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Life’s no bed of roses for murder convicts after they’re exonerated, Chicago journalist Alison Flowers shows in her new book, Exoneree Diaries.
“They just threw me back out into the wild and said, ‘OK, you’re on your own now,'” Jacques Rivera tells Flowers. In April 1990, Rivera, 24, a Humboldt Park native, was convicted of the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old, based on the testimony of a 12-year-old eyewitness. The judge who convicted Rivera sentenced him to 80 years, saying it would serve an important “deterrent effect” to have him “caged like an animal” for a long stretch. Twenty years later, the eyewitness recanted. The conviction was thrown out in 2011, and Rivera, by that time 46, was released. “I appreciate, you know, my freedom,” he tells Flowers. But he soon realized that “my troubles are just beginning.”
He stayed at first with his mother in an apartment on the northwest side. His 21 years spent “caged like an animal” had made him fearful; he slept with a butcher knife under his pillow. Eventually he grew comfortable enough to move the knife from under his pillow to under his mattress. He was unwilling to take the bus or el because “being surrounded by strangers overwhelmed him,” Flowers writes.
He had to learn how to drive again. Befuddled by new technology, he was like “an infant child” around TV remote controls and other gadgets, his sister says. He found work a year after his release, making deliveries from a loading dock. But he had problems with his temper; his outbursts at work and with family members led him to therapy.
Flowers investigated potential wrongful conviction cases for Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project from 2011 to 2013. She works at the Invisible Institute, the south-side nonprofit led by Jamie Kalven that has been instrumental in monitoring police misconduct. Exoneree Diaries is based largely on a series of Flowers’s reports for WBEZ in 2013 and 2014.
Rivera is one of four people exonerated from murder convictions who are profiled by Flowers, all of whom struggle to adjust to life on the outside. (Three are from Chicago.) Their stories demonstrate the personal costs of wrongful convictions—not only to the wrongfully convicted themselves, but also to their families.
Rivera’s three children were ages seven, five, and two when he was locked up; upon his release they were 29, 27, and 23. “They were young when I left them, so they really don’t know me and I don’t know them,” he tells Flowers.
In 1989, James Kluppelberg was sentenced to life after he was convicted of setting a fire on the south side that killed a mother and her five children. Years later, a key witness recanted, and Kluppelberg was exonerated and freed in 2012. “There’s a lot of victims in this,” he tells Flowers. “It isn’t just me. It spider-webs and laterals out to my children, my grandchildren, my wife, my sisters, my brother, my mother.”
The other exoneree from Chicago, Antione Day, tells Flowers about his 19-year-old son, who was murdered while Day was locked up. Day’s request to attend the funeral was denied. “In prison, that’s how people become so hard, because you don’t let things affect you anymore,” Day says. “Because you know there’s nothing you can possibly do.” Coping styles essential in prison but detrimental in the free world aren’t easily shaken.
The three exonerees from Chicago have received nearly $200,000 each from the state of Illinois—the maximum compensation the state offers exonerees who are able to convince a judge that they were factually innocent of all offenses for which they were incarcerated. (Flowers’s fourth subject was convicted in Indiana, a state that offers exonerees no compensation.) Three of Flowers’s subjects also have lawsuits pending.
The profiles are compelling, as Flowers deftly weaves together accounts of her subjects’ early lives, the cases that led them to prison, the years locked up, the efforts to exonerate, and the years postrelease. Amid the exonerees’ difficulties in the free world are poignant moments of kindness. The judge who grants Day’s request for a certificate of innocence calls Day into his chambers afterward and chats with him over corn chips and soda.
The book is about a particular kind of injustice—the conviction and imprisonment of the innocent. That subject receives much attention from journalists, as it should, but it’s not the prevailing story of crime and punishment in America. Flowers points to studies suggesting that between 2.5 percent and 5 percent of all U.S. prisoners did not commit the crime of which they were accused, and asserts that that estimate is likely low. Even if it is low, it still means the vast majority of convicts are in fact guilty. The truly guilty may be less inherently sympathetic as subjects, but they’re no less important.
We know that most offenders are born into poor families, and many into racially segregated neighborhoods as well, but we haven’t been shown nearly enough about how those socioeconomic forces work in individual lives. We need journalists with Flowers’s ability and compassion to tell the stories of the many guilty convicts whose chief offense was being born into deprivation—a crime for which too few are ever exonerated. v