“I had pretty much been vindicated. I had reached a place of feeling like I succeeded in showing these people that I didn’t do these crimes.”
ANTIONE FOUND SOME OF HIS LEGAL DOCUMENTS at his place in Villa Park, Ill., where he had moved, but most records were carefully stowed away at his mother Littie’s house in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. After going strong for a few years, thanks to Antione’s kidney, her health began to disintegrate.
“My mother’s blood was poisoned by a dialysis machine,” Antione says. “She was actually getting worse. She was on her death bed.”
Antione wanted his mother to live to see his name cleared, so he dropped about 10 envelopes and manila folders to the law school at Loyola so that Laura Caldwell, head of the Life After Innocence program, could have a look. Most of the records had come from his lawyer, Howard Joseph, before he died.
“She just wanted to see if it was what I said it was,” Antione remembers.
Laura and Antione had only met the week before at the Howard Area Community Center on the North Side when they discovered he was an exoneree and entitled to compensation under a new law in Illinois. The statute had only recently taken effect, giving exonerees like Antione who were convicted before its enactment a limited time to file a petition proving their innocence.
“I didn’t know he would actually dig stuff up and come forward,” Laura says.
She quickly examined the records, then told Antione: “Well, I’m just going to slap something together with the basic facts. I’ll file this if you want.”
It was the first certificate of innocence petition Laura had handled on her own, and she was nervous.
“Trust me on this,” she assured him, once a team of law students had started working on his petition. “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but this is what you want to do.”
“I trust you Laura,” Antione said.
THIRD-YEAR LAW STUDENT Stephen Donnelly had enrolled in the Life After Innocence class after some friends had become involved in the program. It quickly became known as the only Innocence Network member organization that focused solely on helping exonerees after release from prison. The class operates like a small firm as student lawyers-in-training report “billable” hours and stay on top of their case work.
“This is the first real assignment that was given to me,” says Stephen, now an attorney at a small litigation firm, of the research for Antione’s petition.
One of the law students, who was working for a public defender’s office, rolled into class one day with Bankers Boxes full of court transcripts. The records were a mess.
Stephen and another student, who needed some work hours, eyeballed the hordes of papers and split them up. In a law library conference room, they opened up their laptops, put on their music and earphones and pounded out case summaries in a Word document to report back to Laura.
“It was very, very confusing because of the characters’ names throughout the trial. There was Punchy, Poncho…” Stephen remembers. “It just seemed there were definite credibility issues with each witness.”
Reading through the transcripts, Stephen tried to envision Antione. He was the first exoneree he was to meet. Laura introduced him to the class one day.
“His story is really one that is kind of like a storybook,” Stephen says. “You almost don’t believe that it’s true.”
But the man he had read about in the records became real when Antione joined the class and some other exonerees at a burger and wings’ joint near the law school. As Stephen listened to Antione, he marveled at his candor and positivity.
“I remember being floored by his personality and the head that he has on his shoulders despite everything that he had been through,” Stephen says. “I can’t even imagine how I would handle being placed behind bars for a crime I didn’t commit.”
With one day to spare before the deadline, Laura filed Antione’s petition. They waited.
ALMOST A YEAR LATER, at 26th and California, Laura and Antione sat in court. Cook County Judge Paul Biebel had wanted to have a hearing when he granted the petition and issued the written order – a perfunctory document laying out the case history and the certificate of innocence requirements.
“As such, this Court concludes that Petitioner did not, by his own conduct, voluntarily bring about his conviction, and he has met his statutory burden of showing that he is innocent of all offenses charged in the indictment.”
When the court entered the order August 4, 2011, almost 21 years had passed since the neighborhood shooting and murder that Antione was wrongfully convicted of committing. He had been out almost as long as he had been in prison, about nine years and three months. And he discovered that freedom was an illusion, that stigma was the reality.
“The only burden I’m really free of is the jail cell,” Antione says. “But the burden of having to go through that, the mental damage that it does, the physical damage that it does – it is a burden and it continues to haunt you.”
The judge called Antione into his chambers afterwards. They took some photos, Antione recalls, and talked over corn chips and soda.
“He was proud of the work I was doing then in the community,” Antione says. “He was real welcoming. He told me any time you want to stop by, stop by.”
After the hearing, Antione gave Laura a ride on the motorcycle he built, dropping her off for afternoon lunch and cocktails with some girlfriends. The women invited Antione to join.
“He said, ‘If this is what innocence is like, I like it!’” Laura says, laughing.
But there was only one woman whose recognition mattered to him. His mother was in the hospital at the time.
“She was hoping that she would be alive to see it, and she really did,” Antione says of his mother.
“She was happy, but it was kind of too late.”