Derrick Sanders and Rodney Eubanks have nightmares.
We all do. What makes Derrick’s and Rodney’s different is that they lived theirs.
Both men were wrongfully incarcerated, convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Sanders spent 25 years in prison while Eubanks was in for over a decade. Meeting them was a reminder that those smiling faces you see of exonerated prisoners being released are just the first few moments of their new freedom. Despite the unfair price they paid and happy moments of early freedom, there is still work to do. The years spent behind bars left plenty of scars – physically and mentally.
I met the two men on Aug. 19 at Dentists of Mansfield. The two were there to have dental work done during Smile Generation Serve Day, an annual day of service focused on providing donated dental care to underserved patients. Since the program began in 2011, more than 21,000 patients have received more than $39 million in free oral healthcare.
That organization worked in partnership with After Innocence, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to people released from prison following wrongful incarceration. Based in Oakland, After Innocence works with more than 800 exonerees nationwide. Since 2018, After Innocence has partnered with Smile Generation to provide more than 200 exonerees a total of over $650,000 in donated dental services.
Laila Abdeljalil, the owner/dentist of Dentists of Mansfield, said she was reminded of an experience she had in dental school when she was offered the opportunity to work with the After Innocence project.
The 28-year-old graduate of Texas A&M College of Dentistry said she had the opportunity to provide dental care to prisoners while in school.
“The neglect of oral health was something I noticed while there,” she said. “They have a lack of access to dental care most of the time.”
Abdeljalil said she was excited to work on giving the two men new smiles.
“They have a thousand other things they are dealing with and I wanted to make sure I could do this one thing for them,” she said.
I first met with Eubanks, now 55. A Dallas resident, Eubanks was convicted of rape in 1992, sentenced to 10 years in prison and released on parole in 2003. Because he was registered as a sex offender, he had trouble finding employment. He eventually stopped registering and was returned to prison for violating the terms of his parole.
With support from an investigation by the Dallas County District Attorney’s conviction integrity unit and the Innocence Project of Texas, DNA tests eventually led to Eubanks’ conviction being vacated in December 2016.
But that illusion of a happy ending was at odds with the man I met.
When I sat down with Eubanks, in an empty dental office, he immediately opened a small soft case and handed me a book, “Guilty Until Innocent”, written by Eubanks and Dawn Lynn Anderson. He gives the book, gratis, to anyone interested in his story, he said. Eubanks paid to print the 185-page book himself in 2020.
“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else,” he said. “It was awful, it … I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
Tears welled in his eyes, not for the last time.
Eubanks grew up in the West Dallas Projects, a high crime, high poverty area in the city.
On Aug. 12, 1992, Eubanks and a friend, Darryl Adams, had fallen asleep on the street after drinking near a Salvation Army shelter.
A Dallas police officer woke the men, who were questioned about an attack on a woman nearby. The two were arrested and charged with aggravated sexual assault.
Eubanks can barely read or write and has vision problems, he said. That left him even more defenseless when he was arrested.
Both Adams and Eubanks received 10 years probation. Both had their probation revoked when they were arrested for other offenses.
Both men were soon seeking DNA tests to prove their innocence and eventually, in December 2016, the Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the men’s convictions when tests confirmed they were not responsible for the crime.
“I’m grateful for that, I am,” Eubanks said. “But I still need help. I lost a lot in those years.”
He apologized for crying.
“I’m sorry man.”
I assured him it was understandable.
The receptionist for the dental practice was helping manage the interviews of the two men. She looked in to tell me the other interviewee was ready, but quickly assessed the situation and left.
I asked Eubanks why he signed up for the free dental care.
“To be honest man, I was just looking for some help,” he said, again with tears in his eyes. “They answered me. I need some help with my teeth, but my eyes, too. But a lot of times no one answers my emails or phone calls. They did. That’s really why I’m here.”
I picked up the book he had given me.
“You should be proud of this, man, telling your story,” I told him. “Too many people don’t tell their story.”
He thanked me and was quiet for a minute. Like most reporters, I tried to come up with a question to fill the silence.
He interrupted me.
“Did I sign that one?” he asked, suddenly concerned. “I want to be sure I signed that one.”
I checked. He had.
The receptionist peeked around the corner again. I waved her off. She nodded and left.
“I still have nightmares,” Eubanks continued, filling the silence before I could.
“About that night?” I asked.
He nodded yes.
“I think to myself, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Why didn’t I go home before then?” he said.
He explained they had been stopped by the cops earlier that night and he thought about going home.
“I could have left. I didn’t. I don’t know why. I go over and over that in my head.”
The receptionist stuck her head in the door again.
I told Eubanks I had to go interview the next person. I thanked him again for the book and for telling his story.
“Thanks, man,” he said. He pointed to the tears crawling down his cheeks.
“Sorry about this, I get emotional when I talk about it,” he said, choking back more tears.
I told him I understood. I shook his hand. I shake a lot of hands. I do it so often that I forget it is a sign of respect. I didn’t forget that this time.
As the receptionist led me down the hallway to the next interview, she said Sanders would likely be easier to interview. Even though this was not normally her job, I thought she read the situation perfectly. She was unobtrusive, but efficient.
She was also right about Sanders. I had listened to him speak on a few podcasts and he seemed to know how to tell his story concisely.
Sanders’ story is equally as chilling as Eubanks.
Derrick Sanders (Photo by Robert Francis)
Sanders, a Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm, was visiting friends in Milwaukee when the friends got into a fight with Jason Bowie, a man they accused of stealing something from a friend. Sanders admits he helped beat the man up, but then he left.
The man was later found shot to death. The police arrested Sanders’ friends and one of them said Sanders killed the man, though he tried to amend that statement, saying Sanders was not there when the man was shot.
It didn’t matter. On advice of his attorney, Sanders pleaded no contest to being a party to first-degree intentional homicide. His attorney thought he was likely to receive 10 years or less. Sanders was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison.
Sanders argued on appeal that his attorney was ineffective because he didn’t understand or explain the meaning of being a party to a crime and his no-contest plea wasn’t intelligently entered because he didn’t understand the punishment he could face.
A long, convoluted legal trail of years ensued, with Sanders at one point winning on appeal, but being re-sentenced to life in prison. Eventually prosecutors dropped the charges after Sanders himself spent years in the prison law library to understand the law.
“I knew the law so well by then, I would have represented myself if I didn’t think my lawyer understood it,” he said. “But that attorney did a good job.”
Sanders, 50, moved to Grand Prairie a few years ago after he was released from prison. I asked why.
“I wanted to be some place that didn’t remind me of where I was or had been,” he said.
Sanders, who now works for a transportation company, was wearing a Boston Red Sox jersey, hat and matching red shoes. I said I assumed he was a fan.
“Actually, I’m a Chicago White Sox fan, but I support Boston, too, because they have a similar story to the White Sox,” he said. “Both took a long time to reach their goal.”
That had a resemblance to Sanders’ own story. While he is free, he is seeking $5.7 million in compensation for his time in prison. Eubanks, by the way, has not received any compensation. When Sanders was released, he was offered $25,000 as Wisconsin state law limits compensation for wrongful convictions.
“That’s $1,000 for each year I was in prison,” he said. “That’s not right. I lost most of my family while I was in prison. My mother, who helped me eventually get out of prison, only had a little over a year left to live. I’m grateful for that time with her, but I just couldn’t accept it.”
I asked Sanders about dental care in prison.
He explained you could get dental care, but it was rudimentary.
“If you came to them with a problem, more likely than not, they would just pull the tooth,” he said. “That seemed to be their answer to everything.”
He hoped to take care of some dental issues that he didn’t take care of when he was in prison.
“I’m thankful for this,” he said. “The first thing people see of you, really, is your smile. That’s important.”
I asked Sanders if he was bitter after spending so much time behind bars.
He paused for a minute.
“I don’t allow myself to be bitter,” he said. “I don’t like that it happened, but I don’t allow myself to be bitter. I don’t think that would help me going forward.”
Like Eubanks, Sanders said his experience never leaves him.
“Now mind you, I still have nightmares about what happened to me,” he said. “I wake up and realize it happened to me. Yes, I still have nightmares.”
Freedom, Sanders said, is something so precious, but we often take it for granted.
“It’s like breathing,” he said. “We don’t think about breathing. Until you can’t breathe, when you’re gasping for air. That’s when you appreciate it. That’s what freedom is. And I’m free.”
We both took a deep breath.
“Appreciate it,” he said. “You’ve got to appreciate it.”
As with Eubanks, I shook hands with Sanders, thinking about the respect the gesture conveyed. Maybe it would help alleviate those nightmares that, for them, are all too real.
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.