At 82, a just-released Graterford prisoner savors a taste of freedom

Louis Mickens-Thomas after his release Tuesday from Graterford Prison. Behind is Jim McCloskey, who helped secure his freedom. They were headed to a restaurant for breakfast.
Louis Mickens-Thomas after his release Tuesday from Graterford Prison. Behind is Jim McCloskey, who helped secure his freedom. They were headed to a restaurant for breakfast.
Posted: January 26, 2011

Within minutes of his release from prison Tuesday, Louis Mickens-Thomas was sitting in Tommy Mo's Steak Shop, waiting for the meal he had dreamed about for years.

Four fried eggs and home fries.

"I got hung up on that a long time ago," said Mickens-Thomas, 82, who has spent more than half his life - 45 years - inside Graterford Prison. "Whenever I got out, I wanted a breakfast of four fried eggs and home-fried potatoes."

That he would one day get to eat that breakfast again wasn't always certain.

In fact, before Saturday - when a prison guard read in the newspaper that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered Mickens-Thomas' release, then told him the good news - he thought he might never get out.

"I wasn't expecting anything like this," he said, as if he still couldn't believe he was sitting in a Collegeville restaurant - where his two lawyers, David Rudovsky and Leonard Sosnov, and Jim McCloskey of Centurion Ministries, which works to exonerate the wrongly accused, had taken him - instead of the prison cafeteria.

"What can I say? I'm very fortunate," said the thin, healthy-looking octogenarian, dressed in red-corduroy pants, a gray sweater, and black Princeton fleece that McCloskey had given him that morning.

Mickens-Thomas, who had owned a shoe-repair shop in West Philadelphia, was convicted of the 1964 murder of Edith Connor, 12, largely on the testimony of a crime-lab worker who later was accused of having a long history of perjury and of faking her scientific credentials.

He has always maintained his innocence, and for the last 20 years, Centurion Ministries has worked to free him.

"He's completely innocent," a beaming McCloskey said Tuesday. "He had nothing to do with that crime. . . . We're thrilled and happy to have him here."

A twist in the case came in 1995 when Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr. commuted Mickens-Thomas' conviction, though he was never exonerated. The Pennsylvania Parole Board fought the commutation and refused to let him out until 2004, when a federal appeals court ordered his release.

Casey "didn't declare Lou officially innocent, but he had on his desk on his final day in office 24 life-sentence inmates recommended for commutation, and Lou was the only one he granted," said Sosnov, who has worked on the case for 11 years. "What distinguished Lou from the other people was real doubts about his guilt."

Mickens-Thomas was free for 15 months before he was returned to prison for a parole violation: He had been discharged from a sex-offender treatment program for making an intimidating remark to a therapist after admitting he kissed a woman at church who did not want him to.

"They said he had a pattern of high-risk behavior," said Sosnov, "and that's why he's been back in prison for seven years."

That pattern included the kiss, and fixing umbrellas that he would offer to women stranded in rainstorms.

He was initially ordered back to prison for nine months, but after serving the time, he was denied parole on the basis of his need for sex-offender treatment and of his refusal to admit guilt.

He had applied for parole ever year since 2006, but was rebuffed by the Parole Board.

In its recent 12-page ruling, a three-judge appellate panel cited "a combination of willful noncompliance, bad faith, and a sufficient inference of retaliation or vindictiveness on the part of the [Parole] Board."

"This guy has persisted and insisted on his innocence," said McCloskey. "They were always angry at him for never admitting he did it and showing remorse. That kept him in prison all these decades."

After his first release, Mickens-Thomas said, it seemed "as if they were looking for an opportunity to put me back."

Having to return to prison after a taste of freedom was "terrible," he said. "It was hard."

During his long confinement, Mickens-Thomas earned a degree from Villanova University and a barber's license. His most recent job, he said, was polishing brass kick plates at the bottom of doors.

He has three children, whom he hopes to see, and will be living with nephew Calvin Mickens and his wife in Tobyhanna, in the Poconos.

His last night in prison, he couldn't sleep. Then at 6:30 Tuesday morning, as he left his cell with all that he owned - a television and a small trunk with some personal items - the other inmates lined up as he walked past to say goodbye and wish him well. Even the guards and the prison major offered their congratulations.

Now, here he was outside, beneath a winter sky the color of steel prison bars. It felt unreal, he said, as if he was having an out-of-body experience, looking down on what was happening.

His plans now were uncertain. He would like to work with his nieces and nephews in their cosmetics business, he said, but that's up in the air.

Finally, the waitress put a steaming cup of coffee and a plate of eggs, bacon, and home fries in front of him. Don't they serve eggs in prison? someone asked. Not the way he likes them, they don't.

He scooped a forkful of potatoes, then dug into a runny egg and sloshed it all into his mouth.

"Mmm, boy. Wow," he said with a big smile. "You never know how good something like this is until you don't have it."


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella

at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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