“Daniel Taylor, Juan Rivera, James Kluppelberg. You know, a lot of them, I was in prison with. So we had a relationship in there. We were friends. We’re great. I love being around them.”
JACQUES WORE HIS WORK UNIFORM as he snapped pictures in the packed student meeting room at Northwestern University’s law school. Professor and attorney Karen Daniel smiled as she spoke from a podium about her client Daniel Taylor, who had been released less than two weeks before, Cook County’s 90th known exoneree since 1989.
Seated and facing the audience, Daniel wore an orange t-shirt, a shiny watch and what looked to be new jeans and shoes. He had spent more than two decades of a life sentence behind bars for a double murder he had confessed to as a teen. Turned out, it was impossible for him to have committed the crime because he was in police custody for disorderly conduct when the 1992 shooting took place.
In 1995, Daniel had tried to take his own life in prison. What saved him was an inmate named Brick. Brick was housed a few cells away and called Daniel “Black T.”
One day Brick told him, “Just because you in prison doesn’t mean the fight’s over. It just knocks you down a little. Whatcha going to do?”
“I’m going to fight for my life,” Daniel responded.
Now, some 20 years later, Daniel found himself at his homecoming celebration on a blazing Wednesday summer afternoon in Chicago. Lake Michigan sparkled through the 8th floor windows behind him. People smiled, dabbing their eyes with tissues. Streamers and paper decorations sparsely adorned the university hall, and a caramel cake, Daniel’s favorite, and some other refreshments waited in the wings.
A basket sat on a small table by the podium. It was to be full of roses, one flower for each year he was incarcerated. Someone explained to Daniel they would present him with the roses, one by one, to allow his friends, family and supporters to say something in his honor.
As a line of law students and exonerated prisoners began to form, Daniel’s little brother David arrived late to the celebration, scanning the crowd timidly. He had been to prison a few times, Daniel noted, but his own incarceration may have saved his brother from a similar fate.
“Where’s your mother?” someone asked.
“My mom couldn’t make it,” Daniel answered for his brother. “She had to work.”
Karen Daniel, who invested years in fighting his case with the help of law students, offered her rose to him and read from a J.R.R. Tolkien passage – admittedly “not her style,” she told the crowd.
“It’s just fantasy,” she explained, preparing to read from a scene where Lord of the Rings characters, Sam and Frodo, are having trouble achieving their goals.
“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo,” Karen Daniel read from Tolkien. “The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come.”
Daniel smiled. She smiled back.
The next person in line walked up and handed Daniel a rose: “Welcome back to the world.”
“From one exoneree to the next. You guys, welcome home,” the next in line told him.
“Surreal,” said law student William Staes, giving Daniel a rose.
Another law student, Brian O’Connell, tried to put a rose in the basket, but it fell to the ground. The audience laughed. The last time O’Connell had seen Daniel, they couldn’t shake hands because glass separated them.
“I consider you part of my family,” a man named Miles told Daniel, a rose in one hand and a baby tucked under his arm.
“Most men in prison won’t admit this, but this man is the only man in prison who’s seen me cry,” Daniel told everyone, laughing.
False confession expert and legal director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Steven Drizin, was up next. He gave one rose to Daniel and one to another exoneree sitting beside him.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Drizin said of Daniel’s co-defendant and friend Deon Patrick, still behind bars.
Jacques was up next. He jokingly grabbed all the roses from the basket, garnering laughs from the group.
“This is my brother Daniel,” he said proudly. “We met in Stateville Correctional Center. If nobody in the city of Chicago will say this, I apologize that it took this long.”
As Jacques spoke to his friend, the crowd seemed to disappear. Jacques told Daniel they should kick around at the beach. He had his number.
“I got your number,” Daniel nodded.
“I’m in this with you,” Jacques told him. “You’re not alone.”
Jacques handed him a rose: “Watch out for that thorn!”
Daniel mumbled something about being stabbed before. He held the basket of roses up and brought it to his nose, slowly breathing in the floral aroma.
He walked up to the podium, telling the crowd he was shy but that he would try to get through a speech. He wasn’t going to miss his chance to take the mic, he said. In prison, there was none.
He said he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
“(But) the only way to get it done is to get started,” Daniel said.