Bobby McLaughlin is about to get his due for the 6 1/2 years he spent in "the gladiator school" and other prisons for a murder he didn't commit.
But the $1.9-million award made recently by New York Court of Claims Judge Adolph Orlando will barely begin to soothe the pain.
"People think I'm winning the lottery or something," the former New York resident said from his St. Paul apartment. "Well, they owe me. If they had given me a choice, I wouldn't have gone through all this for $50 million."
Orlando awarded McLaughlin $1.5 million for "loss of liberty, mental stress, anguish and loss of reputation." The judge also ordered payment for lost wages and $225,000 in medical expenses for treatment of McLaughlin's addiction to cocaine and other drugs that stemmed from his prison experience.
"It's unlikely that he will ever survive the devastating trauma resulting from incarceration for a crime he did not commit," the judge said.
McLaughlin, 30, was convicted in 1979 in the New York borough of Brooklyn for taking part in an armed robbery in which one person was killed. McLaughlin received a 15-year sentence.
McLaughlin said he was drinking with friends at a bar in his neighborhood the night of the killing. He was arrested several days later because the primary suspect was reputed to associate with a Robert W. McLaughlin. Detectives mistook that man for Bobby, whose middle initial is "K."
McLaughlin was picked out of a police lineup by a 15-year-old witness who had been told by police that McLaughlin was a friend of the other suspect.
"I kept telling myself it would end but it never did," McLaughlin said. "I hated the system for not believing me. It just seemed like they were God--like they could do whatever they liked with my life."
The conviction was overturned in 1986 after McLaughlin's foster father, Jarold Hohne, persuaded civil rights lawyer Richard Emery and a police sergeant to reopen the case. After four years of relentless work, the only witness who identified McLaughlin acknowledged that he was wrong.
"It's been a nightmare for Bobby from beginning to end," Emery said. "He faced it down and he survived like one has to, but he's lost the critical years from 20 to 26 1/2."
That's how old McLaughlin was during his prison stays at Rikers Island, Sing Sing, Elmira and Comstock. The last of those was known as "the gladiator school" because there were so many fights, McLaughlin said.
"They prey on the weak and your body is your weapon," he added.
Going into prison, McLaughlin weighed about 150 pounds. He emerged after six years of body-building tipping the scales at 200 pounds--a physique he still maintains.
McLaughlin said he bulked up to protect himself against constant aggression.
He said he kept a bucket of water next to his bunk to defend against inmates known to start gasoline fires in enemy cells. He guarded against early morning attacks by waking each day before his cell doors opened. Late sleepers were often attacked, he said.
When McLaughlin returned to his Brooklyn apartment, he sometimes slept in the cellar because he feared that police would knock on his door and return him to prison, said Thomas Duffy, the police sergeant who reopened the investigation.
"That kid's finished," Duffy said in a telephone interview from Glendale, Ariz., where he is retired. "No amount of counseling will make him normal again."
Upon his release from prison, McLaughlin said he reverted to the life he was leading at age 19 only to find that many of his friends had careers and families and couldn't party with him at Brooklyn bars.
His cocaine abuse started because he wanted "to live the fast life. I was trying to catch up too quick and it caught up with me."
The addiction led him to a treatment center in Minnesota, where he has lived for the last 18 months and worked as a painter and lawn sprinkler installer. He plans to marry in April.
"I've got a long way to go," he said. "I'm 30 years old and I still don't know what I'm going to do with my life. That hurts."
McLaughlin, who still suffers bouts of depression, said he may have to settle for less than $1.9 million to avoid a lengthy appeal of the award by the state. When he gets the money he says he'll buy a nice car and a place to live.
"I'll go from there," he said.