Notebook: Facing Freedom

Christopher Ochoa stands outside the University of Wisconsin Law School building Wednesday, May 10, 2006, in Madison, Wis. The legal system put Ochoa in prison for life for a murder he didn't commit. Now he stands ready to join that same system when he graduates from the University of Wisconsin Law School on Friday. Ochoa was the first person students in the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a course at the law school, freed.

This reporter's notebook was written by CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

When I was assigned Christopher Ochoa's story I wondered kind of person I would find, what kind of person would be left after 12 years behind bars.

The sad truth is prison is hard even for the guilty, but is particularly hard on the innocent.

Over the last seven years I've covered the cases of several men who've been exonerated and set free. I've seen the initial joy give way to confusion, fear and anger.

As much as you hope and pray that this person who has spent a decade or more doing hard time will somehow be able to just pick up where they left off and continue — it's not that easy. I've seen men go home only to lose the very loved ones who've stood behind them for so long. I've seen men exonerated of one crime go on to commit another.

I prayed Christopher wouldn't be that "broken." When I met him I was struck by first his appearance, he calls to mind a young Robert Blake. He looked me in the eye, but I could see he was shy. He was remarkably soft spoken but his words were powerful.

Read Cynthia Bowers' Evening News report
He talked for a long time about the loneliness and loss of hope that after eight years behind bars drove him to consider suicide. Even today, after five years of freedom, he says he still has nightmares about prison. (He sleeps with his TV on so when he wakes up in a sweat he'll know he is only dreaming.)

He has felt great anger at the hand life dealt him — but he says he won't give in to bitterness. Chris genuinely believes too much of America's energy is being zapped by individual bitterness over injustices, real and imagined.

He still believes America is a great country. And even though he says he's a Democrat, and even though his travesty began during George Bush's tenure as governor, he hopes one day to get an invitation to the White House, where he says he'll shake the president's hand.

He credits his success to a burning desire not to be defined by what happened to him but by what he made happen.

I wish him luck.