It was a man Kenneth Ireland had not seen in decades.
There he was, unrecognizable, staring back at him in a mirror in a New Haven restaurant where Ireland’s lawyers had taken him for a steak dinner on the day he was released from prison after serving 21 years for a crime he did not commit.
“I remember thinking, who is this old guy?” Ireland said. “Then I realized it was me.”
Mirrors are hard to come by in prison, Ireland, now 44, explained during an interview Monday, days after state officials announced they will not fight his efforts to seek $5.5 million to $8 million in compensation for years he lost locked up.
Ireland went to prison at age 18 for the 1986 rape and slaying in Wallingford of Barbara Pelkey, a 30-year-old mother of four. In 2009 he was freed, after DNA tests — pushed by lawyers with the Connecticut Innocence Project — pointed to another man, Kevin Benefield, as the killer. Benefield was convicted of Pelkey’s murder in 2012 and is now serving a 60-year prison sentence.
While in prison, Ireland was extremely angry, often using it to ward off other inmates. Once released, something changed.
Ireland said he took a crash course in life in the weeks and months following his release. He had to learn how to get by doing the basic things in life on a daily basis: using an ATM card, a cellphone, a computer.