On May 12, 2011, 55-year-old Johnny Pinchback won his fight for freedom after DNA evidence exonerated him. He spent 27 years, almost half his life, wrongfully imprisoned in a Texas maximum-security prison. He was one of 75 exonerees in the U.S. that year and the 22nd person in Dallas County released through DNA evidence.
There is a picture of Pinchback taken on the day of his release from prison, his smile radiant, his arms reaching for the sky. When he threw up his arms, he was acknowledging his friends back in prison, his family for the past three decades.
He remembers walking through the Dallas County jail, unescorted for the first time in three decades. He is wearing a white pinstriped suit, a gift from another fellow exoneree, Charles Chatman. Pinchback knows he is walking toward his freedom – but he still can’t believe it. Even though he has been cleared of wrongdoing by DNA evidence, he is still standing in this building, filled with bars. “I wasn’t going to believe I was free until I walked out those doors and hugged my mom,” Pinchback said
Three decades earlier, in 1984, he had been convicted of two counts of aggravated child sexual abuse and sentenced to 99 aggravated years for a crime he never committed.
Leading up to His Wrongful Conviction
On March 22, 1984, two teenage girls, ages 14 and 15, were walking on Illinois Avenue in Dallas, Texas when they were approached by a man with a gun. He took them to a vacant plot, tied them up, and raped them. The attacker then left, and the victims went to a nearby hospital where they were given a rape examination. DNA testing wasn’t a part of criminal cases back then, but some pubic hair was collected as evidence from one of the girls and properly preserved.
A few days later, the two girls were at the 14-year-old’s apartment when they thought they spotted their attacker in the parking lot. They recorded the license plate number of the man’s car and called the police. The police found out that the car had been lent to Pinchback.
At the time, Pinchback was a 28-year-old who had fulfilled a six-year commitment in the military and intended to go back to the military to retire as a sergeant major. He had some outstanding traffic violations, but nothing more. When he heard the police were looking for him, he called the “Crimes Against Persons” unit and told them they had him confused with someone else and that he had nothing to do with the crime. They instructed him to come into the station to clear it up.
After Pinchback went in, the officers briefly questioned him, took a few pictures of him, and promised to get in touch if they needed anything else. Pinchback got the impression that the misunderstanding had been cleared. But on April 4th, the police presented a photo line-up to the two girls and they both identified Pinchback as their attacker.
A few days after Pinchback had gone into the police station, two plain-clothed policemen showed up at his door. They told him they had a warrant for his arrest, and when he asked for what, they made him believe it was for his traffic violations. Pinchback told his then-live-in girlfriend he was going to jail for outstanding warrants for some traffic violations, and to let his mom know.
Six or seven days in jail, Pinchback’s name was called, along with some other men. While they were all being escorted in the elevator, everyone was asking where they were going, and the guard informed them they would be released. But when Pinchback asked the same question and provided his name, the guard read the paperwork to him and told him he was going to the county. When Pinchback asked, “For what?”, the answer startled him. “For aggravated child sexual assault,” he heard the guard say.
“See how they did me?” Pinchback said. “I go down for traffic violations and while I’m down for the traffic violations, they charge me with the rape.” He went down to the county jail, was released on bail, and got assigned a court-appointed attorney. The attorney told him to visit him, but every time Pinchback went in, his attorney never had time for him.
When he was finally available to talk, Pinchback told his attorney that he had nothing to do with the crime – that he wasn’t even in the same city when the crime occurred. He provided the details of the motel he had been staying at and the dates for verification but the attorney did not follow up on that. Pinchback was ready to do whatever it took to prove his innocence. He gave his attorney permission to take blood from him, saliva, hair, whatever they needed – but they never did.
In court, he even had a couple of friends testify on his behalf about the real perpetrator – a man who had boasted about committing the crime to one of Pinchback’s friends. His friend knew where the guy lived and told Pinchback. Pinchback relayed the information to his attorney. But the man found out and disappeared.
“If you had nothing to do with this, then why are you going to run?” Pinchback wondered. “I had nothing to do with the crime and that’s why I didn’t run. But it didn’t work that way. I believed in the system, but the system didn’t believe in me.”
What Pinchback didn’t know then was that it was election time, and he had been used as a pawn. The priority was to clear the case as quickly as possible, no matter the cost. “Prison was and still is a business, a multibillion-dollar industry,” Pinchback remarked.
In the courtroom, the prosecutor put on quite a show for the jury, composed of ten white women and two white men. Pinchback remembers how the prosecutor dramatization had the jury nearly in tears, how when he asked the two girls to identify their attacker, they pointed at Pinchback. “I didn’t know back then that the girls were threatened to stick to their story or be charged with perjury. They were young,” Pinchback reflected.
Pinchback’s attorney had attempted to convince him to “cop-out” – to take a plea bargain. If he did, he could serve less time in prison – 5 to 15 years, they said. But Pinchback refused to plead guilty for something he wasn’t guilty of. “You go back in there and tell the judge to give me what they want me to have because I’m not going to tell you that I did something I had nothing to do with,” he countered, emphatically.
On October 5, 1984, Pinchback was convicted by a jury, based primarily on the identification by the victims. He was sentenced to 99 aggravated years in a maximum-security prison. “After that, I lost memory for a couple of days,” Pinchback recalled. His mother had asked him to call him and when he went to dial her number, he just couldn’t remember it. He was in shock, then, and for a long time afterwards. “I couldn’t digest it the whole 27 years I was there,” he reflected.
Spending Three Decades in Prison
Finding Peace in Unexpected Places
Before prison, Pinchback had served in the military. He knew how to fight and defend himself – to let his fellow inmates know that he wasn’t one to be messed with. His military training taught him how to stay alert, aware, and disciplined at all hours of the day – a skill that would prove to be invaluable in prison. “I could be asleep, snoring, dreaming, and hear everything you were talking about outside of the cell,” he said.
He wasn’t ever concerned about anyone beating him up – the only thing that occupied his mind for three decades was being there for something he had nothing to do with and figuring out how he would ultimately prove his innocence. “I had no time for anyone’s foolishness,” Pinchback said.
Each day, he remembers waking up to a different mood and feeling, and somehow, filling himself with hope – no matter how mundane the routine was. “The only way I feel that a man could wake up with the same feeling each day is if he’s there for the rest of his life for something he did do and he knows what he’s going to do every day: the same thing. I couldn’t and I didn’t want to do the same thing every day, being there for something I didn’t do. I had to do something constructive, something meaningful, to occupy my time and to stay positive,” he said. “I never let the system consume me.”
He found new avenues to stay creative, to help himself and those around him. He thought of how he could make a living outside of prison and which skills would prepare him. He got into leatherwork and construction carpentry, writing poetry, and learning about the law. “I was still able to smile and joke – humor played a big part with me and the guys there who were also wrongfully convicted,” he said.
Pinchback would share his poetry with some of the guys who didn’t have cards to send to their girlfriends and wives, and if his friends couldn’t read or write, he would lend a hand. When he missed his old life and the people in it, he would write his feelings to ease his mind. Even today, he can recite his favorite poem: “Sensitive Storm.” The last line goes: “I think to myself, sensitive storm give me more, for an everlasting ride on your highest tide, mind, body, and soul and forever, I should cherish and treasure your sweet and precious black gold.”
There were times after everyone went to sleep that Pinchback would just lay there in the silence and stillness, deep in thought, until 3 a.m., only to wake up a few hours later to work. Those few moments belonged only to him. “That was my peace and it was something I demanded,” he said.
During recreation time, he would look for a spot in the yard separate from others, and he would spend time doing his “constructive and positive thinking,” about survival. “When you go back inside the building, you’re not able to hear yourself,” he mused. “The television is up as loudly as it can go, people are talking loud, and dominos are being slammed on the table from the minute they wake up in the morning to the minute they go to bed. That’s the way people live in prison; it’s what they look forward to each and every day. I had to think. I had to figure out how to get out of there.”
After twenty years in prison, Pinchback was eligible for parole. He had no major disciplinary action, which made the prison employees suspicious of him. “They told me it’s impossible for you to be here on this maximum security unit and have no major disciplinary action,” he said. “But I had learned how to do the system. When I got there they told me to stay out of trouble, to go to school and mind my own business, so I did all that.” But Pinchback did not want to get out on parole, only to live a life registered as a sex offender, discriminated – a life that did not reflect who he was. He was determined to find a better way.
Proving His Innocence
It took less than a year to take away Pinchback’s freedom, but decades to restore it. While he was in prison, there were times when he would go over his courtroom transcript, and see for himself how the state had fabricated the evidence against him – how the court stenographer was signaled when to put something down and when not to, how there were statements in it he had never made. “If they have you for this crime and you can prove that you did not do this crime, [the system] still doesn’t pursue it. They don’t go find the guy who you and someone else say committed the crime. They stick with you and you stay in prison until so much pressure can be applied for the system to listen, and then you have to go through all these different channels just to get back,” Pinchback said.
In 2008, the Innocence Project of Texas helped Pinchback’s friend from prison, Charles Chatman, get exonerated from a rape case. This was a turning point for Pinchback, as Chatman believed in Pinchback’s innocence and pushed the Innocence Project to examine his case. He also paid for Pinchback’s DNA evidence testing.
It took the Innocence Project some time to get to Pinchback’s case since there were hundreds of inmates in line ahead of him. Natalie Roetzel, an attorney with the Innocence Project, came to visit Pinchback. “We talked and we talked and we talked, and she believed me. She told me, ‘I’m not going to stop doing what I do until I see you walk free,’” Pinchback said. That revived his spirits.
In March 2010, more than a year before his release and before the DNA testing, Pinchback gave away everything he had made in the craft shop and packed up all of his belongings into bags just larger than pillowcases. When his friends asked him what he was doing, he answered simply: “I’m going home.” He just knew.
In 2001, Dallas County passed a law that enabled post-conviction DNA testing. On July 13, 2010, the Innocence Project requested a DNA test on the last piece of evidence that had been preserved – the pubic hairs of one of the victims. Without this evidence, Pinchback could not have been cleared. The testing found a small amount of seminal fluid on the hairs that isolated another male DNA profile and proved Pinchback’s innocence.
On May 12, 2011, Pinchback was finally released from prison and dismissed of all charges against him. He was also awarded $2,131,000 in state compensation, plus an annuity of $12,600.
Reclaiming His Life After Prison
After spending three decades in prison, being on the outside was a culture shock to Pinchback. He had been absent during the many advances in technology and the changes in society. He found himself feeling a little embarrassed when he didn’t know how to use the GPS in his pickup truck or turn on the touchless faucet in the restaurant restroom – normal everyday tasks.
It was his first time eating out and he was trying to wash his hands in the restroom. “I look around and see no handles or anything like that. I stick my hands under there really fast, but nothing happens. I do it again, and nothing. I did it too fast. I’m like, man, how do I wash my hands? I stood there looking in the mirror for a while, waiting for someone to come in. People were like, ‘You were in the restroom for a long time.’ I was like, ‘Man I didn’t know how to turn the faucets on.’ They started laughing,” Pinchback too laughs at the memory now.
Parallels Between Real Life and Prison Films
After prison, Pinchback saw the film ‘Shawshank Redemption’ for the first time, and he understood it. In the movie, an inmate named Brooks (portrayed by James Whitmore) is the respected prison librarian. He has been in prison for 55 years. After he is finally released, he is just an old man. He doesn’t know how to handle the freedom and ends up hanging himself.
Pinchback remembers meeting people like that, who were content and established in prison. He described a man who had been in prison since the 60s. Every day, Pinchback would walk into the building and see him sweeping the hallway. One day, Pinchback learned the man had been released on parole. But within a few weeks, he was back there, sweeping. “What happened, man?” Pinchback asked, and the man kept sweeping: “I can’t handle that world out there,” he had said.
“More of his life had been in prison than in the free world; prison was all he knew. He had seen everything and done everything in there. He was more frightened to be out there than in prison,” Pinchback explained.
Reuniting With Family
Some moments that are lost can never be restored. Pinchback’s stepfather who had raised him passed away while he was in prison, and he didn’t get to mourn his death the way he had wanted to. “I may have cried to myself away from everyone for five minutes. I didn’t want anyone seeing me cry,” Pinchback admitted.
His mother was his anchor and never left his side, not one day in his 27 years in prison. Her support and strength instilled hope in him and kept him steady on his path. “My mother came down and said, ‘I’m going to live to see you get out of here.’ That inspired me greatly,” Pinchback said.
True to her word, Pinchback’s mother lived to see him get released from prison and lived another seven years after. “It was a wonderful feeling, for her to still be living,” Pinchback said. “She was all that I wanted to be with.”
The day he was released, he stayed at his mom’s place. When she was diagnosed with cancer, he brought her to his house, until they couldn’t take care of her anymore and moved her to hospice care. When she was in hospice, there was never a moment she was left alone.
Living in the Now
Every day, Pinchback wakes up very early, at the latest 4 a.m. “I want to have as much time as I possibly can to myself,” he said. He sits outside in his backyard with a cup of coffee and feels at peace with everything because it’s still quiet in the world and he is there to experience it.
After he was released from prison, Pinchback took care of his mom, bought a home with his wife, Sandra, and did some of what he had dreamed of doing before prison. He bought a new home in Cedar Hill and a Porsche. His two dogs, Kenya and Gino, are his kids. He wanted a place in the country for peace and found one outside of Dallas. It is 25 acres, two miles off the paved road, a real place of peace. There is a fishing pond, and three horses he adores.
He joined the board of directors for the Innocence Project and helps the innocent people in prison find a way out. He shares his story on college campuses and other events, for those who can benefit from what he has seen and learned about the criminal justice system. “There are still so many people there waiting to be released but they can’t prove themselves innocent. A lot of this can and could be avoided,” he said.
While he has not forgotten the past injustices, he doesn’t harbor any bitterness or resentment. “I live a completely different life than previously – before 1984, and I enjoy this life,” Pinchback said.
When he gets in his Porsche, he doesn’t worry about anything. He thinks of Christopher Crawson’s song “Ride like the wind,” and sings the lyrics: And I’ve got such a long way to go. To make it to the border of Mexico, so I’ll ride like the wind.
“This is the way I feel. I feel free, and I ride and I ride,” Pinchback said, throwing back his head, his face relaxed and at peace. Then, he smiles and repeats the words, “I’ve got a long way to go. I still have a long way to go.”