By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Spending six years behind bars -- four on death row -- has taken its toll on Thomas Kimbell.
"Yeah, I'm free, but I still think about the doors slamming and all the hollering that goes on in prison. I still can't sleep right now. I get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and look around to make sure I'm out," he said.
Kimbell, 40, was set free from state prison Friday after a Lawrence County jury found him innocent of four homicide charges.
He was first convicted in 1998 of the stabbing deaths of Bonnie Lou Dryfuse, 34, her two daughters, Jacqueline, 7, and Heather, 4, and her niece, Stephanie Herko, 5 and spent four years in a state prison before getting a new trial because his attorney was not allowed to cross-examine a key witness in the first trial.
The second jury spent about 12 hours deliberating before coming back with four verdicts of innocent.
Kimbell said that when the first "not guilty" verdict was read, he didn't understand and had to ask his attorney Tom Leslie what it meant.
Kimbell's sister, Beverly Murphy, said her mother, Shirley Kimbell, started sobbing uncontrollably when she also misunderstood the verdicts.
The family, which includes three other sisters, stood behind Kimbell in both trials.
Kimbell said he has a special bond with Murphy, who at age 7 helped deliver him when he was born about a month premature at home.
"The [umbilical] cord was wrapped around my throat I guess and she basically fought to save me then. She was fighting to save me a second time here. There's nothing I wouldn't do for my family," he said.
That includes staying off crack cocaine, a promise Kimbell made to his family and Leslie before leaving prison.
An admitted crack addict, Kimbell said that before prison he often sobered up for a week or a month and then went back to drugs. Six years in prison have helped break the cycle.
"I plan on spending most of my time around my family because they don't do drugs and they don't like drugs. I made a commitment to stay clean and sober," he said.
Kimbell spends his days with Murphy and is living with another sister.
He isn't sure about his future or if he will stay in Lawrence County.
Kimbell said he did apply for Social Security benefits and hopes to soon get his own home.
Getting a job is not something he's thought about yet.
"I don't think too many people would actually hire me after getting off of death row, you know. It's going to be hard for me to get a job," he said.
Kimbell said he wouldn't mind going back to his former work as a construction site laborer or cutting grass.
But, for now, he's just enjoying life.
He spent part of his ride home from prison with his head outside the window to feel the breeze and he's planning to go fishing soon.
But years behind bars have made him a nervous person, he said.
"Who wouldn't feel nervous after six years being confined in your cell? It's like a dog kennel. You ain't got no freedom," he said.
He spent most of his prison time at the State Correctional Institute in Greene County, Pa., a facility for mainly death row inmates who spend 23 hours each day in their cells.
He is only the fourth death row inmate in the state to be set free, a corrections department spokeswoman said.
His last few days have been spent taking congratulations from strangers.
Kimbell said he's still trying to deal with anger from his arrest and hopes police are searching for the real killer.
"I hope they do catch the person and put him where I was because that's where that person needs to be," he said.