Backstory: 19 years wrongly behind bars - a 'gift'?

Innocent - he refused to confess or to be bitter.

Tommy Doswell last saw freedom half a lifetime ago, but you'd never know it. At 46, he programs his new cellphone like a deft teenager. In a turned-back baseball cap, his shorts long and shirt wide, he moves about the hills above Pittsburgh like a kid, too - singing a song at his sister's house, taking in sights at a famous overlook, pointing out a familiar car, finally alighting in the postage-stamp yard of his mother's place in the projects. There, quaffing the delights of an Indian summer morning recently, Mr. Doswell leans back in a chair and turns his face toward the sun.

Hardly the torment - or edge - you'd expect of an innocent man locked up in prison for 19 years.

On March 13, 1986, Pittsburgh police came by Olivia Doswell's, to have a word with her son. There'd been a rape nearby, and, though Mr. Doswell bore no resemblance to the description given police, the victim and a witness picked him out of a photo array, triggering a cascade of injustice: an arrest, a conviction, and a 12- to 24-year sentence. But Doswell never strayed from his story of innocence. And on Aug. 1 he was freed - exonerated by DNA evidence.

Ironically, his honesty - the persistent claim of innocence - cost him more than guilt would have. He refused to confess to gain leniency or parole, and served at least six years more than he would have if he'd confessed. He also refused to harbor anger, adopting an attitude of such peace that he has become a model of forgiveness, his story broadcast worldwide.

When released from prison, the innocent often fall victim to the same depression, substance abuse, joblessness, and alienation that any ex-convict experiences, observes Colin Starger, staff attorney at the Innocence Project of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in New York, which helped secure Doswell's release. In the innocent, he says, all of that tends to be compounded by rage at having lost irretrievable parts of their lives.

Not so with Doswell who almost implausibly asserts that wrongful imprisonment was "God's gift" to him, and that by refusing bitterness toward those who wronged him, he's been given a chance to spread his faith. He came to see himself as a latter-day Joseph, sold into slavery and also wrongly accused of rape. All the publicity fulfills his beloved Proverb 18, which sustained him for years with the promise that his gift - the injustice done him - would bring him before "great men."

"What was meant for my evil, God meant for my good," he explains. It is this unquestioning trust in a divine purpose for his suffering that truly set Doswell free.

* * *

The man arrested at 25 had been no angel. What his mother recalls as "mischief" included blowing up cats with cherry bombs. The rape for which he served time wasn't his first run-in with the law. He'd been arrested on a number of minor charges and had already been acquitted of rape charges brought by an ex-girlfriend. The jury called the sex consensual, but the detective involved disagreed, and - as Doswell's defenders believe - wanted to "get" Doswell. The photo lineup that led to his conviction was put together in haste, by that same detective, say Doswell's lawyers and family.

"Police investigations usually zero in on someone on a hunch, whether or not the evidence is there," says James DePasquale, Doswell's Pittsburgh attorney. "Very often they're right. But too often they build their case by impropriety - saying 'take a good look at number 5' " in a lineup. In Doswell's case, his mug shot was marked with the suggestive "R" of the earlier rape charge.

But the young Doswell also showed promise. A well-known athlete in high school, he spent two years at college on a football scholarship, and briefly attended NFL training camp. A crooner, his bluesy serenades were popular at parties. He had a job with the city housing authority, and - a favorite of the ladies - he had a toddler son. Never a churchgoer, he was, however, raised to believe in God, and he says he turned to prayer from the day of his arrest - alone, on his knees, in his cell: "I said 'Lord, if you're who they say you are, reveal yourself.' I knew from the beginning that He heard me, and it would just be a matter of time."

A less resilient man may have simmered for 19 years; Doswell used the time in prison to build on his accomplishments. "I knew that sooner or later I was going to get out, and that it was just a matter of time," he says again and again, revealing a mantra of prayer, patience, and positive thinking that sustained him. It's the only way he can explain his calm.

In jail, he immediately made for the music room, ultimately taught himself six instruments, worked as music minister and choir director, and studied the Bible and four languages. "I did the best I could do so I could position myself well coming up for parole," he recalls with a wry smile. The prison choir has a special place in his heart: "I loved to be able to see men from different walks of life ... some hardened, some kind, [come] together to serve the Lord. To see that ... was awesome."

Mr. Starger, whose Innocence Project has been directly involved in more than half the 163 post- conviction DNA exonerations since 1986, expects Doswell to fare better than most exonerees. After all, he has "shown that he can thrive in prison despite the fact that he had no business being there," Starger says.

But what about the morale- breaking indignities of prison? What of his son, Raymond, now a senior in college, raised without him? And the countless now-grown nieces and nephews born while he was away? Doswell sees his incarceration as a period of transformation: "It was the time it took for Him to work on me so I would no longer be the type of person putting firecrackers on cats," he says. He recalls no dramatic conversion: "... just a sense of peace that 'You didn't do it. Wait on me.' "

Today, Doswell refuses to discuss the wrong done him and cuts short probing of what might have been. Of lost time with his son, he says, "At least I see him now, every day. At least I'm out. It could be worse - I could still be in there."

* * *

Nobody speaks of Doswell without speaking of his family. His countless siblings, cousins, and foster-kin cycle through 80-year-old matriarch Olivia Doswell's little yard seemingly stocked with enough grills and white plastic chairs to handle all of them. As Doswell drinks in the sun here, passersby shout and honk. He has become a poster child for the cause of poor, black residents who believe the kind of legal niceties that uncover true guilt or innocence are beyond their means.

When her son was arrested, Mrs. Doswell asked God for a sign to confirm her belief that he was innocent: "When I saw the [assailant's] description didn't match him ... I had my answer."

The family kept a relentless 20-year vigil of contact with their prisoner. Lawyers say this ensured he didn't disappear into the anonymity and neglect that can swallow inmates. Even the new generation of Doswells born during his imprisonment knew all about him and came by the carload to his release Aug. 1 to lead him home.

Today, Doswell considers himself a "youthful" 46, and that each moment is a chance to unearth new evidence of "God's mercies." Strangers write. Some send cash. The University of Pittsburgh is giving him a free education. Folks are trying to get him his old job back, and legislators are seeking compensation for him despite the fact that Pennsylvania has no compensation law. B.B. King even invited him to be the opener when the singer comes to town in December.

In Tommy Doswell's world, anything is possible. Yet, from time to time, he sneaks a glance at his watch - a recently acquired habit of tracking his whereabouts should the unthinkable happen again.

Perhaps he is not yet an entirely free man.

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