SARASOTA -- One night in March 1974, James Bain was staying at a residence in Lake Wales about three houses down from where a crime took place.
Police brought the 19-year-old in for questioning after a 9-year-old boy was abducted, taken to a baseball field and raped. The boy told police the man said his name was "Jimmy Bain."
"That's the name I went by at the time," Bain said.
Bain was charged with rape and kidnapping and served the next 35 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He was later exonerated at the age of 54 after Innocence Project of Florida helped prove Bain could not have been the rapist through DNA testing.
Now 60, Bain shared his personal story with more than 70 people Wednesday
night at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee alongside Derrick Williams, a Bradenton man who was also exonerated after serving 18 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
Hosted by USFSM in partnership with the Innocence Project of Florida and the Evelyn M. Duvall Family Studies Initiative, the panel discussion also included Robert Cromwell, a retired FBI agent and president of the board of directors for the Innocence Project of Florida; Larry Eger, public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit; and Harriet Hendel, a retired educator and Innocence Project board member.
"I tried and tried, ladies and gentlemens, to get my case heard," Bain said. "But each time, it was a failure. Each time."
According to the Innocence Project, Bain received $1.7 million from the state of Florida for his wrongful conviction -- $50,000 for every year spent in prison.
The audience sat in silence as Bain and Williams shared their struggles before and after their exonerations.
"I cried many days, many days about 'Why this happened to me? Why this happened to me?'" Williams said. "But there's only one person you got to ask that question to."
The 53-year-old pointed upward.
"God, what's going on in my life?" Williams said. "When God do open doors for you, you make the best of it."
Williams served nearly two decades after a woman claimed he raped her in 1992.
"There come a time in life when things happen to you," Williams said. "You don't look at the bad, you look at what's bringing you forward."
Cromwell, Hendel and Eger shared their perspectives during the panel. According to Cromwell, the single biggest reason for wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification. Eyewitnesses, he said, are not reliable especially if the eyewitness is of a different race than the person they saw.
"Something that I learned through my career that I didn't necessarily know when I was a criminal justice student is this not a level playing field that we're working with," Cromwell said. "The criminal justice system is not a level playing field. I saw it as a cop, I saw it as a NCIS agent, I saw it as a FBI agent. A lot of things need to change and there are a lot of things that could be done better."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.