Exoneree Diaries: Antione Day's fight for freedom
“I was mad at the world. I was mad at the birds that flew in the sky.”
ANTIONE WAS SENT to Pontiac Correctional Center, a mostly maximum-security prison in Pontiac, Ill., about 100 miles Southwest of Chicago. The prison is the City of Pontiac’s largest employer, and it is home to one of the worst prison riots in Illinois history. In 1978, gang members armed with shanks charged the guards, prisoners set fire to several buildings and three workers died.
“Wasn’t no room for no nice guys at Pontiac,” Antione remembers. “I acted a fool for a while.”
Before his incarceration, Antione was a respected musician who played around town, but in prison, he had to earn a different kind of respect. An innocent among some of the state’s most violent inmates, Antione lifted weights, boxed, started fights and would get into it with the guards, winding up in the hole – or segregation.
“I wanted to be the asshole they said I was,” he says.
Antione’s mom, Littie, wrote to him to keep his spirits up. Once she sent him a postcard of Alcatraz Island, the famous federal prison known as “The Rock” that closed 40 years ago.
“That was her sense of humor,” Antione says. It could be worse, she seemed to say.
To pass the time in segregation, he would do jumping jacks and push-ups. This was his pattern, his way to deal with prison’s monotony, occasional chaos and constant danger. And then one day, he decided to stop fighting against himself and start fighting for himself.
His son Krishon, who was a tot when Antione was sentenced, had come to visit. Krishon asked: “Dad, when you coming home?”
Those words wilted Antione – all bulked up – to tears.
HE STARTED SPENDING time in the law library, reading about other people’s cases in dim lighting, line by line.
When he wasn’t studying in the law library or reading Malcolm X in his cell, he worked in the tailor shop, served in the chow hall and helped out in the general store room. He also was selected to work in the “Hot Room,” where inmates weren’t usually allowed because the products stored there could be used to make hooch.
“Mr. Day works in a highly positive way, is not judgmental and conducts his work and himself in a way that makes it difficult for me to conceive of his shooting a human being or firing a weapon on a public street,” a former Pontiac employee, Helen Mays, wrote about Antione. “Mr. Day talked to me about his children, his mother, how he helped her in the kitchen and liked to cook, and he would turn his life around if he got out of prison.”
One day, he took it upon himself to write to the superintendent and request instruments. He wanted to form a band. He wanted to be back in the drummer’s seat, the driver’s seat and ride away.
Antione found out his request was granted after 30 days of lockdown, the security aftermath of an inmate being stabbed to death. The notice came to him, typed out. Antione would get some instruments, practice space in the chapel and a rehearsal time.
The drums were old and saggy. They sounded like coffee cans. Antione took a lighter and held it under the plastic, warming it, pulling it taut again. It was an old neighborhood trick he used back when he couldn’t afford new drum heads. Tightened and transformed, the tones sounded more like the remembered.
He held a talent show, auditions of sorts, to scope out the good players. He formed a band, much to the mocking of other inmates, until the group was good and then guys wanted to join in.
It was the smallest taste of freedom.
THE FIRST TIME Chicago real estate attorney Howard Joseph came to visit Antione in prison, he didn’t call. There was no message. He had been incarcerated for a few years, and even though Joseph started working on his case less than a month after he was sentenced, Antione had never seen his face.
In a Feb. 24, 1993, letter typed on a typewriter to Antione’s mom, 66-year-old Joseph notified her that he had filed a notice of appeal five days earlier. Joseph had taken an interest in the case because his son Rick had worked with Antione’s sister at a video duplication company. Before the trial, she asked him if he knew any good lawyers because her brother needed one.
“I never thought in a million years he'd be the one to take the case,” Rick Joseph said. He just thought his dad knew a lot of lawyers and could recommend a good one.
Antione was in the gym at Pontiac when he was told he had an attorney visit.
“I ain't got no attorney visit,” Antione said.
Antione went to the visitation room. There, a gray-haired white man faced him. He looked like a mix between the TV detective Columbo and the Dos Equis silver fox, but rougher and more tousled. He wore corduroy mocassins as shoes and let his neck tie fall askew. He shuffled when he walked.
“Sit down,” he said.
“You're Lee, right?” Joseph said, calling him by his proper first name.
"I'm going to get you out of here, but I want you to be patient. I see what they did to you.”
Their visits over the years were frequent, but almost always unannounced. Joseph had a way of calling the prison so that the duty warden would put Antione on the phone. Antione would be working out in the gym or working in cold storage processing meat parts, and he’d be interrupted and told his attorney was on the phone. The calls were short, to the point.
On visits, Joseph would bring Time magazine. They would eat Good Humor ice cream bars together from the vending machines. Toasted almond or strawberry shortcake. Antione would always have the same flavor as him.
Sometimes, with his briefcase in the center of his chest, Joseph lean forward and asked, “Did you do it? Did you do it?”
Antione always told him no. Finally, the courts, after many denials and appeals of the denials, agreed with him.
Joseph had meticulously gathered affidavits from character witnesses and those present at the crime scene who knew Antione wasn’t there. Antione’s mother signed an affidavit as well. She wrote that the victim who survived had visited her after the shooting to warn her that Antione was being set up. The judge who found Antione guilty never heard this evidence.
ANTIONE FOUND OUT he was getting a new trial when he was working out in the prison yard at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill., where he had been transferred. A fellow inmate was reading a newspaper and said, “Hey, ain’t your name Lee?”
“And ain’t your name Day?”
Antione went and snatched the paper from his hands. He read the news and raced inside to phone Joseph.
“Mr. Joe, you’re my angel.”
“Don’t call me your angel,” Joseph reminded him.
AT A HEARING, Joseph shuffled over to the defense table. His corduroy mocassins – lounge slippers – sliding on the courtroom floor.
“People thought he was a joke because of the way he dressed,” Antione says.
Once, an assistant state’s attorney whispered to Antione, “You’re in trouble.”
“No, you’re in trouble,” Antione replied.
Joseph was always more concerned about what Antione would wear when he was released.
“You should get your mom to bring you some clothes because you’re going to walk out of here.”