Readjusting to freedom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

His only escape was the occasional dream that he was back home in Baltimore, a free man.

But hazy images always gave way to Ronald Addison's reality, a jail cell where days blurred into months and stretched into years. Nine years, with 21 more before he completed a 30-year sentence for convictions of second-degree murder and gun possession.

This month, prosecutors dismissed both charges after a judge ordered a new trial because the state had not given the defense three witness statements that would have contradicted the only witness who testified at the trial.

Addison, released from the Eastern Correctional Institution this month, stumbled out into the real world stunned, almost at a loss for words.

"It feels good," said Addison, 29, sitting in the office of his attorney. "It feels good to be free."

He is reunited with a 12-year-old daughter he hadn't seen since she was 2 and trying to find another daughter whom he hasn't heard from in more than a year.

With time, everything has changed. Relatives, including his father, have died. Baby cousins turned into teenagers, teenagers into married adults.

Technology has leaped ahead in ways he can't comprehend. He has to adjust to new television sets and phones and the fact that everywhere he walks people are chatting on mobile phones.

Prison was like living in a time warp, a vacuum. "After a while in there, all the days, they kind of look the same," he said.

Most difficult, is readjusting to the small but significant things. Shaking someone's hand. Hugging relatives.

"Certain things I have to get used to," he said. "Like people."

The path to freedom was a long and arduous one for Addison. There were attorneys he didn't believe were competent. Appeals were denied. Days were spent researching obscure legal citations in the prison's law library.

But Addison persisted, always maintaining that he was not guilty of the fatal shooting of Lewis Jackson, 34, in 1996.

"He was always persistent but patient," said Suzanne Drouet, an assistant public defender with the Innocence Project, which represented him during the post-conviction trial. "He never seemed to get frustrated or angry. But he never wavered from the fact that he was absolutely innocent and he was going to keep fighting this for as long as it took."

The break came in October when Addison was granted a new trial. City prosecutors later dropped the charges, blaming a lack of evidence.

The city state's attorneys office says the dismissal is not an exoneration but a result of not having the witnesses or evidence to proceed with a new trial. "This does not expunge an arrest for first-degree murder," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the prosecutors' office.

Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon ruled that the state did not disclose three witness statements that contradicted the sole witness they put on the stand - Frances Morgan, who testified that she saw the shooting through a window in her apartment.

It is a window that Addison became fixated with in prison.

Four times he sketched a Towanda Avenue street front in Northwest Baltimore. In the sketch there is a small window on the right-hand side, adjacent to the Corner Market storefront.

Morgan testified that through that window she saw Addison shoot Jackson in a car Oct. 4, 1996.

But she couldn't see the Springhill Avenue murder scene from the window, and she didn't see it, she would acknowledge years later, first to defense attorneys and then in court.

Addison suspected this all along. He raised this point at his 1998 trial. "I think I can prove that the witness was lying on the stand yesterday when she said she looked out her window," he blurted out to Judge Roger W. Brown on March 23, 1998, two days before he was convicted.

Defense attorneys visiting the scene years later would evaluate the window and determine that it was not physically feasible to see the car from that window.

Morgan and her mother testified in a post-conviction hearing that she did not see the murder and was getting high on cocaine at that time.

In addition to Morgan, two out of three witnesses whose original statements were not given to the initial defense attorney were interviewed and testified in post-conviction hearings.

One man, Ernest Green, testified to witnessing the shooting, asserting that Addison was not the man he saw that day.

To Drouet, Addison's case represents a breakdown in the legal system - in police work, the prosecution and the defense. "It's everybody not doing their job," Drouet said. "You have fault at every level."

Addison grew up in West and East Baltimore, shuttling between the homes of his mother and aunt, who adopted him.

He bounced among elementary schools, eventually dropping out of Lake Clifton High School in 10th grade when he was 16.

For the next three years, Addison drifted in and out of sporadic jobs, like demolition and construction, using his artistic talent by making T-shirts and drawing and painting in his spare time.

He never had a permanent full-time job but said he mostly stayed out of trouble on the streets.

In 1994 he was convicted of drug charges and given one year of probation. He pleaded guilty to the charges but insisted he wasn't guilty.

It was a mistake he promised he wouldn't make again. "I'd rather be innocent and in there for 30 years than say I'm guilty," he said.

So when the pressure was on to accept a plea agreement for the murder charges, Addison wouldn't relent. "I felt like there was no way they could lock me up for something like this," he said. "I was innocent. They were going to see it's not me and I'll go home."

After he was convicted, Addison said he was in denial for a while. But he wasn't going to accept his fate.

The prison was miserable, he said, not a place anyone should have to live in. He coped as best he could, completing a General Educational Development program, joining book clubs and doing a lot of drawing and writing on his own.

Addison started a memoir and wrote songs. He wrote letters to his daughters and other relatives.

He didn't want them to visit, didn't want his daughters or mother to see him in a jail cell.

"I was lonely. I became distant with people," he said. "There really was nothing to do."

Since his release, after seven years in prison and time held in jail before his conviction, the chain of events has been an overwhelming blur.

He arrived at the Cherry Hill bus station Saturday afternoon, greeted by his uncle and several cousins.

They drove him to the house of Barbara Owens, the aunt who adopted and raised him, and where he's staying for now. Relatives and old friends flocked to see the man who is now grown and a bit chunkier.

One reunion stands above the rest, the one with his daughter, Myele Taft, who turned 12 the day he saw her.

It was a little awkward at first, seeing the child he hadn't seen since she was a toddler, except through pictures she mailed him that he hung on his jail locker.

But he scooped her up, and she said she loved him, that she's glad he's back home.

For now, Addison is letting reality settle in. He knows he needs to get his driver's license and get personal paperwork in order so that he can find a job.

He will turn 30 the day after Christmas. And his hope for the New Year is to rebuild his life.

"A lot of times I dreamed that I was home, and I woke up and I was there, in jail," Addison said.

"Now, when I wake up, I'm not in a cell. I'm in a house, with people, family members. That's when I know it's real.

"I'm free."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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