It’s been about a month since Chris Tapp was freed from prison.
“Twenty years ago my life ended, and I started another chapter in life,” he said in an interview at his home. “Now, that life ended. So now I’m trying to pick up a new life.”
He said he’s working to try to figure out who he is — to remember who he was before a judge sentenced him to life in prison.
Two decades ago, Tapp was convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge. He spent years filing appeals and petitions for post-conviction relief, arguing that he had falsely confessed to the crime under police coercion.
Then in March, he reached a deal with prosecutors to secure his freedom. Under the terms of the deal, a murder conviction remains on Tapp’s record, though he maintains his innocence. The rape conviction was vacated. He was released without parole or a suspended sentence.
Tapp said he took the deal because it offered a certain path out of prison, rather than taking his chances with a court system that had ruled against him time and again.
In his first few days outside, Tapp said he was mostly occupied with media interviews. At least four national documentary crews have been in Idaho Falls reporting on the case in recent months.
Since the pace has slowed down, Tapp has worked to find peace with all that he’s missed and to take steps toward building a new life.
Intermittently interrupted by text messages, Tapp said during the interview that one of the biggest changes is that daily life is now saturated with technology that he has no experience using.
“Twenty years ago, you talked with people,” he said. “It was personal. Now everything is done through texts and stuff. In prison, we don’t have that.”
He visited his father’s grave a few days after he was released. Tapp’s father died while he was in prison, and he wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.
He also traveled to Tennessee to meet with the family of Lori Hollandsworth. Hollandsworth started out as an advocate for Tapp’s innocence, and they were eventually married in prison. She died in a car accident about a year before he was released. Tapp spent Easter with her family, including her children, who he had only talked to by phone.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It was really healing for them and for me. Their mother invested her time becoming one of my advocates and standing up for me and loving me. I went out there to show them that their mom didn’t waste her time.”
It’s hard for Tapp to explain what the last 20 years have been like. No one who has lived a free life can really understand the total isolation prison involves, he said.
“You’re just warehoused,” he said. “You’re put away. It’s one of the saddest things. … You feel like you’re alone in the world. People (who haven’t been to prison) will never understand it.”
As bad as it was, there are things Tapp says he sometimes misses. He has spent the last two decades within a structure that told him when to eat, when to exercise and basically everything else. It’s great to be able to decide at what restaurant you will eat, he said, but if you’re not used to making that decision, it feels strange.
“You get used to certain things, certain routines,” he said.
Tapp secured a job in construction, though he preferred to keep private which company hired him. Beyond a source of income, he said it will provide him a sense of direction.
“That will give me some structure, some direction about how to do things,” he said.
That feeling of missing structure is common among those who have spent long periods in prison, according to a report prepared by University of California, Santa Cruz psychologist Craig Haney.
“It is important to emphasize that these are the natural and normal adaptations made by prisoners in response to the unnatural and abnormal conditions of prisoner life,” Haney wrote.
Tapp had two messages for the public.
First, though it might be hard to believe, innocent people confess to crimes they didn’t commit under the pressure of interrogation. It’s easy to say you wouldn’t ever do it, Tapp said, but you don’t really know unless you’ve sat in an interrogation room, been told you’ll be sentenced to death and then offered immunity for cooperation.
Tapp has been talking with another inmate, a man who has served more than 20 years in Washington.
“I believe in his innocence,” Tapp said. “I feel for him.”
“There’s a bunch of people in prison who are wrongfully convicted,” he added.
Second, just because he has been released does not mean the murder is settled. Tapp said he still hopes one day the killer will be found. He said that’s the only way he will ever be completely exonerated.
Tapp doesn’t want anyone to forget that the man who killed Angie Dodge, who left multiple DNA samples at the scene, has never been identified. He doesn’t want anyone to forget the work that Angie’s mother, Carol Dodge, has done both to free him and to find her daughter’s killer.
“Just because I’m free and alive — that’s great,” he said. “But that’s a story (Angie Dodge’s murder) that’s being overshadowed by me coming home. That’s the story that needs to be out there. Don’t forget about Carol. Don’t forget about Angie.”
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.