"It's such a hopeless feeling to be inside a prison for something you didn't do. I still tear up when I think about it. I just want to bring some closure and not hurt all the time," says Jeffrey Wayne Senseman, a former Storm Lake man now living in Colorado after being released from prison.
In October 2004, Senseman and a friend, Isaac Salinas, were accused of Sexual Abuse in the 2nd Degree for allegedly forcing a local woman into a sex act at Bel Air Beach. Senseman's jeans, with his wallet and ID in them, were found at the beach after the woman reported the incident.
DNA evidence from the two men's hands matched that of the alleged victim. He was tried, convicted and sent to prison. In a handwritten note scrawled in pencil from his cell, he pleaded for a new trial. Noting that Senseman's attorneys had not called a potentially important witness in his defense - a witness who had given a statement that indicated that the woman in the case had allegedly lied - a judge finally granted that new trial.
Last summer, County Attorney Dave Patton, who came into office after the original case, delved into the evidence and chose to dismiss the case.
"I don't know what happened on that beach, but I had to look at it from the perspective of whether I had the evidence and facts to convince a jury, and my feeling was that I no longer had a strong enough case," Patton explained.
The woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted was in jail at the time on drug-related charges, the county attorney added. "It's pretty tough to present someone as a credible witness at trial when they are sitting there in an orange prison jumpsuit," he said.
The news came to Senseman in the Colorado prison, that he would be freed.
"I cried like crazy. It was a chance at starting all over again - at the same time, it was a victory that wasn't a victory. There wasn't going to be a second trial, so I wasn't going to get a chance to prove I was innocent," he told the Pilot-Tribune.
Salinas remains in prison for his alleged role in the incident but like Senseman, has now filed for a retrial, which would be scheduled for the fall if the county allows it to proceed.
For Jeff Senseman, meanwhile, life on the outside hasn't proven to be much better than on the inside.
He admittedly continued to struggle with alcoholism and was sent back to jail on a drinking-related charge before kicking the habit. He has sought job after job, but as soon as employers are told he has a sex crimes conviction, which remains on his record despite the second trial being dismissed, he is turned away.
His former fiance understandably ended the relationship after he was sent to prison. "She has always believed in me, but she had to move on, and I understand that completely," he says. Much of his youngest child's youth was spent with his father imprisoned.
He is trying to rebuild relationships with his two estranged sons, but there has been a lot of water under the bridge with the eldest, the product of a teenage marriage that failed, and he feels bad that he has not had the opportunity to connect with his grandchildren.
About to turn 50, he is desperately in need of a fresh start. It was a start that began in his jail cell, he says.
After his conviction, Senseman said he was driven, trying to learn all he could about the law in hopes of gaining and winning a second trial. "That was my whole life - it made me more focused, but at the same time, it will drive you insane."
He was near the end of his rope when after his release, he was sent back to jail on an alcohol charge; but there, he unexpectedly found a glimmer of hope.
"The prison that I was in happened to have a recovery and rehabilitation program - they call it R&R. It did help me to see what I needed to do. I can look backward at almost all of the troubles in my life and see the role that my abuse of alcohol played in it."
Since his release in 2009, he says he has been attending weekly therapy sessions.
Patton notes that dismissing the case is not the same as an exoneration - Senseman hasn't been found not guilty of the crime he was accused of. The county attorney admits that he has no idea of innocence or guilt in this instance. "I just never got a gut feeling on it."
Senseman admits that he, and the other man and woman involved in the sexual abuse case, have never been angels.
"I've been arrested before, I've had my share of problems that I brought on myself," he says. "I have no problem taking responsibility for the mistakes I've made in life - but there is nothing that makes you as crazy as sitting in prison for a crime you didn't do."
The woman, who spoke out to the Pilot-Tribune a year ago, says she was lured to follow Senseman's vehicle to the beach area, supposedly to meet up with a friend, but was attacked by the two men shortly after arriving. After acting like she was going to vomit, she was able to get away. She planned to go home, but was stopped by a deputy, and when he noticed her distress, she told him about the incident.
She too says the incident continues to take a toll. "My life took a horrible downfall," she said. Struggling with nightmares of the incident, she admitted turning to drugs to try to avoid sleeping."I've made mistakes in my life and faced my demons, but that doesn't change what happened that night. It did happen," she said.
Senseman's version of the happenings of that fall night in 2004 are very different than that of his accuser.
He says he and his friend Isaac were at Walmart to buy something to drink at around 11 p.m. when the woman, an acquaintance of Salinas', arrived. They started talking, and decided they wanted to do some drinking. Senseman's fiance didn't like him drinking in the home, so the three decided to stop at isolated Bel Air before heading home.
Senseman claims the woman climbed into their truck between he and Salinas. They talked and drank - and according to him, the woman offered to perform a sexual act on him.
He says he got out of the truck and took off his jeans, keeping his sweat pants on that he was wearing underneath. He was not able to carry through with the awkward attempt at a sexual act, he said, and everyone later went their own way, his jeans forgotten and left behind in the parking lot.
Both sides agree the woman was pulled over for speeding after leaving Bel Air. Senseman suggests that she told an officer she was racing to escape from someone, because she was driving her boyfriend's vehicle without a license and insurance, and did not want to have it impounded.
"I understand totally how this looked at the beginning when this went to trial," he said. "It was a no-brainer what was going on there. We were drinking, but what happened was consensual."
He says he was stunned at the woman's claims that she was restrained and repeatedly abused, including allegations of being bit on the upper body, hit multiple times and suffering lacerations of the genitals. Statements from a doctor and nurse at the hospital from shortly after the incident had found no such injuries, he said.
Although she was drinking at the time, a urine sample taken as part of her examination was reportedly poured down the sink by an employee without being tested, he said.
"The four days of prosecution testimony was kind of terrible. It seemed that everything was one-sided. There was perjury, and testimony was contradicting itself. I told myself that once I got to present my defense, it would all be cleared up, but then my witnesses were being excluded. My [court appointed] lawyers kept assuring me that everything was going to be okay, and I believed them."
One piece of evidence involved a ring the woman was wearing, that she testified had been broken in her struggle with the two men. A potential witness reported in writing that she knew the ring was broken before the date of the incident. The witness had given the woman the ring and had a matching one herself - she remembered that when she noticed the ring broken, she had offered to give the woman her own. The witness was never called to testify at the trial. Another potential witness had given a statement claiming that the woman had told her she had lied about the sexual abuse incident. Both handwritten statements remain in Senseman's case folder today.
When the "guilty" verdict was read, Senseman said he "went numb."
"I was just crushed. I had been to jail for stuff I did, and I could handle that. When I got to the prison, I was telling them 'I didn't do it," but of course, they don't want to hear that."
The woman has never recanted her testimony of being assaulted, and Senseman has never wavered from his response, "Anyone who knows me knows I'm not capable of that."
Senseman recalls hearing when his accuser was sent to prison herself later on an unrelated charge. "They say that what goes around comes around, but I didn't take any joy in that," he said.
He remains frustrated that people who he said were deceptive in the investigation and trial were never punished for it, while the consequences he faces will follow him for life. He tries to focus on the future.
"I'm not claiming to be an innocent person. But I've finally got my head set on right, and it's been 2010 since I've had a drink. I'm trying to seek out the counseling that I need. I'm trying to better myself. But to be honest, I don't know what else to do right now. I want to clear my name and that really hasn't happened. My evidence has still never really been heard."
Although his case was dismissed, he says he still faced thousands of dollars in fees, reimbursements and attorney fees. County officials say that a judge has recently taken Senseman's files to determine if he should be granted any relief of his court-related debts.
He served four years and 11 months before the decision was made to set him free. His sentence would have required him to serve over 20 years before even being eligible for parole consideration. Had he served the whole sentence, he might have lived out his life behind bars.
This week, for the first time, he has a call-back on a good job. He says he prays a lot and is thinking of taking some college courses, in hopes of perhaps volunteering as a counselor to help others with alcohol-related problems.
"I've been down a hard road, and I'm stiff frustrated a lot. It burns at me every day," Senseman says. "But I'm really hopeful now."