TAMPA — After 35 years in prison for a rape that DNA proved he didn't commit, James Bain, 54, is at home in West Tampa with his mom. Sometimes excited. Sometimes measured. Mostly amazed.
He can eat butter pecan ice cream, walk outside or turn on the TV. He can telephone his sister, put on a red T-shirt or look in a mirror.
"Part of me went into hibernation in prison," he says. "But every day, I'm waking up a little more."
The house is cozy — flowers, knickknacks, brocade sofas and layers of curtains everywhere. Closets and cabinets have been cleared out for him, but Bain keeps his belongings crowded together on top of a small bureau because he's "not used to space."
Released last month, he sleeps perfectly still in a small corner of a king-size bed, which, he notes, is almost as big as an entire cell. He ventures outside and walks past a few houses — about the length of a prison yard — before returning.
"I'm used to close," he explains.
His niece, Tanya Wright, has come from Atlanta to cook for him. Breakfasts of eggs, French toast, sausage, juice and coffee. Lunches of crispy fried chicken filets that have that name he always forgets — "Oh, yes, chicken fingers." Dinners of whatever strikes his fancy.
He's working on spontaneity. Making decisions. Saying what comes to mind without fear.
"I can see freedom, smell it, taste it," he says. "But sometimes freedom and I are not one."
Wright puts her arm around him. Talks about how he drifts off. Talks about how the family prays he's okay.
"He's very humble, very private and we want to honor that. But if there's something we can say to bring him out, we want to do that, too," she says.
"I do think about being back in prison and some of the people I left behind," he whispers.
A lifetime ago, on March 4, 1974, police knocked on the door of the Bain family home in Lake Wales after midnight. They asked Bain, 18, to come to the station for a few hours "to help solve a little problem."
A 9-year-old boy had been raped across town. The description of the rapist — "17 or 18 with … bushy sideburns … (who) said his name was Jim" fit the description of James Bain, the victim's uncle said. The next day, the boy picked Bain's photo out of a group of five and identified him as the man who snatched him from his bed and raped him on a baseball field.
Five months later, a jury convicted Bain. He got a life sentence.
At the time, he was a high school senior, working nights and weekends at a cardboard box assembly plant and planning to go to college. He rode around town on a red Honda motorcycle, which he bought with his wages. He had never been in any trouble.
"During all those years in prison with the air so still and stale, I would think about how the wind used to feel around me," he said. "It's that feeling I want to have again."
Because the prosecution declared his "actual innocence" in the order that released him, he is likely to get compensation of $1.7 million in the next year.
He and his mother talk about his plans to get a motorcycle in the next year. They talk about moving to a retirement community and taking trips. He wants to get a passport to visit his father's family in Nassau, Bahamas. He wants to ride a motorcycle to Baltimore.
But they don't talk about the night the police took Bain away even though the family insisted he had been at home when the rape occurred. They don't talk about how his mother sobbed in the courtroom when the judge read the verdict.
"Some things are just too sad," says Bain's sister, Janie Jones.
A few nights after he got out of prison, Bain's attorneys from the Innocence Project of Florida, who persuaded a judge to order the DNA testing that led to his Dec. 17 release, took him to a sports bar.
Bain uses thesaurus-style language he learned in prison to describe that night: "I was pleased to seize the opportunity to experience numerous amounts of these large screens."
The next night, they took him to a 3-D screening of Avatar.
"Most definitely amazing," he says.
But what amazed him more than the movie, he says, was all the iPhones and BlackBerrys flashing in the audience during the previews.
"Like being on an airport runway, with rows of small lights everywhere."
He thinks about traveling a lot, he says. But for now, he's home with family, reveling in the company of his mother, siblings, nieces and nephews. He sleeps with a fan on to feel the movement of air. He sits with his hands apart to remind himself there are no handcuffs. He eats with a fork, knife and spoon.
"I'm rusty, but I'm coming back," he says.
"This new year promises to be the best in our lives," says his mother.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8068.