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Jerry Miller Comes a Long Way Home

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Jerry Miller Comes a Long Way Home

Jerry Miller. Photo courtesy of the Innocence Project

A Chicago man named Jerry Miller had an unexpected 15 minutes of fame this spring when he became the 200th person in the U.S. to be exonerated of a crime by DNA evidence. In 1982, Miller was convicted of a brutal kidnapping and rape, although he and his parents maintained his innocence. He served his full sentence: 24 years in prison.The Cook County Public Defender and attorneys with the Innocence Project, a national group that works against wrongful convictions, joined forces to get his case dismissed. They continued after he was released in Spring of 2006 on parole as a registered sex offender. Then in March of this year, a DNA test cleared him. These days Miller is doing his best to make up for lost time.

Chicago Public Radio’s Diantha Parker paid him a visit.


Jerry Miller is one of the nicest people you will never be able to make plans with. Our meeting a few Wednesdays ago was the result of more than six weeks of phone tag, planning and rescheduled dates, but that’s because until recently he was working two jobs, usually starting at the crack of dawn.

sfx: (Karen Miller laugh)

We met at his cousin Karen Miller’s house in Riverdale, a few miles south of Chicago. Jerry’s lived here with Karen since he got out last year--but until this March he was still on probation, which in some ways was more frustrating than prison.

Jerry Miller: Being classified as a sex offender, it put me in a box. I had to be told when to leave and when to come back. I had to wait for somebody to tell me, it’s okay, go out the door. I was told I couldn’t be around kids, but later I learned later I learned that they treat everybody like they was a pedophile. That was hard, you know to know that they think this about you.

Jerry estimates there are between 50 and 80 young cousins who he wasn’t able to meet before he was exonerated. One of them’s here now.

J.Miller : Take your shoes off. Watch that white rug! Ooh hoo!

Usually you find a nice quiet room for interviews like this. But on this afternoon the small house is full of people--there really isn’t any place we can get away. Karen can’t even sit down to chat, because she and relatives are cooking for a giant picnic later: fried chicken and spaghetti with meat sauce.

Karen Miller: We do everything together now. We’ve always got together on holidays, but now we get together just because. Just because it’s Wednesday.

Jerry also works for Karen, who has her own business...a specially outfitted bus that takes disabled people where they need to go. Jerry is on the bus by 7 most mornings. He’s also been working at a barbecue restaurant Karen’s friend owns. Just before Jerry was arrested, he’d finished a three year stint in the Navy as a cook.

J. Miller: I know how to cook, but so many people know how to cook better than me I might as well. Did somebody laugh? Mmmhmm. Made some asparagus a couple of days ago, rinsed it off real good. and then put it a skillet with a little butter.

It’s just asparagus, but imagine if you’d been waiting to do that for 25 years.

J. Miller: It’s kind of in the back of your mind, but then I walk to the store and a see it, let me get it. I’m gonna get it and get ready to cook it. Just ideas, I guess you could say just dreams,you know.

Jerry served his full prison sentence, but it was the attorneys from the Innocence Project and the public defender’s office here in Chicago that freed him from his restrictive probation. Suddenly he was entirely free, and even got an apology from the prosecutors who’d convicted him. There was a flurry of press conferences and congratulations, and then the rest of his life was supposed to begin. The exoneration cleared his name, but the rules he had to live by as a convicted sex offender are still with him.

J. Miller: Okay, if my nieces or nephews have come over, I’ve actually forgot that I’m not on parole and they come over and I’ll be like aw man, you know, stressed out, is my parole officer going to come by. But it would go away quick, because I would say to myself what the hell am I doin.’

Jerry says he learned a lot about modern life by watching TV--not surprisingly, he’s been watching the Food Network for years.

J. Miller: I used to watch TLC a lot, Discovery a lot. I love watching business news, because the whole plan was eventually I would be able to prove myself innocent, and I would have to understand what to do.

Just how much there is to understand doesn’t seem to daunt Jerry. But as he and I talk on the front porch, my colleague Natalie Moore is getting another view from Jerry’s cousin Karen in the kitchen.

K. Miller: I’m trying to start an association for individuals who’s been locked up, period. Because by Jerry living with me and being in prison for 20 something years, just living here with him, I realized he had to be trained all over. Little bitty things. I mean--so I said to myself, now if I go through this with my cousin, and I took time with him because I love him, what about the ones who don’t have nobody? Who’s gonna teach you how to use a call phone, cash station, gas station? Whose gonna tell you to slow down eatin’, because they’re used to eatin’ so fast in prison he’s almost choked like three or four times. Who’s gonna tell you you can close your eyes when you go in the shower. It’s been just the little things. So I’ve met with a couple other exonerees, and I keep in contact with them and I have like a support. You know they call me, we talk all day ‘cause they don’t have nobody. People scorn you.

Karen’s also helped Jerry through things that are more personal—telling him not to dress all 70’s, how to talk to modern women, and how to deal with his first broken heart. Jerry’s 48 now but he went to jail when he was 22. She knows he wants to settle down sometime soon.

K. Miller: But the only thing is a really messed up at. I like to cook I like to clean, Jerry does none of that. So when he gets a girl, she’s really--I should have taught him how to do---'cause he’ll throw his clothes in here, like Karen’s gonna wash ‘em. Yeah, he doesn’t do none of that.

Maybe not, but Jerry is a lovely host.

J. Miller: We might have to eat. (DP, in background: I can handle that.) Jerry: Ok, let’s go.

Not everyone in Jerry’s shoes has his attitude and his reflective personality. Obviously that’s a big part of what’s gotten him this far. But the acceptance and patience of the people around him are what’s bringing him into the 21st century.

K. Miller: He loves Sade. He loves Sade! He loves Sade so much I hate her now!

I’m Diantha Parker, Chicago Public Radio.

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