Prison is a wasteland where boundless time tests and wears down incarcerated minds and souls.
Ian Simmers knows it all too well.
The Kent man spent 24 years behind bars for a crime, he insists, he didn’t commit.
Now a free man, Simmers has something to get up for every day.
As a troubled, 16-year-old kid with a substance abuse problem, Simmers had confessed to stabbing to death 35-year-old Rodney Gochenour on a trail along the Sammamish River near Bothell on March 10, 1995. Tried as an adult in King County Superior Court, Simmers was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to prison for 46 years.
But some legal experts found the case against Simmers dubious. He would later claim that police had coerced him into a false confession for an attack, robbery and murder he did not commit.
Defense attorney John Hicks noted that detectives had interrogated Simmers for about 10 hours before they drove him to the trail where they recorded his final statement.
“My memories don’t have a murder in it because I didn’t do it,” Simmers said of the night of the murder. “Aside from the manipulation of the confession … I was just filled with stupidity, so that left me very vulnerable to their manipulations. If they would have done a more thorough job investigating, they would have determined that my confessions were not valid.”
But time and change shed new light on the case.
In the years since Simmers’ conviction, the justice system has changed how it weighs evidence, especially when the defendant is a juvenile, part because of new research that suggests false confessions are more common among young suspects.
Furthermore, DNA results failed to link Simmers to the murder, and the credibility of a jailhouse informant’s testimony was called into question.
On Feb. 26, judge Patrick Oishi granted the King County prosecutors’ motion to vacate the conviction and set Simmers free. While prosecutors say they do not believe Simmers “is innocent of the crime, or that he was wrongly convicted,” they asked Oishi to vacate the conviction because he had already served 23 years and was seeking a new trial, a proceeding that, if held, they said, “would not be in the interests of justice.”
Free to go, Simmers apologized to the victim’s family. The murder, by most accounts, is still a mystery.
“Liberating but a little nerve racking because I spent so long in prison,” Simmers said of his release. “I really didn’t know ‘how to be’ on the outside.
“Everybody has a chance to make choices,” he added. “You can either choose to do the same things over and over again or learn from your experiences and evolve.”
Over the last six months, Simmers has gradually adjusted to civilian life and adopted a positive outlook. No longer the angry teen who was following a path to self-destruction, the recently turned 41-year-old man works late-night and early morning hours in packing at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Kent.
“There’s a popular conception that it’s difficult for felons to find work. It’s not,” he said. “You just have to put in the effort. Be willing to work, not just get handout money, and people will help you.”
It’s a hard, uncomplicated job, he said, but it puts money in the pocket while he finds his feet. He lives with his mother, Donna Berube, at her Kent home.
“I’ve been truly amazed just how much she stood by me…even during those days when I didn’t deserve it,” Simmers said.
While in prison, Simmers earned his GED and two college-level certificates. He stayed in shape lifting weights and never lost his optimism that he would return to civilian life.
Now that he has a new chance at a productive life, Simmers vows to make the best of it.
On a recent Saturday, Simmers sat under the bright lights at Kent Smiles Dentistry as Dr. Joonil Park examined his teeth and gums. The first phase of treatment called for some extractions and clearing infections.
In the weeks to come, Simmers will be treated and fitted for implanted teeth, thanks to the dentistry’s charitable ways. A new, fully restored smile can take anywhere from two to six months, depending on the patient, Park said.
Through a partnership with After Innocence, Kent Smiles Dentistry chose Simmers to receive about $7,000 worth of pro bono treatment. After Innocence is a nonprofit organization that provides America’s wrongfully convicted, innocent people with re-entry help, services and support.
“We’re always looking to partner with local charities,” Park said. “We want to be a part of our community and give back to our community, so we’re always on the lookout for groups that are in need.”
Kent Smiles Dentistry has chosen three other candidates from its pool of patients to receive free treatment.
The gesture humbled Simmers.
“It’s gratifying that there are places that do this community outreach thing for people who don’t necessarily have the finances set up to make sure their things are done right,” he said.
Without resentment or anger, Simmers is making up for lost time.
“I’m not trying to get back at (those responsible for his imprisonment). I’m just trying to get a foundation for moving forward because I’ve had a quarter century stolen from me,” he said. “That’s 25 years where I could have been working for the future, and I don’t have that.”
In retrospect, he said, prison may have prevented his early death.
“Was it difficult? Yes, but I always viewed it as prison saved my life,” he said. “It’s hard to be angry at something that saved me.”
Today, Simmers enjoys the solitude and sanctuary of the outdoors. He enjoys hiking, camping and cycling. He has found peace in his new-found freedom.
“I like being in forested areas, free of many things, being very open and closed at the same time,” he said. “I’m finding that I enjoy small things.”