It was one of those life-altering moments. I went from not knowing when I’d be free for a quarter of a century, serving six life sentences and three 14-year sentences, to knowing I’d be leaving in 24 hours.
May 30, 2012
ON AN EARLY WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, James Kluppelberg was doing some research in the law library at Menard Correctional Center, Illinois’ largest maximum-security prison, when an officer told him he had a legal call back in the cell house.
James knew his lawyers were supposed to be in court for him that day, about 350 miles away in Chicago’s Cook County. But usually he wouldn’t get a call until the next day to hear the latest.
“Dude, it’s a mistake,” James said to the officer. “My call is tomorrow.”
“You gotta come now,” the officer said.
Escorted into a bullpen, or holding cell, he waited to go to the call room.
His counselor arrived to take him, and James again waited for the phone.
When he picked up the line, there were several people on the call, including Karl Leonard, a young attorney at one of Chicago’s most prestigious law firms, Winston & Strawn. Karl had been working on James’ case for about three years, starting on it as a summer volunteer for the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago, where he had just graduated from law school.
“It’s over,” Karl said.
James thought Karl meant he had lost his latest appeal, his second post-conviction petition, one of various legal routes a prisoner can take to beat a case.
Glancing over at his counselor, he noticed she had a knowing grin on her face.
“We’ll be by to pick you up tomorrow,” Karl said.
The phone slipped through James’ hands. He started crying and shaking.
After a few minutes, back on the line, Karl asked, “What size pant do you wear?”
James didn’t really know. In the Department of Corrections, it’s all elastic.
By the time the call wrapped up, it was getting close to the gallery officer shift change. News had spread quickly around the prison.
One of the gallery officers wished him well. “Couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”
The incoming gallery officer counted the guys. Having heard the news, he told James he should go hang out in the shower, even though it was an off-shower day. He could have the whole room and all the hot water to himself.
James headed to the shower room. Inside, he let the hot water hit him, and he took in the rare moment of peace, quiet and privacy.
It was soon dinnertime and an officer told James he didn’t have to go eat with the others. This suited James, who wanted the security of his cell, not wanting to be swept up in a riot or get stabbed.
“When you’re within 24 hours of being free, the cell becomes your best friend,” James says.
James started packing. He decided he would take his records and letters, but would leave behind the rest of his possessions: a TV, Walkman, typewriter, some clothing and food.
THE NEXT MORNING he was processed out, a more than four-hour process that began around 8:30 or nine in the morning.
James had to ship out his records and letters to the front gate of the prison where they would be waiting for him in cardboard boxes. He turned in his bedding and clothing, keeping only the garments he was wearing — gray sweatpants, a t-shirt and chunky black boots that he had purchased from the prison commissary. His glasses were strung around his neck on a lanyard.
Inside his gray sweatpants pocket, he kept the rest of his assets, $14 and some change.
Karl was waiting for him at the visitor sign-in area in the gatehouse. He told James some reporters were outside. One print reporter, one TV reporter. It was up to him to talk to them or not. James obliged, leaving behind his belongings to go across the street.
A news camera framed him up with historic Menard looking stately in the background. Founded as Southern Illinois Penitentiary in 1878, the prison sits so far south in the state that it’s closer to St. Louis than Chicago. Before the death penalty was abolished in Illinois, it was one of three sites where executions were carried out by electrocution, the electric chair being used 18 times.
The news camera captured James and Karl walking from the gatehouse. In the footage, both are smiling. Karl is tall and lanky, wearing a dark suit, shiny shoes, a youthful head of hair. James, considerably shorter, is bald. His pale skin looks fresh and clear, largely untainted by UV rays for most of his life. But behind his eyes, you can see the years.
“It’s been a long time,” James told the media. “January of ‘88 was the last time I walked free without chains.”
James told the reporters he still believed the United States had the best justice system in the world – he had just slipped through the cracks.
“Unfortunately the atmosphere when I was arrested, there wasn’t a lot of care about it that they got it right,” James said on camera. “There was a lot of corruption in the Chicago Police Department.”
What did he miss out on? The reporters wanted to know.
He had three grown children and grandchildren he’d never met. And his mother died when he was in prison.
“There’s just so much that I’ll never be able to get back,” James said, looking down at the pavement, scanning through the last quarter of a century. “It is what it is. I’m blessed to keep waking up each day, and as long as I God keeps waking me up, I’ll keep moving forward.”
He wrapped up the interviews, then went back to the gatehouse for his cardboard boxes. Car loaded, James hopped in. Karl drove. A paralegal sat in the back.
They headed to Lambert – St. Louis International Airport, driving along local roads and highways before hopping on I-55.
It took about three hours to go about 90 miles. About four times on the way, Karl had to pull over the car so that James could throw up.
James attributed it to motion sickness, having not been in a car in such a long time. Karl attributed it to nerves and shock.
“I doubt he slept that night at all,” Karl says.
The first time he pulled over to vomit, a woman stopped her car beside them.
“Looks like you could use this,” she said, handing James a bottle of water from a cooler in her car.
He accepted it, and she took off.
“A random act of kindness from a woman who had no idea who she had just helped,” James remembers.
At the airport, more reporters were waiting for him. James gave some interviews, all the while captivated by the strange environment with heightened security – more akin to prison than the free world he left behind.
“I mean, used to be able to walk into an airport, put some money down on a counter and say, ‘Give me a ticket. I want to go to so-and-so.’ They frown on that now,” James says, chuckling.
Karl got a call on his phone just before boarding. It was his daughter Sarah calling from Virginia, having just heard the news. She only knew him through letters for the past 13 years.
They didn’t have much time to talk.
“I’m talking on a phone that gets email!” he told her.
“Yeah, they do that now!” Sarah laughed.
The flight left late due to bad weather. Airborne, they had to circle around Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for a while, arriving about two hours late to find more reporters seeking interviews on the other end.
At a Holiday Inn just outside O’Hare, James spent his first night as a free man. His lawyers at The Exoneration Project had arranged to put him up for a few nights. No one knew where he would stay permanently.
In the quiet of his hotel room, he reached for the bedside phone.
He dialed her number. She answered.