DALLAS – Former inmate Larry Sims died a free man, if not an innocent one in the eyes of the law. It wasn't enough for a man described by family and friends as a broken spirit who struggled to find work or happiness after his release from prison after 24 years.
Sims was freed early last year after new DNA testing cast doubt on his rape conviction. But prosecutors and an appeals court opposed his request to be declared formally innocent, making him ineligible for the benefits Texas pays to exonerated inmates.
Sims, 62, was still trying to clear his name when he died June 4 after battling heart and lung problems.
"It seemed after he had gotten out of prison, he had kind of lost his self-esteem. And he was trying to get that back," said Johnnie Lindsey, an exonerated ex-inmate who knew Sims as a teen and became friends with him again after his release. "His circumstances wouldn't allow that to happen.
"He was waiting on the state to compensate him. He got out and didn't have nothing."
Sims was accused of raping a woman at a motel room in 1986. Sims admitted hitting the woman, but denied having sex with her. He was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But prosecutors didn't tell Sims' attorney about physical evidence in the case, including the woman's sanitary napkins.
When the evidence was discovered and tested two decades later, Sims' DNA was not found on one napkin.
The Dallas district attorney's conviction integrity unit, which reviews closed cases, acknowledged prosecutors had improperly withheld evidence. The findings also cast doubt on whether the woman was telling the truth about what had happened. The Associated Press does not usually name people who may be victims of sexual assault.
Prosecutors agreed to let Sims leave prison on bond in January 2011, with almost his entire sentence complete. A year later, the district attorney dismissed the charge.
But Sims was not counted as an exonerated inmate, unlike the more than 30 people Dallas County has freed since 2001. He was denied compensation Texas pays to the wrongfully convicted: $80,000 for each year of imprisonment, plus an annuity. Had Sims been eligible, he would have been due about $1.9 million.
Sims, then 61, moved in with an aunt and was reintroduced to his large extended family, with more than 30 first cousins. And he was welcomed by the large and tight-knit group of exonerated inmates, an unofficial fraternity of men in which members attend every court hearing for the newly freed.
But Sims felt separate from the others.
Lindsey remembers Sims crying at a gathering one night and asking why he hadn't been paid "so he could start his life." The nattily dressed, lively person Lindsey remembered from their youth was gone.
"He stayed in a depressed state," Lindsey said. "I can kind of understand the pressure he was under, not having no support, just trying to make it from day to day."
Like many ex-inmates with decades missing from their work histories, Sims struggled to find work and support himself. Lindsey said he gave Sims money several times.
Danny Sims, one of his cousins, said Sims spent much of his time researching ways to be fully exonerated. But after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals turned down his request to be declared innocent, the main option Sims had left was a rare pardon from Gov. Rick Perry.
"He was always looking for ways to be fully exonerated," Danny Sims said. "That consumed most of his life."
But Russell Wilson, the prosecutor now in charge of the Dallas conviction integrity unit, said Sims needed more evidence to support his innocence claim. The DNA was "powerful evidence, but it's not the only evidence," he said.
"Actual innocence is a real, real high standard," Wilson said. "And for whatever reason, they chose not to present further evidence. But based off just the DNA results, I don't think that would acquit."
Sims' family held a memorial service Friday at a Dallas funeral home. Several exonerated inmates who attended were called to the front of the room, where they stood briefly in front of Sims' casket as ex-inmate Billy Smith spoke. He said he was shaking his head at what he called an injustice.
"All they gave him was a hammer and no nails," Smith said.