Exoneree Diaries: James gets a chance to testify to his innocence

Exoneree Diaries: James gets a chance to testify to his innocence
James Kluppelberg WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Exoneree Diaries: James gets a chance to testify to his innocence
James Kluppelberg WBEZ/Andrew Gill

Exoneree Diaries: James gets a chance to testify to his innocence

“I was finally getting to tell my side of it. That I didn’t have anything to do with it, that I was innocent.”

JAMES NERVOUSLY PARKED his son’s Dodge Caravan on the street near the Cook County Courthouse. It was early July 2013. He had recently been let go from his job and was looking for another, but his mind that day was on his chance to testify for the first time in decades.

“This judge held my future in his hands,” James said. “He held the difference of me being able to say I was not convicted of a crime. That I was innocent of what you read about on the internet.”

The state was fighting his attempt to officially clear his ’89 murder and arson conviction and become eligible for compensation, arguing James had contributed to his own wrongful conviction by reporting car fires, setting in motion his arrest. The assertion was “flat out wrong” and “absurd,” James’ attorney, Karl Leonard, wrote in response to the state.

The hearing was the culmination of a year’s worth of back-and-forth court filings and evidence exhibits. Filling the seats around James and Karl were Tara Thompson and Gayle Horn from the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy, who also represented James and had worked on his case before his release in 2012.

But another legal matter was brewing. Weeks before the court hearing, James’ attorneys at Loevy had filed a separate civil lawsuit on his behalf, suing the infamously disgraced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, as well as 13 other police officers and members from the Chicago Fire Department and the City of Chicago.

Burge was convicted in 2011 for lying about the police torture, in which he and others used plastic bags to suffocate suspects, shocking them with electrical devices, among other tactics.

In James’ case, police beat him until he urinated blood, records show, forcing a confession that was tossed out before trial, but not before it had set in motion the prosecution that cost him almost 25 years of his life, the Loevy group argued.

James’ civil lawsuit was one of several in recent years the City of Chicago had faced. It had already paid tens of millions of dollars to compensate torture victims.

With one potential pay-out in the works – which could take years to see – James’ lawyers focused on securing him, if he could prove “actual innocence,” what the state legally owed him – a little more than $200,000, the maximum that could be awarded to former prisoners who had spent more than 14 years behind bars.

James thought the judge seemed to be listening – really listening – to both sides.

“Sometimes you catch judges not really paying attention,” James said. “He pays attention.”

THE HEARING WAS QUICK, but not yet over. The judge scheduled another one for a few weeks later.

James left the courthouse and returned to his son’s van, stopping when he saw a piece of paper tucked under the windshield wiper. It was a ticket for expired license plates.

Having recently registered the vehicle, James headed to the back of the van to check what had happened to the temporary plate he had secured over the old one.

The photo evidence later arrived by mail. His temporary tags had been pulled away for the camera, exposing the expired license plate and making it appear as though James was driving outside of the law.

James decided he wasn’t going to be pushed around while officials covered up the truth – even if it was just a $60 motor vehicle ticket. He was going to fight it and clear his name.