2 years free — Wrongfully convicted NJ man ‘in a good place’
He had spent 24 years out of society, stuck within the walls of New Jersey State Prison. Worse yet, he was serving time for a murder he did not commit.
So while Ralph Lee Jr. was thrilled to learn in 2017 that DNA evidence would finally set him free, he'd soon also learn the quick plunge back into reality wouldn't be easy.
"Finding my path in life, starting over, was basically the roughest part," Lee, of Paterson, told New Jersey 101.5. "Everything was kind of difficult for me because I had anxiety problems."
Lee, 57, feared the outdoors, he said. If he happened to be outdoors, he was constantly weary of who was walking behind or in front of him. At times, he literally could not speak, and had to have an advocate on hand for appointments.
Beyond internal issues, Lee was also attempting to acclimate to a world that had changed drastically over the more than two decades he was behind bars. Tasks such as using a cell phone or emailing, which would help ease the process of obtaining certain services on the outside, were foreign to Lee.
Lee received mental health services to better himself, and stayed with his son's family until he can solidly get back on his own feet.
"It took about a year of struggling," Lee said.
Today, a little more than two year's since his release, Lee says he's "in a good place." He has his own apartment and sees his son and grandchildren regularly. Lee has also secured a job with CarePlus Workforce Solutions in Paterson, which provides employment and training opportunities to the disabled and economically disadvantaged.
"Our workers are able to make a competitive wage, which in turn helps them to live more independently in the community," said CPWS Executive Director Brigitte Johnson.
Lee serves as a janitorial services employee for the social enterprise.
"I accomplished a lot in the time I've been home, and I feel good about that," Lee said.
Lee was freed on the same day as his co-defendant Eric Kelley. They were both charged and convicted in the 1993 murder of a video store clerk.
The Innocence Project worked for years to prove their innocence. DNA on a baseball cap found at the crime scene and believed to have been worn by the killer did not match either man.
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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.