Exoneree Diaries: James Kluppelberg's fight for freedom
It’s because of kids like that people like me are free.
THEY CALLED IT the M&M shop, like the chocolate candy. It was Menard Correctional Center’s maintenance department, the one responsible for doing repairs throughout the maximum-security prison. For James, it meant something to do, time away from his cell, where he would otherwise spend 23 hours a day, every day.
He had always been a good handy man, so he fixed everything from plumbing to carpentry. It took his mind off his fate of being told when to shower and when to eat for the rest of his life – six times over, if that were possible. Six life sentences.
James was transferred from one Illinois prison to another, spending about eight years at Menard in the 1990s, then moving on to Joliet and Stateville until 2011, when he returned to Menard.
The final move back devastated him because he was to lose his sole support, $30 a month from his job at Stateville. At Menard, he’d be stuck. Twenty-three hours a day.
Apart from several months he spent in solitary confinement at Menard during his first stint, James had the company of cell mates, or “cellies.” They were forced to live close together, but most of them didn’t bother him too much.
Over the years, his contact with his son, James, Jr., and one of his daughters, tapered off. And he lost touch with his mother leading up to her death.
“Cancer?” James asked his sister when she called him in prison with the news. Their mother was close to passing. “This don’t happen overnight.”
A single mother, she raised James on the South Side of Chicago. They lived off public assistance and whatever guy she was with at the time. James never knew his father, doesn’t know his name.
Letters kept him going – he would handwrite notes to his pen pal and to his daughter Sarah, who had found him in prison and whom he had never met.
But in 2008 on a gray, dank day, he had three visitors: Chicago attorney Gayle Horn, who ran a new clinic called the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, and two students, whom she had assigned to his case.
CADENCE AND ASHLEY were third-year law students who seldom used the small annex off the law school designated for the new Exoneration Project clinic in 2008. Instead, they were out in the field, investigating. Lawyers call this the fact-finding stage.
Gayle had been handed his case from Jane Raley, the Center on Wrongful Convictions attorney who helped exoneree Jacques Rivera earn his freedom.
“From the beginning you get a sense he’s an incredibly candid and compelling person,” Gayle says about her first meeting with James.
She oversaw the students, who immersed themselves into hundreds of hours of research. They would talk out what needed to be done, divide the tasks and set out about their work. With a full class load, Cadence and Ashley would spend about three hours in the field after their classes and put in extra time on the weekends.
It paid off. What they put forth in a federal petition a month later in June discredited the state’s evidence that had prevailed for almost 20 years.
Less than two weeks before, fire and accident expert Russell Ogle turned in a new report to James’ team. Ogle had investigated hundreds of fires and explosions, and in reviewing this case, found serious flaws in the trial testimony of Commander Francis Burns, the state’s expert witness.
Ogle analyzed the dozen post-blaze photos of the collapsed home that killed the Luperico family in 1984. One photo shows firefighters digging through debris to determine burn patterns; two other photos focus on the burn patterns. In another, Commander Burns wears a white coat, and most of the floor to the wood-framed home is missing.
At trial, Burns was convinced that the “large, shiny alligatoring” pattern from the debris meant the fire had spread fast, like an arson. But Ogle’s report showed it was quite the opposite. The pattern comes from wood burning a long time – a prolonged, intense fire.
The photos also show the burn pattern on a structural piece of wood that would have been protected from wherever the fire started. Ogle reported that the commander had also misinterpreted the V-shaped pattern he had told the court about at trial. And he pointed to testimony about a space heater being hauled out of the debris, even though Burns told the court that no accident could have caused the fire.
HAD SOMEONE DELIBERATELY set fire to the building, there was another suspect police arrested within hours of the fatal blaze – evidence that wasn’t turned over to James’ defense.
Police reports indicate that a 37-year-old woman, within hours of the fire, confessed that she may have started it after setting fire to her own apartment building not far from the Luperico home. The tenant told police she was angry at her landlord and after a few beers, took a sheet of paper to her stove burners and set the kitchen curtains on fire. She picked up a six-pack of Old Style and left, visited some bars on Ashland and returned home hours later to find a collapsed building, reports say. Because she was drunk, she didn’t remember what happened next or where she went. But as she spoke to police that same morning, she walked on the tip of her toes because her feet were tired from her trek.
The community reeled from the fires. A Back of the Yards Journal article, just a few days after the incidents, reported: “Two tragic fires; six perish, many homeless.” In the same paper, a columnist wrote about an “arsonist on the loose,” asking “Who is burning these houses?” The Back of the Yard Council sponsored a Fire Victims Fund and planned to sell smoke alarms for $8.15.
“I NEVER LIKED JIM.”
Less than three weeks before James’ new team from the Exoneration Project filed his appeal, those words appeared in an affidavit. Duane Glassco, 43, the state witness who had first implicated James, signed it.
“I only gave the testimony that I did so I could get a deal on my cases. I got a deal on my charges,” Duane wrote.
At the time, those charges included burglary. Correctional records show Duane had been convicted of sexual assault, sentenced to 8 to 15 years when he signed the affidavit in 2008. Four years later, he pleaded guilty to manufacturing meth, among other charges, and could spend as many as 30 years in a Michigan prison.
Duane admitted he was high at the time of the fire and didn’t see anything.
“Before I gave my testimony, I met with the police and prosecutors. They told me what I needed to say.”
Duane wrote that he had overheard a prosecutor and someone else talking about aerial photos which showed his view from the attic window – where he claimed to have observed James walking near the site of the fire -- would have been impossible. The birds-eye view shows the perspective would have been blocked by another building.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO law graduate Karl Leonard joined the Exoneration Project as he waited for his law firm job to start in 2009. James’ case was one of a handful he was given.
About a year later, he met James for the first time. James was in lockup behind a judge’s courtroom at 26th and California at the Cook County Courthouse, where he was about to have a hearing that would deny the state’s attempt to shut down his appeal.
With Gayle, Karl walked over to James’ cell, one of several in a line, a noisy area where prisoners await hearings and lawyers stop by to check in with their clients.
What no one expected was to spend the next two years preparing to prove James’ innocence at a hearing, only to have the state tell the judge that they would not be moving forward after all. This news came as lawyers on both sides of the case met in the judge’s chambers to schedule the hearing.
Karl started planning. He had never prepared for an inmate’s release, but the Exoneration Project lawyers helped him, booking a Holiday Inn near O’Hare airport where James could stay for about a week. Still, questions remained: How would they get James on a plane? Did he have an ID? Where would he stay in the long term?
But first on the to-do list was to get a hold of James. Karl called and said: “It’s over.”