“There’s no real common denominator to say this is what makes an exoneree. Because we’re all different. We all have different cases. We all come from different parts of the city. Different parts of the state. The only thing that we have in common is that we were all wrongfully accused and convicted.”
JAMES’ EMPLOYMENT AGENCY called him on a Friday and asked if he would want to work as a maintenance man at a nursing home in Chicago. It was a 9 to 5 gig, starting at $15 an hour. He’d get a bump in pay if the facility decided to keep him. The downside would be coming from Indiana every day and wading through heavy Chicago traffic to get back home.
James had just signed a new lease for a house a few blocks from his son’s family. And his girlfriend, Rena’, had just transplanted her life from New Mexico to Indiana when he lost his job at the steel manufacturing plant. So, without any other money coming in, and with back child-support payments from his time in prison looming, he took the job.
AN EMINEM SONG was playing in the background of the nearly empty Lincoln Park four-lane bowling alley.
Loyola University professor Laura Caldwell and her law students had organized a small celebration for exoneree Eric Caine who had received a $10 million settlement from a civil lawsuit the week before. Caine was among the more than 100 black men tortured by Chicago Police under former Commander Jon Burge. Caine’s torture in 1986 led to a false confession that cost him 25 years behind bars.
“I got this card for Eric!” Laura said, waving it about, as they prepared for his arrival. “What should we say?”
“I think something about closing this chapter of your case,” offered Emily DeYoe, an adjunct professor for the Life After Innocence class and assistant public defender for Cook County.
Laura scribbled on the card.
As the small group of students waited for guests to arrive.
“Antione wants to have a community garden at the Life After Justice house,” Laura said.
“Is there enough room for that?” a student asked.
“Who’s been there?” Laura looked around at her students. “I’m so bad at judging those things. He probably wants to put in two rows.”
Algie Crivens was the first exoneree to arrive at the party. A bald man with light wispy eyebrows, he showed up in a shirt and tie, ready to bowl. He walked up to the bowling lane, ready to take on a law student, Derrick, who also worked as a fireman. One after the other, the guys thrust the bowling balls down the lane, each ending with a big crash. Crivens spun around after his turn, put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. He untucked his shirt.
“There we go!” Crivens shouted with a big smile after bowling a strike.
An hour later, and still no Caine. Crivens had talked to him the previous week. “He’s riding on cloud nine,” he said.
Crivens was released in 2000, earning his certificate of innocence from the state a few years later. It took that long to find a decent job, picking up jobs here and there, living with his parents. He finally moved out and bought his own two-unit building in Calumet City, Ill. Crivens lived in one unit and rented out the other.
Servers brought out some heavy hors d’oeuvres and set them to the side of the lanes.
“This pizza’s amazing,” Derrick said, taking a bite after his turn.
Laura was the first woman to step up the lane to bowl. Gutter ball. She practiced, kicking her leg behind her like a tennis serve. Derrick gave her some pointers as she examined the other bowling balls, trying to find the right one.
Derrick slung a curve ball forward, hitting nine pins. Laura eyed the lane, nodded her head and tried again. Gutter.
“It just crosses over!” she yelled.
James, fresh off the clock, walked through the door with Rena’ and snuck up behind Laura.
“Ahh! How are you?” she exclaimed.
They hugged. Rena’ piped up, beaming. “I’m Rena’, Jim’s girlfriend,” she said in a slightly raspy voice.
“She just moved to Chicago!” Laura said to the others.
“Yeah, I lost my mind!” Rena’ joked.
Rena’ told the story of how she and James met, through letters, as she was inquiring about prison correspondence services for a friend. Rena’ figured James was a safe bet because he was serving life sentences.
“She’s like, ‘Sweet! He’s in here forever!” Laura laughed.
James told the group about his new job at the nursing home. The first day, he removed a refrigerator, repaired another, installed an air conditioner, started repairs on a John Deere lawn mower and worked on a weed whacker which had a spark plug with too much gas in it.
A law student asked Rena’ if she was a good bowler. Not since bowling for a physical education class in college.
“I haven’t bowled in a quarter of a century,” James added, forgetting he had gone bowling with his kids shortly after his release in 2012.
Laura grabbed her phone to capture the moment on video.
James positioned himself, then pushed the ball down the lane. It hit the gutter about a third of the way.
“Shit!” he said under his breath, turning red. Rena’ cringed and smiled at the people watching.
His second try, the ball stayed straight, hitting two pins. Everyone cheered.
Looking down at the black, scuffed-up bowling ball, James smiled. Engraved on the top were the words “Brunswick Black Beauty” and “J-I-M” in three thin, spaced-out letters.
He showed the others, oddly proud of the coincidence.
They finished out the game and their snacks. Caine was still a no-show. Disappointed, they finally left.
Later, the group discovered that River Forest Police had arrested Caine. For months, Caine had felt targeted and harassed by police, according to David Protess in his column about the run-ins. This time the officer apprehended Caine for playing too loud of music in his car. Dashboard camera footage later revealed the music was coming from the squad car.