Man in prison for 35 years for a crime he did not commit
After more than three decades in prison, James Bain is eager to be able to help his wheelchair-bound mother.
If all goes as planned in a Florida courtroom Thursday, Bain, 54, will be allowed to go home for the first time in 35 years — free from his life sentence thanks to a DNA test that showed he was not the man who took a 9-year-old Lake Wales, Florida, boy from his bed in 1974 and raped him.
“It’s just hard to believe,” said Bain’s mother, Sarah Reed, who has been in and out of hospitals in recent years.
“He was just a child when he went in there. I’ve been trying to hold on. I’ve had things wrong with me, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be here when he got out,” she told CNN.
Of the 245 people in the United States who have been exonerated by DNA testing, none has spent more time behind bars than Bain, according to the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.
“I thanked the Lord. He must have did it for a reason,” Reed said. “The Lord has a reason for putting him in here, and he has a reason for keeping me around for me to see this.”
Melissa Montle, an attorney with the Innocence Project, called Bain last week at his prison in Okeechobee, Florida, to tell him the news.
“I told him and he got very quiet,” she told CNN. Then he said, “I’m really happy,” and began to choke up, she said.
“He’s been so worried about his mom. He wants to be home to take care of her,” Montle said.
At the hearing Thursday in Bartow, Florida, the state is expected to agree to Bain’s release while the final aspects of its investigation are completed. After the initial DNA test, state investigators collected more DNA from Bain and from the victim in the case for further testing.
Another hearing will be held, probably after the new year, which would formally vacate his conviction.
“There was a terrible injustice over 35 years ago that no one can really fix now,” Montle said. “His life was taken from him and he can’t get it back. At least he has the chance to start over now.”
A spokesman for Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill said prosecutors feel Bain should be freed as soon as possible, before Christmas.
“It’s an indication that while all the ‘i’s’ have not been dotted yet, there appears to be a sufficient likelihood of where this is going,” said the spokesman, Chip Thullbery. “We don’t think it’s appropriate for Mr. Bain to spend any more time in prison.”
Bain was 19 years old when he was convicted in 1974 on charges of kidnapping, burglary, and strong-arm rape.
According to police records, the 9-year-old victim told police that he fell asleep with his brothers and sisters, but when he woke up a man was dragging him by a baseball field. The boy said he was forced to the ground and raped.
The Lake Wales police report says that the boy told police that his attacker had bushy sideburns and a mustache. After being shown five photographs of potential suspects, the report says, the victim picked out the photo of Bain.
That 9-year-old boy, now 44, still lives in Florida and has been made aware of the situation, according to multiple sources.
“He is terrified for people to know who he is,” said one source familiar with the story. “Somebody hurt him and scarred him badly, and the right person should be punished for that.”
Florida in 2001 passed a statute allowing cases to be reopened for DNA testing. Four times Bain submitted handwritten motions seeking such testing, only to be denied. His fifth try was successful only after an appeals court ruled that he was entitled to a hearing.
Bain’s family has stood by him all of these years.
His twin sister, Jannie Jones, told police that James was home with her, watching a popular television medical drama called “Medical Center” at the time of the attack.
Another sister, Patsy Amos, said, “I still don’t understand why this happened, but we never doubted him. We knew what type of child he was.”
It was incredibly frustrating, she said.
“It’s just like a death, ’cause there was nothing we can do. He was a family member and we couldn’t bring him home. There was nothing we could do. It was like death. We had no control over it,” she told CNN.
The prosecutor in the case, Edward Threadgill, is now retired after a career that culminated with a seat on the 2nd District Florida Appeals Court. He will be 78 this month.
“I don’t remember any of the details [of the case],” he told CNN. “I don’t remember the defendant.”
But he added, “It upsets me that an innocent man was in prison. It disturbs me greatly. … I think we did the best with the technology we had. We did the best we could with what we had.”
Bain’s mother said that while her son was in prison he “turned away from God, because he thought God abandoned him.”
But, she said, she stayed on him — on the phone, and during twice-a-month visits — and eventually, over the years, he came back around to find God again, in prison. Watch report on the DNA exoneration of an Arizona man convicted of rape and murder Video
Now, she said, she is taking steps to ensure her son is taken care of in a world that has changed so much since he entered prison. She’s putting her house and her car, a 1992 Toyota Camry, in his name.
“I want him to have something by himself. He’s suffered enough. He will never worry about where to stay. No more suffering. He’ll be taken care of, if anything happened to me,” Sarah Reed said.
“He worries about me all the time. He thought he was doomed to stay there, and now he says, ‘Don’t let go. I’m coming home.'”