“My kids grew up without me. I came out, they were grown. They had kids of their own. Now it’s just like starting all over again.”
“DO YOU KNOW who this is?” James said into the phone.
James Jr. was on the job when his dad called. He had reached out to the lawyers after seeing the story about James’ release on the news.
“Yeah, you know,” James Jr. answered, laughing slightly. Of course.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
He was telling him he was working and wouldn’t be able to talk too long when a supervisor urged him to take the call.
James Jr. took a break.
He asked how James’ night had been and when he could see him. James’ schedule was pretty open.
That evening, at the WGN-News studio in Chicago, James Jr. arrived where his dad was to be interviewed.
“There’s someone here who looks just like you,” someone on the news crew told him.
AFTER THE INTERVIEW, they met back at the lawyers’ office, driving separately. Another news interview was on deck. James Jr. waited.
He began to wonder how his dad was going to make it with only $14 and some change in his pocket. The lawyers planned to put him up at the Holiday Inn for about a week and were looking into some halfway houses – but no luck.
After the media left, James Jr. thought it best to take his dad to Kmart for the basics: jeans, shirts, belt, watch, wallet and sunglasses. Things a man needs to get by.
Next on the list: a steak dinner.
“Give me a rare piece of meat and I’m a happy man,” James says.
As they talked, in a sense it felt as though they had never been robbed of 23 years. As though it was just a father and son grabbing a bite.
“We just connected back that quickly,” James says. “It really was awesome to have that happen without all the awkwardness that you would think would come with something like that.”
James Jr. dropped him off at the hotel in the early morning hours after a long night of catching up. He’d pick him up the next morning to meet his two granddaughters for the first time.
“HE’S NOT GOING to be able to stay at that hotel,” James Jr. told his wife Felicia when he got home.
The young couple had met as 15-year-olds on Chicago’s Southwest side, around 33rd and Western.
Two years later, they had their first daughter Melanie. Another two years and they were married, moving to Indiana, ready to leave the city and its risks behind them. Felicia remembers not being able to walk around her neighborhood without being whistled at, starting around age 12.
“The gangs started getting really bad,” Felicia says. “The schools aren’t good.”
Their three-bedroom house in Merrillville, Ind., was small and cozy. They didn’t have a dining room, and one of the bedrooms was a tight squeeze. But it was home to the budding family.
When Felicia asked what her husband thought about asking James to come live with them, she knew he might be against it. The couple had once opened their home to James Jr.’s mother, Dawn, and the relationship went sour.
“She robbed us, she was doing drugs,” James Jr. says. “Told her she’d only be able to say if she was clean.”
Their estrangement had added to the pain of her passing just before James was let out.
Felicia thought they should at least give the guy a chance. “Family to us is a lot. It’s everything to us.”
JAMES JR. WAS MULLING it over when he picked up his dad the next day to meet his kids.
When they walked in the door, two big-eyed little girls, 10-year-old Melanie and 4-year-old Rylie, ran to James and hugged him.
James was stunned at the welcome.
“That melted his heart,” Felicia remembers.
On the agenda was a birthday party for a friend’s baby. James joined them, though he wasn’t feeling too comfortable around people.
“Here I am being introduced to my granddaughters for the first time, and then on top of that, I’m being sent to a birthday party with total strangers. A bunch of them,” James says.
He toughed out the nerves, reeling at times, and ended up staying the weekend.
When James Jr. dropped his dad off on his way into work Monday, he had given it enough thought.
“So I know you’re not going to have a place to stay after the hotel,” James Jr. said, backing into the question. “Do you want to come stay with us?”
“That would be great,” James told his son. He felt humbled. “Very, very, very humbled.”
A FEW DAYS LATER, James Jr. pulled into the Holiday Inn for the last time. James didn’t have much to his name, except for about a half dozen heavy file boxes full of case documents that he’d accumulated in prison. They got a cart from the front desk and loaded them into the car.
Back in Merrillville, James Jr. and Felicia had prepared for his arrival, moving their daughters out of their bedroom to a small front space that they had been using as a computer room. James would sleep in their room. The girls would be fine, and it was only temporary. Just until they could get James his own bed.
“Definitely a girly girl room,” he recalls.
With a roof over his head and his family nearby, James slept in his granddaughters’ bunk bed. His new home came with pink Tinkerbell sheets.