“I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who lost a quarter of a century of his life. I want to be remembered for what I do now.”
JAMES ARRIVED at the Lincoln Park barbecue joint a little late to meet his family and friends for a party in his honor. Stepping out of the rain, he had rolled his navy blue sleeves up to his elbows. About an hour and a half before quitting time at work, James was delayed because he thought he had lost the master keys at his new handyman job.
“I thought I was toast,” he said. “They were going to have to rekey the whole building.”
Law professor Laura Caldwell swarmed James with her troop of students, there to celebrate James’ recent court victory.
After two summer hearings, a Cook County judge granted James a certificate of innocence, clearing the path to lift the false murder and arson charges from his record and seek compensation from the state of Illinois – about $200,000. Tears had fallen from James’ cheeks when he sat in court and absorbed the news.
Laura and third-year law student Abigail Ledman, who was assigned within the Life After Innocence class to help James, organized the fete, selecting some of his favorite eats and inviting other exonerees to the late August soiree.
James’ daughter Sarah, who had connected with him in prison, was visiting with her 3-year-old daughter Tori. The redhead tot danced around with her young cousins Melanie and Rylie, his son’s kids with whom he lived during his first year of release. James held up his cell phone to take a video of the energized bunch.
Fellow exoneree Antione Day nudged James to tell him he had just lost his keys the other day when he went to McDonalds to buy a double cheeseburger meal for his granddaughter.
“Antione, there’s chicken and beef brisket, pork…” Laura tried to hustle him to the buffet teeming with meat, mac and cheese, coleslaw and baked beans.
“I don’t eat pork,” Antione said. “I barely eat chicken or fish.”
James filled his plate and took a seat at the head of the long bar table.
Abigail stood up on a leg of a stool to get everyone’s attention.
“James is my individual client for Life After Innocence, but I don’t even use that name anymore because he’s become one of my closest friends,” she said.
Abigail turned to James Jr. and his wife, James’ daughter-in-law, Felicia: “I can’t thank you all enough for being that strong support system.”
Then she pivoted back to James. “I can’t tell you how much I admire and look up to you. Everything you’ve been through. If I can half as much perseverance as you, I’d be very lucky.”
James’ smile was slight, but it was a decided departure from his usual deadpan demeanor. He appeared to beam from within.
His grandchildren piled up on his lap, clobbering him on his stool.
“One, two, three!” said Laura, snapping a photo of his family. “And one more,” she added.
They all held their cheesy smiles.
ALMOST A YEAR LATER, James found himself in a court room again. This time it was to determine if he still owed child support for an estranged daughter – now an adult — for his nearly 25 years in prison, during which he wasn’t earning a livable wage.
His ties with his other children had blossomed over the last year.
The previous February, he took a 10-day trip to visit his daughter Sarah and her family on the outer banks of North Carolina. They saw alligators, went bowling, visited an aquarium, swam at a clubhouse pool, tried on silly hats at a souvenir shop and celebrated his granddaughter Tori’s fourth birthday. Her red hair had grown thicker and longer, forming a stronger halo-swirl above her head.
On the trip, James had cooked every night, treating his family to ribs, fries, grilled steaks and chicken. He baked potatoes and served up corn on the cob. He made his pasta sauce with pork-neck bones, layered and baked with cheese ravioli and mozzarella – a famous dish James Jr. and Felicia also loved.
The following June, James headed back out east for Sarah’s college graduation.
Back in court, James sat behind the other dads tasked with paying their exes. The first guy up was trying to avoid paying his wife’s lawyer fees. The judge ordered him to pay $1,500 a month for three months.
“1,500!?” he bellowed.
The judge looked at him blankly. “Yeah.”
From the second row, James wiped his tired eyes, lifting his eye glasses and propping them on his bald head. He was out of work again – this time for medical issues, debilitating carpal tunnel on both sides. He hoped surgery would take care of it.
The next guy approached the bench. No lawyer, he represented himself, shirt untucked and backpack in tow. He interrupted his wife’s attorney. It had been a long court fight.
“This is not my average child support case,” the judge told him.
James whispered to himself: “If she doesn’t think this is average, wait ‘til she hears mine.”
His case was next up. The motion: To reduce or eliminate child support.
“If you may recall, Mr. Kluppelberg was wrongfully incarcerated for about 25 years serving a life sentence,” his lawyer told the judge. “The state subsequently held that money for support. He applied for a ‘clean slate’ and was denied.”
She asked the court to waive all the years owed. The judge said she would enter the order to direct the money back to James. Close to $20,000, most of the money had been snatched from his wrongful conviction compensation.
With more cases on deck, the judge paused. She looked at James and shook her head. Her all-business tone shifted to empathy.
“I’m sorry about this phase of your life story.”
She wished him the best.
James, dazed, answered her. He took a big sigh.
“I’m walking free,” he said. “Just moving forward. Thank you, ma’am.”