US

Man released from jail after 23 years for crime he didn't commit finds freedom surreal

DeMarlo Antwin Berry no longer can recognize Las Vegas.

The 42-year-old Nevada man was freed from prison after 23 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. He felt “a little overwhelmed” by changes in the city where he was arrested when he was 19.

On Friday he sat flanked by his wife of seven years and lawyers who fought to get him exonerated and released from his sentence of life without parole. He looks forward to a steak-and-fries dinner and said he just wants to go to barber school and live a normal life.

“It was a surreal moment, just taking it all in,” Berry told reporters, noting the unfamiliar buildings, homes and freeways he saw.

He had with him only his release papers and a debit card for his prison commissary account. His lifelong girlfriend-turned-wife, Odilia, was there.

“It means everything to me,” said Odilia Berry, wearing a necklace bearing the word “Amazin” and offering her thanks to God that her husband was free.

The dismissal of Berry’s conviction came after Steven Jackson, now 45 and serving life without parole in California for his conviction in a separate murder in 1996, confessed to Samantha Wilcox, a lawyer from Salt Lake City working on Berry’s case for free with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center.

Berry’s legal team also found a former jailhouse informant, Richard Iden, who recanted his trial testimony that Berry told him he’d killed Carl’s Jr. restaurant manager Charles Burkes.

“They really did the job. They did the footwork. If they weren’t as thorough as they were, we wouldn’t be here,” Berry said as he sat in a posh Las Vegas law office. “I’d just be another number in prison.”

Nevada is one of 18 states in the nation that doesn’t provide compensation funds for wrongfully convicted and newly released inmates, said Jensie Anderson, Rocky Mountain Innocence Center legal director. She estimated that 4 percent of the 13,500 inmates in Nevada prisons, or more than 500, may be wrongfully convicted.

DeMarlo Berry shed his shackles in what once was familiar territory. Before he was arrested in April 1994, he used to sell drugs and hang out at a bar several blocks away, according to testimony at his trial in 1995. That bar is gone now, closed as a nuisance by the City Council in 1996.

Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County doubled in population during Berry’s time away. Downtown hotels like the Lady Luck closed; Fitzgeralds changed names; and a canopy was built over the Fremont Street corridor that most knew back then as Glitter Gulch.

Berry termed his feeling of freedom “sensory overload.” He said he’d heard people describe his prison time as his entire adult life, but he said he still has “a lot adult life in me.”

He’ll learn in coming days how to use a cellphone, a computer and the internet.

One thing he’ll keep from behind bars is “work ethic,” he said.

“I figured that in order to be a better person than I was when I came in, you have to learn to do something different,” Berry said, “so I took it upon myself to learn a trade. Barbering.”

Attorney Lynn Davies said it was too soon to say whether Berry would sue over his wrongful conviction and incarceration.

Berry said he wasn’t angry.

“Forgiving is, I guess, a large word,” he said. “I just want to continue with life. I have a second chance at life, and I’ll take the opportunity.”