How Two Newspaper Reporters Helped Free an Innocent Man

In 2008, I left the Chicago Tribune and moved to California to work as a researcher for the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University Law School. Even there, thousands of miles from Illinois, I couldn’t forget Daniel: I still had the photograph, and it haunted me. But I took comfort in Steve’s dedication to Daniel’s case. My former reporting partner was continuing to travel hundreds of miles on his own time to visit Daniel in prison in Menard, Illinois.

“Steve told me that he wasn’t going anywhere until I was a free man,” Daniel told me recently. “I had learned by then that patience is the key. I never felt there was a lack of effort on my behalf. That meant a lot. I was starting to lose hope.”

As a journalist who has investigated numerous cases of wrongful conviction, I’ve always believed that it’s tough enough to do prison time for the guilty, but that it’s exponentially more difficult for the innocent. Most of the innocent survive by finding comfort in God, no matter what persuasion they may have. Daniel was no exception.

“The first few years, I had no hope,” he said. “I had a second grade education, but I learned to play chess to relieve the mental and physical stress. I worked out, lifting weights.” But the prospect of dying in prison—that’s what life without parole means—was an enormous weight. “I cut my wrist,” Daniel said. “I couldn’t see waking up to see the bars every day.”

Daniel survived that suicide attempt, and not long after, another inmate approached him. “I knew him only by his prison name—Brick,” Daniel said. “He told me that nothing gets done until you start doing it. He said I had to believe there was an end in sight—freedom. At the time, I was young and it went in one ear and out the other, but about three years later, I was lifting weights, bench presses. I had 250 pounds over me and I had done nine reps. I didn’t think I could get the 10th one up and then I thought of what Brick said—nothing gets done until you start doing it. And I pushed and I got that 10th rep done.”

That was the moment of revelation, Daniel said, that allowed him to begin to have faith and not despair. “Brick saved my life,” Daniel said. “I never knew his real name. I don’t know what happened to him. I wish I could thank him. I realized that I needed to put God in my life. And I did. I realized I had to live my life and that it was a life worth living. I prayed and put my trust in God.”

But, Daniel added, “I needed someone else to hear my cry—someone who could make the courts follow the law. I found that in you and Steve and Northwestern.”

***

Over the years, I have learned that lifelines do appear. In 2008, after Daniel’s state petition for a new trial was dismissed, he turned to Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, where attorney Karen Daniel handled the appeal of the dismissal. When that appeal was unsuccessful, Karen decided to file another petition for a writ of habeas corpus. This was a legal longshot because of a concept known as finality — courts typically don’t allow a defendant to keep filing and filing and filing.

But in 2011, the 7th Circuit U.S. Appeals took the unusual step of granting Northwestern permission to file another writ of habeas corpus. This one alleged that prosecutors had failed to disclose vital information: Prior to Taylor’s trial, police had interviewed Anderson and ignored his statement that he had been in the lockup with Taylor at the time of the shootings.

“When combined with the testimony of [a] newly revealed witness and the newly disclosed police reports, this is strong proof that Taylor’s participation in the crime was physically impossible,” the decision said.

By 2012, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which was handling the defense of Daniel’s federal habeas case, had re-investigated the case and discovered even more documents bolstering Daniel’s innocence — documents that were in the prosecutor files but never disclosed to the defense. This evidence had remained hidden for 19 years.

These were handwritten notes of a prosecutor, taken prior to Daniel’s trial. The notes showed that the prosecutor had interviewed numerous police officers at the station where Daniel had been locked up on the night of the murders and several said they were certain that Daniel was in the lockup at the time of the murders. One officer, James Gillespie, said he was certain that Daniel was there until 10 p.m.—more than an hour after the murders. Despite this, Gillespie and one other officer had inexplicably testified at Daniel’s trial that the records were unreliable and that Daniel could have been out of the lockup at the time of the murders.

Moreover, Northwestern tracked down a police officer who had not testified at Daniel’s trial, but who was in the station on the night Daniel was arrested and put into the lockup. The officer said that when he came on duty at 9:30 p.m. the night of the murders, he personally went to the lockup and accounted for everyone there by sight. Daniel was there, he said.

All of this long-suppressed evidence was described in Steve’s May 2012 Tribune account. It showed that back in 2003, following the publication of our original findings, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office had conducted what can only be called a sham re-investigation of Daniel’s case. As Steve put it, “The nearly 100 pages of reports suggested that [Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine’s] office put effort into finding evidence to support the conviction, but little into investigating Taylor’s claim of innocence.”

***

Early on the morning of June 28, 2013, my cell phone buzzed with a message from Steve. He was on his way to the Criminal Courts building in Chicago where prosecutors were going to announce that they would agree to the Northwestern motion to vacate Daniel’s conviction and then dismiss the case. Hours later, Daniel was freed.

I looked at the photograph of Daniel, Steve, and me. And I wept.

I know a lot more about false confessions than I did when Daniel’s letter first arrived. I am now senior researcher for The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of Michigan Law School and Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. The Registry lists nearly 1,200 wrongful convictions in the United States since 1989. A total of 151 of these were the result of false confessions and three out of every four involved homicides.

But that’s not whole story. An additional 87 exonerated defendants who did not falsely confess were implicated by false confessions from actual or potential codefendants. This adds up to a grim total of 238 innocent defendants convicted by false confessions — cases that account for about 20 percent of all known exonerations.

Cook County itself has had 92 known exonerations since 1989 – far more than any other county in the country — and, as we saw in 2001, it has a special affinity for false confessions. Nearly 40 percent of Cook County exonerations involved false confessions by the exonerated defendants (35 of 92), and an additional 16 percent were based on false confessions by codefendants.

In other words, a majority of the extraordinarily high number of Cook County exonerations are for convictions that were based on false confession cases. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, said, last year: “What Cooperstown is to baseball, Chicago is to false confessions.”

***

I recently traveled from California to Northwestern to meet with Daniel in person for the first time in 13 years. He hugged me—the tightest hug I’ve ever gotten—and whispered, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” When he let go, I wiped away the tears and we sat down to talk.

I handed him a copy of the photograph I’d carried with me all those years, the one taken at our first meeting at Statesville in 2001. He looked at it silently. “I’ve never seen that,” he said softly. Then he smiled. “Oh, man, there’s no gray,” he exclaimed, pointing to his head.

The shade of his hair is not all that has changed. “I’m trying to break the prison shackles,” he said. “If I have to write my name and address down, I have to stop myself from writing my prison ID number.”

He is living in an apartment in Evanston, a Chicago suburb, with his brother and his niece. He locks his bedroom at night because he doesn’t want to risk reacting reflectively by swinging punches at his niece if she surprises him in the morning. He’s learning to cross the thresholds of doorways without asking permission. He’s stopped his fastidious practice of keeping his pants under his mattress so they will be pressed with a sharp crease.

He told me he learned of his release when a prison guard came to his cell and told him he had an attorney visit. Daniel changed into clean clothes and accompanied the guard to the attorney visit room. There he was told, “You’ve been set free.”

It is a remarkable moment to listen to a man describe the end of two decades of wrongful confinement. “I almost fainted,” he said. “The guard had to grab me to keep me from falling,”

Daniel went to his cell and took only his legal papers. “I left everything else behind,” he said. Then, he asked to speak to Deon Patrick, who is still in prison for the murders — and who, according to Mixon, is innocent. Daniel assured Deon he would work with the lawyers to seek his freedom, too.

And then, Daniel walked outside.

Sitting across from me in the conference room at Northwestern, Daniel paused to reflect.

“Air is air, you know?” he said after a few moments. “But the air I breathed in when I walked out that door was totally different. Really, I lack the vocabulary to explain it. I am really out.” He smiled broadly. “I am really free.”

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Maurice Possley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The Chicago Tribune. He is now senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations.

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