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Mr Simmons is looking forward to spending more time with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
By Madeline Halpert
BBC News, New York

Glynn Simmons took a long glance out the window of the car passenger seat as he drove with a friend along the freeway to Tulsa, Oklahoma. His gaze was fixated on the night sky, lit up with stars.

It was a sight the 70-year-old had not been able to witness for nearly half a century, after spending most of his life in prison for a murder he did not commit.

“It’s things like that … watching the seasons change, the foliage, simple things that you couldn’t do in prison. You couldn’t enjoy it. You couldn’t see it,” Mr Simmons told the BBC. “It’s exhilarating.”

Mr Simmons was released from prison in July 2023. In December he was declared innocent in the 1974 murder of Carolyn Sue Rogers. His is the longest known wrongful conviction in the US.

His sentence was vacated after a district court found that prosecutors had not turned over all evidence to defence lawyers, including that a witness had identified other suspects.

He was 22 when he and a co-defendant, Don Roberts, were convicted and sentenced to death in 1975, a punishment that was later reduced to life in prison.

Mr Simmons spoke to the BBC this week about his newfound freedom, his current battle with Stage 4 cancer and the hope that carried him through 48 years behind bars.

“Being innocent, it helps you to keep your faith,” he said. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t lose my faith, lots of times. But it’s like a rubber band – you expand and you return.”

A ‘conscious disregard of justice’

In January 1975 Mr Simmons was one of several people arrested at a party on separate “bogus robbery charges”, he said.

He was brought into a police station, where officers asked him to participate in a line-up for the murder of Rogers the month before, in a liquor store robbery in an Oklahoma City suburb. The murder of Rogers – who was working as a store clerk when she was shot in the head – has yet to be solved.

“I had just turned 21. I had no previous experience with the criminal justice system,” Mr Simmons said. “I didn’t know I had a right to an attorney, a right to refuse. I had no clue.”

A customer who was shot in the head during the incident was asked to pick out the murder suspect from the line-up just days after getting out of the hospital, Mr Simmons said.

She never identified Mr Simmons, he said. Instead, she pointed to different characteristics of at least three others in the line-up, according to Mr Simmons’ lawyer, Joe Norwood.

Still, Mr Simmons – who said he was in Louisiana at the time of the murder – was convicted and given the death penalty.

“I don’t call it a miscarriage of justice. It wasn’t a mistake. It was a deliberate act,” Mr Simmons said. “It was a conscious disregard of justice.”

Watch: Simmons: ‘I always believed that I’d be released’

It was 1975 in Oklahoma, when an atmosphere of racism was still palpable, said Mr Simmons, a black man.

Police “had a whole lot of cases on the books that weren’t solved, and there was a whole lot of pressure”, he added.

Black people are about 7.5 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder in the US than white people, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

There were days in prison when he “lost his mind”, he said. He had anxiety attacks, and as he grew older, it was hard sometimes to hold onto hope that his name would be cleared, he said.

“When you watch guys dying all around you all the time, you do the math,” he said.

There would be even more bad news for Mr Simmons. He was diagnosed with liver cancer just a year before being freed, his second battle with the disease.

He was put on a treatment waitlist but was not able to receive chemotherapy before he got out of prison. In that time, the cancer metastasized, he said.

“My struggle to be released intensified more than it had all the years before,” he said.

“You begin to lose faith. But for me it never lasts long.”

A bittersweet freedom

Since leaving prison and being declared innocent, Mr Simmons has experienced a whirlwind of emotions, the most powerful being gratitude, he said.

He spent Christmas with his son, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

“It was beautiful. I had a ball. Everything we’ve been doing is a first,” he said.

Mr Simmons said knowledge of his own innocence helped get him through time behind bars

Still, his gratitude has been punctuated by feelings of bitterness over the decades of life he lost.

Mr Simmons said he had received no apology from the state of Oklahoma.

He left prison with no personal belongings or money for his basic needs and medical treatments.

Wrongfully convicted people who serve time in Oklahoma are eligible for up to $175,000 (£138,000) in compensation – about $3,600 for each year he served in prison, Mr Simmons noted.

He believes any compensation likely won’t arrive for years.

In the meanwhile, a fundraiser for Mr Simmons has raised $326,000, including anonymous donations as high as $30,000.

Mr Simmons wants to spend his new life of freedom sharing his story and working to reform a criminal justice system that saw an innocent man spend most of his life behind bars.

“That’s my inspiration for the future, trying to reach back and help some of the guys who are in the same position I was in,” he said. “We’ve got to do something on criminal justice reform. We need to really rethink how we do this.”

He plans to take time for himself too. Mr Simmons has already been to an Oklahoma City Thunder NBA game. He wants to travel the world.

“I’ve been to one extreme of incarceration,” he said. “Now I want to go to the other extreme of liberation.”

He is also trying to let go of resentments over his wrongful incarceration in order to make the most of his freedom.

“There’s been anger there for almost 50 years – anger, bitterness,” he said. “But you have to regulate it or it’ll eat you up.”

“What’s been done can’t be undone, so I don’t wallow in it.”

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