Two men who spent more than 25 years in prison for a crime they did not commit said it was like “walking through hell on earth.”
When they were just 17 years old, Cain Joshua Storey and Darrell Lee Clark, were wrongfully convicted of the death of 15-year-old Brian Bowling.
The teenager died from a gunshot wound to the head in 1996 that investigators in Rome, Georgia quickly ruled as accidentally self-inflicted after he’d told his girlfriend on the phone he was playing Russian Roulette with a gun.
But within six months Storey and Clark were arrested for plotting to kill Bowling and sentenced to life in prison.
“You’re in there with a lot of really evil people, seeing people getting killed on a daily basis and you’re sitting there wondering if you’re going to live to see yourself get out of prison,” Clark told Newsweek. “It ain’t a good feeling.”
However, that is exactly what happened to the pair, who with the help of the popular true crime podcast, Proof, got their taste of freedom in December 2022.
Storey describes the moment a judge announced the pair would walk free after the Rome Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office agreed newly found evidence exonerated them of murder and conspiracy to murder charges.
“I wanted somebody to get a defibrillator and hit me with it and wake me up as if I was in shock or passed out. I didn’t know what was going on… it was surreal to me,” he says.
Even though more than three weeks have passed since they became free men, they are still “in a feeling of joy.” They’d only felt that emotional intensity once before in their lives but on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, when they were convicted to life in prison. Storey describes the “feeling of hopelessness” and despair they felt when first convicted of Bowling’s death.
State of disbelief
“It’s just watching your life flash before your eyes and sitting there knowing that you didn’t do what you’re being accused of. But here it is, your life has been taken from you because of it and you don’t know what your future looks like,” he explains. “That right there is a dark hole to stare into.”
But 25 years later, they were in a state of disbelief once again “listening to this judge sitting there and literally apologizing on the behalf of the State of Georgia.”
“That’s unheard of. You don’t have judges doing stuff like that… making apologies,” Storey adds.
While Clark was completely exonerated of his charges, Storey made a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for bringing the gun the night Bowling died. He received a sentence of 10 years, which he had already served, and was therefore eligible for immediate release.
The men gushed over the work of “rock stars” Jacinda Davis and Susan Simpson, the women behind the Proof podcast, which is produced by Red Marble Media, who helped dig up the new evidence that helped them walk free.
Executive producer Davis and attorney-turned-investigative podcaster Simpson found out about the pair’s story after Clark approached the Georgia Innocence Project for help to overturn his conviction. But it was also thanks to Davis and Simpson that Storey got legal representation with Luke Martin after “we put a call out to attorneys listening if they were interested in taking on Josh’s case.”
“Luke came on board in July and then the guys got out in December. I mean that’s warp speed, that’s incredible,” Davis tells Newsweek.
The Proof team did not have much evidence or paperwork to go on when it started investigating the men’s case and so turned to some old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground work to find critical evidence.
“We had very little to go on, so there was a lot of in-the-field knocking on doors, re-interviewing witnesses and talking to people,” Davis adds.
As podcasters they are inundated with cases and it can often be tough to choose which ones are right for their podcast. They can spend years investigating a case only to find it isn’t suitable or they don’t have enough evidence.
But they are clear on what they look for when they decide to take on a case because “it’s not something we take lightly.”
“We take on cases if there’s a difference that needs to be made… and I wish we had more time to look at more and more cases, but it is time consuming and it’s very, very thorough,” Davis explains.
Simpson adds: “[What] we’re looking for in a case is if it looks like something went wrong with the system and we think that it’s possible our re-investigation can make a difference.”
The women’s hard work paid off because they were able to speak to key witness in the original trial, including a woman at a party who claimed she overheard Clark and Storey say they planned Bowling’s murder because he knew about a prior theft they’d committed.
‘Lots of tears’
It turns out she had been coerced into giving false statements and testimony because police had threatened to take her children away if she didn’t comply.
In their original 1998 trial, prosecutors also relied on testimony from a hearing and speech-impaired man who was in the house at the time of the shooting but in a different room. They thought he said he saw Clark running through the yard after the shooting but in fact was unable to separate that night from a shooting he witnessed in 1976.
The relief of finally helping the men gain their freedom was huge for the podcasters who came to know them and their families very well over the years.
“As soon as the judge hit his gavel and was done, it was such a relief and I can’t explain the emotion. There was joy, lots of tears, lots of laughter and lots of hugging in that courtroom,” Davis says.
The verdict has seen an increase in interest in the Proof podcast, whose listener rates have exploded in the past month.
Davis and Simpson explain it probably has a lot to do with the fact that people are fascinated with true crime, but also want to hear a story with a happy ending.
“It’s not so much about the crime, but there’s themes that everyone can relate to. Themes of betrayal, being misled, themes of redemption, guilt, forgiveness, compassion, and all these things are tied up in any crime story,” Davis says.
Simpson adds: “It’s an interesting genre because it covers so much ground, but I think the the pigeonhole of true crime doesn’t really explain what something is because there’s a whole universe beneath that.”
The next challenge for Clark and Storey is to adapt to a world that has changed greatly since 1996, from the “George Jetson cars” to the “pressure of meeting people’s expectations.”
“It’s just simple stuff, you’re trying to get on with your life… I take long walks with myself… that’s how I cope,” Storey says.
They also noticed how much bigger and busier their home city has become in the past 25 years.
“It’s like you’ve been in a time machine and gone forward 25 years, you’ve got to take a step back to take it all in,” Storey adds.
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