HOUSTON – A courthouse seems like the last place Michael Anthony Green would choose to spend his time following his release this summer after 27 years in a Texas prison for a rape he didn't commit.
But each weekday, Green walks past metal detectors and police officers in the lobby of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center and makes his way to the 20th floor. There, he sits in a small office and pores through letters written by inmates discussing possible problems with their cases.
Since his release in July, after new DNA tests showed he was innocent, Green has worked for his attorney as a volunteer, reading letters from inmates, looking for others who might be wrongfully imprisoned.
"We might find a case where there's another me that I can help," said Green, 45.
According to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that uses DNA to challenge convictions, 261 inmates in the U.S. have been exonerated post-conviction with DNA, most of them since 2000. Texas leads the nation with 40 cases. After his release, Green's attorney, Bob Wicoff, approached him about working for the organization. Wicoff serves on board of the project's Texas chapter.
Wicoff said he became impressed with Green's knowledge of the law during their prison visits. "It was pretty apparent he knew a lot more law than any other inmate I've met," Wicoff said.
Each day, Green reads inmate letters and fills out a two-page form that summarizes the claims and whether they have merit. Green looks for cases where DNA could play a factor. A typical letter is one written by an inmate in prison for rape. The inmate claims the victim sought charges because he broke his promise to give her illegal drugs. The inmate also claims he had a bad attorney.
"He doesn't deny having sex but that it was consensual," said Green, a stack of other letters next to him. "There is nothing that can be challenged, other than the ineffective assistance of counsel. But that is his word against the attorney's."
Green said most of the letters he reads are about burglary, robbery and murder cases where inmates claim they are innocent but that nothing can be done because either there is no DNA to test or such testing wouldn't make a difference.
Wicoff said while the focus is DNA cases, they are also on the lookout for other potential legal problems.
Once motivated by anger, Green said he is now driven by a need to help others who might have been wrongfully convicted and by, of all things, a love for the law.
That love for the law began, oddly enough, after Green was convicted in 1983 for raping a woman who had been abducted by four men from a pay phone in north Houston and taken to a remote location. Green was detained by officers that night as he walked in the area.
The victim misidentified Green as one of her abductors. Green was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 75 years in prison. He was the only person convicted in the case. Green entered prison four months after turning 18.
"My first three years in prison, I didn't do nothing but act a fool. I was mad about being in prison," said Green.
After getting into trouble in October 1985, he was sent to administrative segregation, known to inmates simply as "seg" and where he stayed locked up in a tiny cell 22 hours a day. There, Green decided to take the advice of a fellow prisoner to "go to the law library and find a way to beat your case."
While in seg, Green had law books sent to him. He read them cover to cover but stopped after becoming frustrated about the lack of uniformity in court decisions.
"My new year's resolution for 1986 was get into the law and I'm not going to stop this time. From Jan. 3 of 1986, all the way until I got out of prison and working up in here, that's what I did," Green said. After years of appeals by Green, including some he wrote himself, the Harris County District Attorney's Office reviewed his case and found that DNA evidence on the victim's clothing could not have come from him.
Green said that in the more than 200 letters he's read from inmates thus far, he hasn't found one he could help, but that he remains committed to his work. "This is important.getting somebody out that don't belong in prison," Green said. For the last few years, Wicoff has mainly been working out of an office in the courthouse while leading a review by Harris County of about 180 cases with questionable blood analysis work by the Houston Police Department's troubled crime lab.
Green's need to right judicial wrongs is common among individuals who have been exonerated, said Kimberly Cook, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who has studied the experiences of those exonerated who were on death row.
Their need to bring about social change because of their experiences seems to make their psychological adjustment to life outside of prison healthier, she said.
"So if they can use their personal experience to either prevent it from happening to other people, then there is some comfort in that," Cook said.
Angela Amel, a social worker with the Innocence Project, said in addition to having family support, a place to live and employment, a sense of purpose is also important in helping people like Green rebuild their lives.
Green's work is voluntary but he said he isn't worried about money. He is eligible for compensation from the state for being wrongfully imprisoned. But it's a topic Green declines to discuss for fear of putting his family in danger.
"I take life one day at a time," Green said. "Whatever is happening today, that's what's happening. After today, I move right along."