“My goal was to start my life over, and she was part of that goal because I want to spend the rest of my life with her. To do that, I had to achieve certain things: employment, a place to live. It was very trying at times. Sometimes very frustrating when it wasn’t materializing as fast as I’d hope.”
JAMES DECIDED TO SELL his white gold wedding ring for some extra cash. He got about $160 for it at the Southlake Mall in Hobart, Ind. Married and divorced twice, he was used to having some weight on his finger.
“It’s my fidget tool,” James says. “Some people smoke. I just don’t feel right without out it.”
In prison, the band had provided comfort and the sense of connection, even when he felt he had long been forgotten.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
After selling off the ring, James bought a new ring for $40. It signified nothing, other than it took the place of something that was missing.
Missing on James’ right hand was a pinky finger. He had a habit of telling people he lost it in a piece of machinery – which was true, in a way. As a boy, he and his friends like to ride on a parking gate by stepping on the cord that ran along the pavement. James was hanging on the top when the gate cut his finger. After a few corrective surgeries, they took his finger for good. The knob at his pinky knuckle is still tender, but not as bad as it used to be when the slightest brush felt like a hammer was hitting it.
The other item he carried with him, tucked away in his Velcro hunter’s camouflage wallet, was a laminated card documenting his 1985 high school equivalency certificate from the Illinois Community College Board. He had attended Carter H. Harrison Technical High School, never finishing due to a run-in with an assistant principal. The high school was shuttered in 1983.
“IF YOU WANT TO PROVE your work ethic, you’re going to have to show me,” Rena’ told James.
His dedicated prison pen pal-turned-romantic interest was about to turn into his temporary boss. She managed an Econo Lodge in Silver City, New Mexico, and James needed some fresh work experience to add to his resume.
Rena’ cleared the visit with her boss, and James came down to work for about a week, fixing drywall, plumbing and doing electrical repairs, or anything that was needed.
“He exhibited a skilled and patient demeanor when applying techniques to resolve issues spanning from basic room repairs to major plumbing and electrical issues,” Rena’ would later write in a letter of recommendation. “Always cordial and respectful of the hotels guests he never failed to address each person he met with a smile and kind remark.”
Silver City, a copper mining town, was losing its industry, causing a dip in business for Rena’.
James wanted her to move up north. Rena’ had her reservations.
“I refuse to support or take care of another man,” Rena’ said, noting previous boyfriends who had taken advantage of her. “They were always codependent and saw me as more of a meal ticket than partner.”
A job and a place to live, she told James. That’s what it would take for her to pack up her life.
James made it his goal to save every dime from every odd job he could to put down money on a place and pay it three months in advance. He wanted to prove to Rena’ he could make it.
They talked every day, and James got a Bluetooth device so that he could be hands free as he drove around to apply for jobs or help out the church folks. He had outfitted his son’s Dodge Caravan with a power-inverter, converting the van’s power to household power, which allowed him to use a printer on the go.
“Somebody would ask me for something and instead of having to come back or mail it, I’d say ‘Give me a minute,’ and I’d go out to the van and print out what they wanted,” James says.
He used it to print out extra copies of his resume, recommendation letters and articles about his case. Or to print out directions as he kept trying to find his way.
JAMES MANAGED TO VISIT RENA’ AGAIN, and the two drove over to Tombstone, Ariz., for a weekend trip.
Living up to its name, Tombstone’s Boothill Graveyard captured James’ interest. The historic site featured the graves of “outlaws, victims, suicides, and hangings, legal and otherwise, along with the hardy citizens and refined element of Tombstone's first days,” according to a tourism website.
One tombstone sat amidst the outlaws and hardy citizens, among rubble and rocks, with a cross in the background:
HANGED BY MISTAKE
HE WAS RIGHT
WE WAS WRONG
BUT WE STRUNG
AND NOW HE’S
James stopped and pulled out his cell phone to snap a picture: “They’ve been getting it wrong for a long time. It’s time people started paying attention to that.”