The sergeant says, “Pack up.”

Glen Edward Chapman has no idea what’s going on. It’s a sunny afternoon in April, and he has just come in from playing basketball with some of the other inmates at the maximum-security state penitentiary in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s still drying off from his five-minute shower—if you let the water run too long, they extract 10 bucks from your prison account—and he’s confused. He knows that a judge has ordered a new trial, but nobody’s said anything about when it will be. Pack up?

“I’ve been packed up for a long time,” Chapman says to the sergeant. As one of his small gestures of mental independence, he’s never gotten around to arranging his personal items in a neat space under the bed—that would suggest he plans on sticking around. Instead, he’s kept everything in a bag for close to 14 years while he’s gradually morphed from a wiry and wide-eyed 26-year-old into a stocky, bespectacled 40-year-old. A guard leads him out of Unit III. Chapman expects the two of them to turn right, toward Safekeeping, where prisoners are housed when they’re awaiting trial, but they turn left, toward Shipping. The guard is as nonchalant as a shopkeeper telling a late-night customer that it’s closing time. “See you later,” he says. “You’re going home.”

Chapman figures the dude is joking. When a guy’s been sitting on death row for 14 years, when he has missed his mother’s funeral and his grandmother’s funeral and watching his two sons grow up, letting him go free can’t possibly be as perfunctory as dropping off a package at the post office, can it? Chapman stepped out of that shower 10 minutes ago, and now he’s trading in his red jumpsuit for a white shirt and black trousers, and now, stunned and silent, he’s being placed in a government car and driven by guards to the back exit. And that’s it. One moment Ed Chapman is inside, marked for death by lethal injection. The next, he’s out.

Just beyond the gate, one of his lawyers, Jessica Leaven, is waiting for him. Chapman slides into the passenger seat of her green Volkswagen and stares at the scenery as they roll through the streets of Raleigh. She tells him there’s not even going to be a new trial. After the judge’s order in November, the Catawba County district attorney’s office reviewed the files on Chapman’s 1994 murder convictions, decided there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed, and threw out the case. He first experiences freedom as a physical sensation: A massive weight seems to shear away from him. He lightens. He can breathe better.

Only temporarily, though, because about 45 minutes later there’s a press conference. The TV cameras and microphones make Chapman so nervous that he removes his eyeglasses. Without them, he can’t make out the faces of the reporters, which comes as a comfort. They ask what it’s like to walk out of a time capsule and discover cell phones, the Internet, and energy drinks. They want to know how he feels. But how he feels is a complicated matter. Moments after the press conference he borrows a phone and calls his sons, Stacey and Correy, who are 17 and 20. He has tried to stay in touch with them through letters—sometimes he’d get the boys’ schoolwork, look it over in his cell, and send it back to them with notes—but he has barely seen their faces since 1994. For a couple of days he can’t reach them on the phone. When he finally does, he has a message for each: “I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to be there all the time. Anything you want to ask me, go ahead and ask. Don’t be afraid. From my experience I hope you will learn what road to take and what not to take.” He’s come out of prison with no clothes, no car, no place of his own, and a sum of money—about $160—that would barely buy dinner and a tank of gas. “I know there are gonna be obstacles in my way,” he says a few weeks after getting out. “I decided a long time ago that I’m gonna make it, hell or high water. If I can’t get an apartment, if I got to sleep up under a bridge, I’m gonna get me a box and put some tin on it and I’m gonna have me a good ol’ nighttime. Bein’ on death row was stressful enough.”