-gender restrooms, the Quidditch set.
“I want to learn. I recently learned how to learn,” said Lewis, who’d participated in a Swarthmore College course at State Correctional Institution Chester. “I want to build on that. Financially, though, my reality …” He trailed off.
Barrow encouraged him. “In many ways, one institution is just like another one,” she said. “It’s a matter of figuring out how to navigate the systems.”
As state lawmakers filtered into the Capitol for their September session, Lewis went over the day’s agenda with the members of It Could Happen to You, an organization of exonerees.
A growing constituency — and, given the lack of resources, a desperate one — they were in Harrisburg to lobby for a series of changes: compensation for the wrongly convicted, automatic expungement of vacated sentences, and a statewide review board to address prosecutorial misconduct.
Several likened themselves to soldiers returning from war, bearing invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress.
Drew Whitley, 64, a Pittsburgh-area man exonerated of a 1989 murder after 18 years in prison, said a decade later, the misery has not subsided. He’s still essentially homeless.
“My nerves are so bad, it’s just hell,” he said between meetings. “It’s a struggle every day.”
“Pure hell,” agreed Mark Whitaker, 49, who spent 17 years in prison before being cleared of a 1999 Fishtown murder. He came home in May 2019, but he often feels as if he’s still in prison. The things he lost — his job, his home, his relationship with his young daughter — he can’t get back. He has trouble tolerating crowds. He’s gripped by panic attacks.
“They took everything from me, and then put me back out here,” he said. “It takes a psychological toll. Even after the punishment is taken away, it’s a constant punishment, every day.”
Though Lewis was locked up the longest, he seemed the most resilient.
“This is like premium gas,” he said. “My grief that I went through gives me the drive to do what I’m doing.”
Still, even he grew weary after a morning of rushing to meetings that were canceled or postponed. The legislators they did meet listened with varying attention.
“I’ve been through the wringer, too,” State Rep. Tina Davis, a Bucks County Democrat, told the men. “Not as bad as you,” she added.
Lewis tried to emphasize the need for compensation. “Since my release, I have nothing,” he told her. “My reality is, I’m actually homeless. I’m jumping from house to house, couch to couch.”
Davis asked: “What are you good at?”
“I’m good at advocating,” Lewis said. “I was condemned to die in jail. So all I did was study the law. I took my test to become a paralegal.”
Davis advised him to get a union job. “I could help you there,” she offered.
Leaving her office, Lewis shook his head. “I felt a little dismissed.”
Other lawmakers sent staff to listen. Genaye Channel, executive director of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, nodded seriously and took extensive notes. Sen. Maria Collett, a Democrat representing Bucks and Montgomery Counties, had the group formally recognized on the Senate floor.
State Rep. Rob Kauffman, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, invited the group into his corner office with its leather upholstery, sun-drenched family photos, and antique grandfather clock. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” he told them after hearing their stories.
“Expungement seems like an easy sell,” he said. As to the other issues, he was noncommittal.
Lewis wasn’t discouraged. “Some care, some don’t care. Coming from where I come from, I know what ‘don’t care’ sounds like,” he said. “This will be a process, to attack the status quo. This is … what I’m used to: my story falling on deaf ears.”
He figures he just needs to find the right pressure points to effect change, and extend help to the deserving men he’d left behind. At the top of his list is his codefendant Gladden, who says he was only an innocent bystander. Lewis believes evidence uncovered in his case can lead to Gladden’s exoneration, too.
“There are innocent people, and nobody hears their cries,” Lewis said. “Now that I’m here, I can’t ignore them.”
Already home six months, Lewis could no longer put off a visit to the graves of his younger sister and brother, who died while he was in prison. So, on a gray Saturday in November, he picked up his aunt Theresa Waters at her home in North Philadelphia.
He looked stressed, but forced a smile. “I’m good,” he said.
He drove to Bala Cynwyd, then slowed to a crawl, looking for a tree that matched one he’d seen in photographs. Waters found the spot, and together they trudged across damp grass to a heart-shape gravestone bearing two names.
“They’re my kids,” Lewis said, placing a small stuffed bear and a spray of supermarket flowers on the smooth granite ledge. “I raised both of them.” Tanisha Thornton overdosed at age 29 in 2012, leaving five children. Tyree Franklin died of cancer the next year, at 22.
Waters recalls calling the prison to break the news. She asked the guards to put Lewis into isolation first. “I didn’t know how he was going to take it,” she said.
This gravestone is just one mark of the devastation that’s swept through his family. There’s so much that needs fixing — and it’s often up to Lewis to do it.
Asked how she felt about Lewis’ exoneration, his mother, Denise Waters, said: “It’s a relief for me. I don’t have to keep going up to the prison, sending money. Since he been home, I have help with the kids, his nieces. It took a load off me.”
Still in scrubs from her housekeeping job, she sat in a rolling chair in her West Philadelphia rowhouse, near a front door propped open on an overheated winter afternoon.
Waters has particularly leaned on Lewis to help with her granddaughter Karma, 11, who just then sprinted by in a Winnie the Pooh costume, chasing their cat as it made a break for daylight. She had been suspended from school for fighting — provoked by a derogatory comment about her mom.
Waters called her the “bad seed” in the family, then softened. “She’s missing her mother.”
Karma stopped and did a little impromptu dance, a fly strip swaying above her head. Conversations with Lewis go too deep, she complained — he pushes her too hard to focus on her future. “He talks too much. I been avoiding him," Karma said. "He fills my head with a lot of things, and I can’t concentrate. He keeps filling my head up with stuff that stays on my mind.”
But it’s not just Karma who needs Lewis’ guidance. All his nieces, nephews, and cousins require new sneakers, winter boots, a ride to the dentist, a steady presence at a parent-teacher conference.
“This is my second shot at life, and it’s my time,” Lewis said. He feels pulled between his desire to support his family and his drive to pursue his own dreams. “But I’m a pleaser. Everyone wants something. Take, take, take. That’s my reality.”
The constant demands, along with paranoia earned over 21 years in prison, have made Lewis cagey about where he’s staying, what he’s up to at any moment. In November, after shuffling among six couches and guestrooms, he finally found a stable place to live. It was a great relief. But he has not hosted a guest, and is reluctant to let anyone know his address.
His first eight months took him to Georgetown University, Cabrini College, Pace Law School, and Temple University, even a conference of federal judges in San Antonio. “I was punching at everything,” he said. Now, he’s trying to focus.
Lewis still aspires to attend college, and is aiming for the fall.
For now, he’s working with the nonprofit Abolitionist Law Center on a campaign against solitary confinement, and planning to launch the Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation to investigate candidates for exoneration. He counts Patricia Cummings, the chief of the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, as a mentor.
“This is so personal for me,” he said, smoothing out a sketch of a logo for his foundation drawn by Gladden, his codefendant. It features rays of light slicing through prison bars. “They took 21 years of my life. I’m supposed to walk away now? I’m duty bound. I’m not saying I’m going to change the world. I’m going to do my part, though.”