Exoneree Diaries: James' steel-toed boots

June 17, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
James Kluppelberg

“The days in front of me are a lot shorter than the ones behind me. I ain’t got time for nothing but moving forward.”

JAMES’ ATTORNEY KARL HAD WASTED NO TIME filing a certificate of innocence on his behalf. It hit the clerk’s desk less than two months after James’ release.

Under Illinois law, the certificate would entitle James to close to $200,000 in compensation – money that James knew better than to count on coming his way any time soon.

“These things can drag on for a long time," Karl says. "It would expunge the conviction from his record, which may make it easier for him to find work.”

Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.

Karl would have to prove James innocence again, so he petitioned the court, outlining the same evidence that had cleared James in the first place. He explained that James was falsely implicated by a personal enemy who was looking for a deal on his own case. He detailed how modern fire science proved the deadly apartment building blaze could not have been an arson. And he attached 12 evidence exhibits to the petition.

On top of this evidence, had someone indeed set the fire, Karl wrote, police had knowledge of another suspect, a neighborhood woman who had confessed that she may have been the cause “because of her intoxicated condition,” according to police reports. She was convicted of arson for a different fire occurring the very night that the nearby apartment fire killed six members of the Luperico family in 1984 – but it was James who paid the price for their lives with nearly 25 years of his own.

The state of Illinois met Karl’s filing with a response nearly seven months later and asked the court to deny James’ request – writing that it “steadfastly maintain[s]” his guilt and “vehemently contest[s]” his innocence. James, the state argued, “set in motion the investigation in 1988 that led to his conviction,” by reporting car fires in 1987 that caused him to come to the attention of police.

Within weeks, James’ legal team responded to the state that it was “flat-out wrong.”

“Petitioner [the state] can dispatch of the absurd contention made by the State in its Response that Mr. Kluppelberg somehow contributed to his own conviction by virtue of having ‘been a suspect,’” James’ lawyers wrote.

It would take a hearing to air out the evidence of innocence once more. And without his name cleared and without compensation to help him survive, James would keep bunking at his son’s house and driving his son’s van.

“TEN BUCKS AN HOUR IS BETTER than no bucks an hour,” James said, clipping his fingernails.
He had just returned from an interview and factory tour of a steel-tubing manufacturer where he was offered a temporary, 90-day job, with the possibility of permanent employment. He had to buy steel-toed boots for the occasion.

“Overrated,” he said of the boots. “Cold in the winter, and hot in the summer.”

He bought a pair at Payless that he didn’t like, and Kmart didn’t have the size he needed. He checked back, and a pair in his size had surfaced, but not without some dried mud in the threading. James pointed out the flaw to the cashier, who swiftly gave him a discount.

“Sold!” James said.

An employment agency had found the job for him, so it would take a cut of his earnings. Under the agency’s terms, he would also have to pay for health insurance every week. But with what was left over, James could make good on his goal to find his own place and move his girlfriend Rena’ from New Mexico to Indiana.

“Your turn,” he planned to tell her, after proving himself.

Two days later, and almost a year shy of his release from prison, James went in to work. His first shift began at 11 p.m. on Easter Sunday.