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.”