Learning how to live again as a free man
By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on December 23, 2007 2:01 AM
Dwayne Dail will spend his first Christmas outside of a jail cell in 18 years without the cloud of a lawsuit hanging over his head.
The mother of his son, Lorraine Michaels, agreed Friday to drop a lawsuit seeking compensation for having raised their son alone.
In return, Dail dropped his countersuit asking that she pay his legal fees.
It was the end of yet another long journey through the justice system.
But for the man wrongly convicted of rape in 1989, it is just another step in his journey back to life and his son.
Dail was exonerated by DNA evidence earlier this year and will receive $360,000 in compensation from the state for his wrongful imprisonment.
He says the money will give him a chance to start a new life -- and to take care of the son he first met in a prison visitors' room.
Chris Michaels and his father have spent much of the past few months together, trying to get to know one another, but Dail said last week he does not expect to spend Christmas with him.
His son will be with his mother and her family.
Dail said he didn't want to interfere with the relationship between mother and son. He said he would miss the celebration in part because he has deep feelings for the Michaels family.
"Lori's mom and stepfather -- I love those people. They were always so nice to me."
When a jury convicted Dail of raping a 12-year-old girl and a judge sentenced him to back-to-back life sentences, he did not know his son was on the way.
He would eventually meet his son through prison visits. Sometimes the boy would be brought by his mother, sometimes by Dail's family, a Dail relative said.
Now set free, Dail said he wants to concentrate on building a strong relationship with his son, who is 18.
Chris has been very accepting of his father's situation, Dail said, and is struggling to understand his father and to accept him.
Dail said he was heterosexual before going to prison, but said prison life changed that. He told Chris that he was gay after his release.
Dail said he has never cared much about what other people think of him, and says he is comfortable with his lifestyle.
"I'm not ashamed of a single thing I've ever done in my life. I found comfort and intimacy where it was available. And very rarely. The relationships that I did have were long-term relationships," he said.
Dail said he had to learn quickly how to survive in prison, learning where he "fit in" and making relationships to protect himself from harm.
Those long-term relationships are with inmates that he keeps in contact with even now after his release.
Chris has handled his father's announcement well, Dail said.
"My son is very, very accepting and understanding in all that I had told him about my being gay, my being raped, and everything else. It has helped to tighten our bond even more than it already was."
When Dail first discussed the sexual violence he experienced in prison, he knew he would also have to prepare Chris for the news.
"He started crying, and he told me that he loved me, and he told me that he respected me more than everybody in this world. That just about killed me. I will never forget that."
Although Dail said his sexual orientation has changed, he still has a long way to go before having an intimate relationship with a person of any sex.
"I realize I have way too much baggage to even be considering things like that," Dail said. "Maybe I will try to peel off some of those masks with some therapy, find out who I really am."
Dail and Chris are still learning the ropes of the father-son relationship, but Dail said his son is adapting well.
"Chris and I are very good friends, but he also understands that I'm his father. There are rules. He's just the most respectful young man. I am amazed by that boy every day. I am so happy."
When Dail was still in prison, he would hear reports about the way Chris was behaving. His son was involved in numerous scrapes in high school, he said, and seemed headed for a life of trouble.
Now, Dail said he doesn't believe Chris is the same young man his relatives told him about.
Marie Dail, who was married to Dail's brother Kenny, said she talked with Chris about his behavior.
"I heard he was in trouble and I tried to talk to him myself and tell him -- what are you going to do one day if something happens? Are you trying to go live with your dad?"
Dail was critical of his son's upbringing and said he thinks it led to some of his misbehavior.
"I don't see where he had very much structure," Dail said. "Children crave structure and rules."
But since Dail's summer release from prison, Dail and others say Chris has stayed out of trouble.
"With Dwayne being released, Chris didn't think that was going to happen," Marie Dail said. "I think Chris realized -- miracles happen. I've got my dad back. I've got a second chance to be a good person."
Dail said he and his son have long talks nearly every day.
"He knows that he has no reason to ever lie to me. We had that discussion to begin with," he said. "No matter what the ugly truth may be, I do discuss it with my son. I do not allow him to find things out in the newspapers."
Dail is still learning how the world has changed since he went away in 1989 -- even simple things.
One thing he has come to understand quickly is inflation, he said, and how that applies to the money the state owes him for wrongful incarceration.
"The $360,000 sounds like a lot of money, even to me, sounds like a huge amount of money," Dail said. "That is going to gone in no time at all."
Dail feels like he cannot be independent right now, and is uncomfortable with what he has had to borrow from his family.
"I do not like the idea that I am having to live right now off my family and my friends," he said. "Thank God that I have them, and I appreciate everything that everybody has done for me. But I am still a burden on my family members."
Chris starts community college in January, but his father won't yet be his classmate as he had planned.
"I will have to wait for the spring semester, because I did not get all the paperwork filled out," Dail said.
He has an excuse for being tardy with his paperwork, though -- he's been traveling the country in a new career as a public speaker.
Dail spoke to the American Society of Crime Lab Directors in Orlando, Fla., recently.
"They were crime lab directors from all over the country and the world," Dail said. "I actually feel like I made some progress bridging the gap between innocence projects and crime lab directors all around the country. That is absolutely part of my mission."
Getting that message across is particularly important to Dail because he feels no one has truly been held accountable for the years stolen from him by prison.
"I am not happy at all that it seems that no one is responsible or liable for what has happened to me," Dail said. "It seems to me that the law is above the law.
"I feel that law enforcement and court officials cannot be held responsible for the jobs that they are doing, then they should not be doing them."
Dail said that overzealous prosecutors and other officials are given too much power under the current system.
"That gives way too much leeway to regular city policemen to absolutely just push a case all the way through, as my case was pushed through," he said.
But Dail was complimentary of Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory, who acted immediately to free him when he learned of the new evidence.
"(Vickory) has my utmost respect," Dail said. "I cannot say enough about how grateful I am for everything he has done for me. He is a man of the law, and no one could ask for anything more."
Dail will speak again to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences on Feb. 19.
Speaking thrills him, he said, as does the way his exoneration has cleared the name of his family and his son.
Chris suffered taunting from his peers when he was growing up because of his father's conviction, Dail said.
"Maybe some of those people who picked on him when he was a kid have not said they were sorry," he said. "They know now that my son was right in his belief in me and my family."
As for the woman he shares a child with, Dail said before Friday that he would always be willing to extend an olive branch to Ms. Michaels.
"After this case is dismissed, as it will be -- if Lori needs help, all she has to do is give me a call," Dail said. "It's not a pride thing where I want her to ask me, but I don't know what she needs."
In the meantime, Dail said, he will continue to learn what it's like to live as a free man.
He discovered YouTube just the other day, and thinks the Internet is "amazing." Prisoners do not generally get to use Internet-connected computers, Dail said.
"I'm 39. I have a lot of catching up to do, and I know that," Dail said. "The first several weeks I was out, I was trying to catch up on everything every day.
"I realize that I have a lot to learn in this new world. It's like I've been in a time capsule for almost 20 years, and things have changed a lot.
"At first, I would feel so stupid, when I could not do the simplest things, because they were all new to me," Dail said. "And now I'm kind of embracing all that newness."
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