Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Do You Rebuild A Life After Nearly A Decade Behind Bars — Then Exoneration?

Kaitlyn Bernauer
Ted Bradford sits in his apartment in Yakima, Wash.

On the morning of Sept. 29, 1995, a woman was alone in her Yakima home, feeding her baby, when she heard an unusual noise. She found a man in the house, wearing a white nylon stocking over his face.

She tried to run, but couldn’t get away. He put a mask on her and raped her. And when he was done, she was left tied to the crib that held her crying child.

Six months later, police arrested 22-year-old Ted Bradford in an unrelated case of indecent exposure in the same neighborhood. His car was similar to the one connected to the rape. Bradford waived his Miranda rights, and police questioned him about what they called a “serious assault.” After nine hours of interrogation, he confessed to the rape.

There was just one problem: As DNA evidence would prove a decade later, Bradford didn’t commit the crime.

‘You Don’t Know How Terrifying It Was’

Today, Bradford lives in an apartment on a quiet street in Yakima. And he gets the question all the time: Why would you confess to a crime you didn’t commit?

“People will always say, ‘I would never confess. I don’t care if they beat me,’” Bradford said. “The only thing I could say is: You were not in that situation. You don’t know how terrifying it was.”

Bradford says police claimed there was DNA evidence from the rape, and that he wasn’t getting out of the interrogation room until he told them the truth.

“I’m thinking, if they do the test, it’s going to prove my innocence, so it doesn’t matter what I tell them,” he said. “If I give them this statement, then I’ll be out of this situation.”

But Bradford says the DNA evidence tested in 1996 came back inconclusive and was therefore useless as a defense. Armed with a confession, prosecutors took the case to trial and won.

Credit Kaitlyn Bernauer

The conviction came despite other factors that might have given a jury pause. The victim described an attacker over 6 feet tall. Bradford is 5-foot-7. And details from his confession didn’t match the crime. He said there wasn’t a baby in the house. Co-workers testified that he was at work when the crime occurred.

“The confession evidence, I think, in [the jury’s] eyes, outweighed any alibi evidence,” Bradford said. “Once there’s a confession, it’s very hard to overcome that. You can take it back as much as you want. You can recant your confession, which I was trying to do.”

At the time he was sent to prison, Bradford was a married father of two young children, ages 1 and 2.

“I missed out on their first day of school,” he said. “So many firsts. I missed out on all those moments. That’s something you can’t get back.”

Bradford served nearly a decade behind bars.

Two Appeals, Then Finally, Exoneration

After a failed appeal, Bradford finally got help in 2002 from Innocence Project Northwest, an arm of the University of Washington School of Law. The group takes up cases in which a wrongful conviction seems likely.

In Bradford’s case, there was the matter of the alibi — that Bradford looked so different from the suspect description, and that he was reported to be at work when the crime occurred. There were also inconsistencies between his confession and the facts of the crime.

And perhaps most importantly, there had also been advances in DNA testing since 1996.

Investigators tested the DNA from the crime scene, and it was not a match with Bradford’s. In 2006, a judge overturned Bradford’s conviction.

The case went back for a second trial, in 2010.

“In the first trial, in 1996, I was so sure they would see the truth and find me not guilty,” Bradford said. “And that didn’t go as we’d hoped.”

The jury in the second trial deliberated for about five hours. When they came back, Bradford stood, absolutely motionless, as the court clerk read the verdict.

Rape in the first degree: not guilty.

Burglary in the first degree: not guilty.

As the judge polled each juror, Bradford dabbed his eyes with a tissue.

Everyone stood as the jury left. Bradford hugged his attorney.

Credit Kaitlyn Bernauer

The judge signed the verdict. It was over.  

A copy of that document is framed and sitting on a table in Bradford’s living room. It reads, simply:

The jury having found the defendant not guilty on all counts in the above case, now, therefore, it is hereby ordered that: The defendant is acquitted on all charges filed in this case.”

After 14 years, nearly a decade in prison and two trials, Bradford’s second chance was granted in just 33 words.

Credit Kaitlyn Bernauer

'The Person Is Still There And Has To Be Put Back Together'  

The office of Innocence Project Northwest is tucked inside a nondescript office building in Seattle’s University District, at the end of a hallway, behind a locked door with a buzzer.

They’ve been around since 1997. In that time they’ve earned the exoneration of 13 clients, including Bradford.

There’s no way to know exactly how many wrongful convictions have yet to be uncovered, said Lara Zarowsky, policy director for IPNW. To know for sure, attorneys would need to re-examine every conviction ever made, which is impossible.

So the group takes on the cases it can, and raises awareness about the root causes of wrongful conviction — things like faulty witness identifications, perjury and false confessions.

Success in this line of work comes bit by bit, and there’s no end in sight.

“Really what it would take for us to stop doing our work would be a wholesale reinvention of the criminal justice system,” Zarowsky said.

For offenders who finish sentences without being exonerated, there are a handful of services to help them reintegrate into public society. But for a variety of reasons, including the way the law is written, those services aren't available for exonerees. Zarowsky says the system just isn't set up to deal with the problem of wrongful convictions. 

But there has been one change in the last few years. IPNW pushed hard for passage of an exoneree compensation bill in the Washington legislature. It was signed into law two years ago. Exonerees can now file claims with the state to receive $50,000 for every year they were wrongly imprisoned. Extra money is added in if the exoneree was on death row.

But money goes only so far, and there are other factors to consider, including family relationships, work and the way exonerees are received in their communities among a sometimes dubious public.

“Once the case is resolved, the person is still there and has to be put back together,” Zarowsky said. “There are no resources out there to help that person build their life back. So they’re really left on their own to try to make that happen.”

That was certainly the case for Bradford.

Only The Beginning

Before prison in 1996, Bradford held a steady job at a wood products factory where he bundled molding as it came off the line. He was out of debt and had a retirement plan.

After prison, he had nothing.

Credit Kaitlyn Bernauer

Once he was released, it was hard to find work, then hard to keep work. He told employers he’d been wrongly convicted, but the official paperwork indicated otherwise. One employer laid him off because, he says, the employer got nervous about Bradford's past and how it might reflect on the company.

And even after that changed — after the court cleared his name and wiped his record clean — Bradford had a job lined up, but then got sick.

“The day I was supposed to go up and finalize everything … I had this pancreatitis attack and was rushed to the emergency room,” he said.

Bradford and his first wife divorced while he was in prison, and attempts to reconcile after his release were unsuccessful. Soon after, he met a woman named Jolene, and struggled with finding a way to tell her about his past.

“Unfortunately, she found out before I had a chance to tell her,” he said. “She read it in the paper. They wrote a story on my retrial.”

Rebuilding A Life

The newspaper did not doom their relationship. Jolene and Bradford were married two years ago. And he’s rebuilding his relationship with his kids, now 19 and 21.

“It’s been awesome,” he said. “My daughter comes over all the time. My wife says she’s a jabber-jaw, just like me.”

But still, it’s slow-going.

Credit Kaitlyn Bernauer

“They’re young adults,” Bradford said of his son and daughter. “They’re both out on their own. People have their own lives to live. I can’t be selfish and hog them all to myself like I want to.”

Bradford still gets angry about his wrongful conviction, but he’s learned to deal with in in a positive way. Telling his story, for example, helps him process his experience, and he hopes it will help other people, too.

“At some point or another, somebody’s going to be called in for jury duty,” Bradford said. “If you’re deciding a person’s fate, their future, their whole life, you’ve got to keep an open mind — not only for the person you’re judging, but for yourself. I couldn’t imagine being a juror in a case, finding somebody guilty and 10 years later, realizing they didn’t do it.”

He often tells the story at conferences, and he brings a guitar. Bradford played a lot in prison, and now is part of “The Exoneree Band,” a collection of musicians who, like him, went to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

He first picked up the guitar as a teenager, dreaming of fame.

“That’s what gets you started. ‘I’m going to grow up and be a rock star and play guitar in a band!’” he said. “Maybe this is my shot.”

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran as part of our new show, “Sound Effect,” which airs on Saturdays at 10 a.m.  

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.