“I knew I was wronged, but having to go through the transplant with my mom and getting my life together, time was passing me on. You know, when it concerns the state, they put a limit on everything, so you only have a certain amount of time to file this, a certain amount of time to file that. God put me in a blessing position with Laura. Came into the office one day, and she was talking about it. …And that’s how it happened, a freak of nature, she walked into this place and we begin this long relationship together.”
ANTIONE HAD BEEN RELEASED for eight years when he learned there was a word for an innocent person whose case had been overturned. Exoneree.
He had already fought past some of the stigma of being a convicted murderer and tried to move on with his life, working and providing for his family. After he took time off to recuperate from his mother’s kidney donation, he needed a job again. But unlike the last time he found work, standing around a construction site until someone hired him, this time the job came to him.
His friend Melvin had started a reentry program for male parolees and turned to Antione for help.
Antione looked to these men as brothers.
Guilty or not, they were the same, he thought. They were the same when law enforcement forced them out of their cars in front of their children. They were the same when they were denied jobs based on their backgrounds. They were the same when they slept on their mother’s couches. They were the same when they needed food. You gotta ask for help, he told them.
“Ain’t nobody know how your stomach touching your back but you,” he would say.
Soon Antione gained a reputation in the community for helping guys out, and he was recruited by the Community Support Advisory Council, a faith-based program within the Illinois Department of Corrections. He started out on the West Side, then moved north to work at the Howard Area Community Center. He had a job title. Antione Day, Outreach Coordinator.
The job required Antione to go back into the prisons. He was treated like a guest speaker, rather than a former inmate or supposed offender. He was there to make connections with guys before they were released, letting them know where to find him on the outside. He promised to help them when the time came.
Sometimes weeks later, sometimes years later, the guys would find Antione.
“You said you’d help me if I came here,” said a haggard man one day. He wore a red hat, jean shorts, black sneakers and white socks pulled up just below his chunky calves. He carried a bright blue duffle bag. His thick black-framed glasses looked like an extension of his face, as though he hadn’t removed them in years. He had written to Antione.
“You got back to me in two days!” he said, dumbfounded. “You dated the letter on top like they taught us in school. I just want to say thanks.”
“Gotta be a man of my word,” Antione assured him. “Whatcha need?”
“I need housing,” the man said, explaining he had hepatitis C. “I took care of my social security on my own.”
He had a place to stay for a few nights, so Antione set up a meeting with him two days later to talk options back at the Howard Area Community Center.
Sitting across the street from Food Mart & Tobacco, Bargain Paradise and Currency Exchange, the small space resembles a Veterans Affairs office – a little dilapidated, but professional with studded blue chairs and simple office furniture, partitions and a few computers. On nearly every wall, bulletin boards feature inspirational posters and cut-out letters.
“E-M-P-L-O-Y-M-E-N-T R-E-S-O-U-R-C-E- C-E-N-T-E-R.”
“Want to start a new life after prison? We can help,” one sign reads.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”
Potted plants line the front windows. They pop up out of every corner of the center, all the way to Antione’s office, where there are more, clustered on top of file cabinets and shelves.
Turns out, the plants had been previously thrown out, broken or dried up in dumpsters or on the side of the road. Antione would save them and nurse them back to life, scotch-taping the leaves, filling them with warm water and spraying them with a dish-soap solution to kill the bugs.
“My life was broken,” Antione says. “I had to restart myself to get myself to grow again.”
The plants would become so lush and vibrant that his office couldn’t contain them. He would give them away.
“I think the same spirit in me is what keeps the plants growing.”
ANTIONE WAS COMING FROM A MEETING when he heard a familiar voice.
“I know that voice,” he said to himself.
He turned the corner to see Marvin Reeves, a man he had done time with in prison. Marvin was accompanied by a bright-eyed woman with red, swirly hair.
The two men embraced, shook hands.
Antione didn’t know Marvin was out. Marvin had been wrongfully convicted on former inmate Ronald Kitchen’s confession – obtained through torture by an underling of notorious Commander Jon Burge.
Marvin introduced Antione to his friend, Laura Caldwell. She was a lawyer-turned-author who ran a fledgling experiential learning program at Loyola University School of Law called Life After Innocence.
“The universe totally arranged a bunch of things so that Antione and I could meet,” Laura says, noting she had gone to the Howard Area Community Center that day to help Reeves find job counseling.
The three got to talking, and Antione mentioned that his case, like Marvin’s, had also been overturned.
“What a sec’,” Laura chimed in. “How did your case get overturned?”
Antione told her how Mr. Joseph, his real estate attorney friend, had fought for his freedom and how the state had dropped the charges against him.
“If what you’re telling me is true, and you were convicted, and you did nine years and then your case is overturned, then you’d be an exoneree,” Laura said.
“Do you know you’re an exoneree?”
“You went to prison for something that you didn’t do – I mean, did you do it?” Laura asked.
“No, nowhere near it.”
“Then you’re an exoneree.”
In 2008, six years after Antione’s release and unbeknownst to him, the state of Illinois had passed a law to compensate exonerees if they could prove their innocence to the court and show they hadn’t contributed to their own conviction in any way – what’s known as the “Certificate of Innocence” process. It wasn’t the strongest statute in the country, compensating depending on the amount of time served, but still less than $200,000 for people who had more than 14 years in prison. But it wasn’t the weakest statute, where some states offer less than $25,000. Many states lack such laws entirely.
Not only was Antione exoneree, Laura explained, but since his case was overturned before the law was enacted, time was running out to file his petition.
She figured out they had about a month to make their case declaring his innocence and seeking compensation for the near-decade that was robbed of him.
Laura deployed a team of law students and got to work.