By Jeffrey Felshman
The first thing my two sons noticed on election day was the cluster of red-white-and-blue placards, planted in a clump of wet leaves, that said, “Jim Ryan Attorney General.” The younger one, who is six, asked what they were. I explained, and realizing that November 3 marked the third anniversary of the day Rolando Cruz was released from prison, I told them the story in which Ryan played such a large part.
Many years ago, I began, a little girl was horribly murdered. The police wanted to find the killer fast, and they thought they did. They arrested three men who, they said, were in it together. Prosecutors took the three men to court, where two of them were found guilty and sentenced to death. One was Alejandro Hernandez. The other was the ringleader, police said, and that was Rolando Cruz.
But even before the trial it looked like the police and prosecutors had made a mistake. Afterward it seemed certain. There was hardly any evidence against Rolando Cruz and the others, and there even turned out to be another guy, Brian Dugan, who said he was the real killer. And a ton of evidence backed this guy up. People had seen his car near the little girl’s house. He’d murdered another little girl in the same way as the first had been murdered. But the police and the prosecutors wouldn’t admit they might have made a mistake. They still wanted to execute Hernandez and Cruz.
A detective on the case quit his job because he said he didn’t want to convict innocent people. A prosecutor quit for the same reason. But it was only after 12 years that one of the policemen went to court and disavowed the only remaining evidence–Rolando Cruz’s supposed account of an incriminating “vision.” Finally the innocent men were freed.
Get this, I said. The Jim Ryan whose name was on the sign was the boss of the prosecutors who tried to have the men executed. Now he’s the top cop in Illinois. “Dad,” the six-year-old broke in, “I can’t tell the other kids this story.” Why not? “They won’t believe me. They’ll think I’m making it up.”
There are a few things that Rolando Cruz would like everyone to know. He might be famous, but he’s not rich. Just because he’s been on television doesn’t mean he was paid to be there. There’s no foundation supporting him; he has to work like everybody else. Though he’s not unhappy about the celebrity that’s come to him, he fiercely guards his privacy. Others presuming to speak for him have reported fallacies as fact. He can speak for himself. He needs to speak. He doesn’t know why, but he believes he is more compelled to speak than any of the other innocent people who have been released from death row. He can’t help himself.
“There’s supposedly 74 of us who are innocent who came off death row,” he says. “I have never personally met all 74, so I don’t know if there is or if there isn’t. I know there is supposed to be at least 70.
“Why isn’t it them?” he wonders. “Most people who’ve come off death row have not spoken out. They do not do the speeches, do not do the lectures, they can go and hide in the world. But for some reason I have not been afforded that opportunity to go and hide. I feel guilty if I go hide. I feel guilty if I don’t speak out, if I don’t educate, because I know I have to. It’s kind of a personal thing. But why me?
“I’m supposedly the celebrity of death row, the cause celebre of death row. And I say, why?” He laughs. “You got a host of others.”
Cruz lights a Kool. Sitting in my kitchen with a tape recorder between us, both of us are nervous. The enormity of those 12 years separates us too. A passionate man, Cruz shows his feelings in his face, which turns from pained and vulnerable to a boyish grin to taut anger in eye blinks. I don’t have to ask many questions or prod him. Cruz has a lot to speak about.
He’s 35 years old now. It’s been three years since he was released from prison, going on 15 since he was charged with murder. Twelve years on death row? Well, he says, not exactly. “I think I did close to nine and a half years on death row and I think there were two-plus years, close to three years, in the county.” A middle-class troublemaker from Aurora, Cruz was no stranger to Du Page County authorities when he, Hernandez, and Stephen Buckley were charged with the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico. At the time he became a suspect he was already in the county jail on an unrelated burglary charge.
“One of my lawyers had told someone–there was an interview–and one of my lawyers came out and he had assumed that I came from a poor background. He goes, ‘Well, you know, Rolando came from this underprivileged background.’ And I didn’t. My father was a city councilman in Aurora. My father was awarded ‘best body and fender man’ eight out of ten years. My mother worked all her life. I came from a good background. My family had decent money. I grew up in a house, went to decent schools….I don’t live there, but I love Aurora. I was born there, my father was born there. That’s always my home.”
He lives in the western suburbs now. “I cannot do what I want to do in life living in Aurora,” he says. “It’s too far from Chicago.” Returning to Aurora the night he was released from prison, he recalls, “I told my mother, like, ‘Wow, Aurora’s really stood in time, huh?’ The areas that I grew up in look exactly the same. The houses are the same colors that I remember.” If nothing had happened, he might have stayed there for the rest of his life.
“I had just completed the classes and got certified in cable and basic electronics and introduction to electricity. I had just gotten three certificates, so I was just getting ready to go from being on the streets, a little smart-ass street punk, to trying to make a future. I guess I did make a future, because the future came out not in cable but going into prison. And coming out and making something from what that experience was.”
There might be some money, eventually. The criminal case against the prosecutors (the first of its kind in the history of the United States) goes to trial in January, and there’ll be a civil case afterward. No one knows how much the wrongful convictions will end up costing the taxpayers, but Cruz has a good idea of how much they cost him. He describes the experience as “the depths of hell.” By now he’s met many other innocent men from death row, including all eight from Illinois, and he believes no one else can understand their bond. Beyond the shared experience itself, I wonder, what is it they have in common?
He responds slowly, almost dreamily. “Actually, there’s a lot more in common than a person would imagine. Just life itself. Inner being is the same. The thought of life is the same. There’s a lot of times where the individuals I met with, we’ll look at each other and just say, ‘Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.’ And we won’t have to say it, we’ll just know it.”
He pauses. “There’s so much. I mean, the appreciation of just being with our families and being able to work. There’s so much in common. But being afforded the opportunity to express it or be together to share it is not there.
“I think all have the need to see a psychiatrist. But the problem is that most come from the school that I come from, and that is there is no psychiatrist good enough or educated enough to understand us, because they have not been on death row innocently.”
Even his own psychiatrist (“I do see a psychiatrist and I’m proud of that,” he says) cannot entirely understand. “Though I’m comfortable with him and I speak with him, I still believe in my heart that he doesn’t know what I’m talking about on certain issues. He has not been on death row innocent. It’s different to go visit death row and to actually be sentenced to death and held. And until you know that feeling, and you know what it is, you can’t understand that person.”
Cruz expects to struggle with that darkness for the rest of his life. He is scarred, he says, but he is also happy. He’s engaged to a woman he met six months ago, and she has four children he’s crazy about. “I’ve got a good life right now.” When he talks about becoming a stepfather and about how smart the children are, how well behaved and helpful, his smile is unmistakably proud. “It’s a dream come true. I’ve always wanted my own family.
“It’s good being a stepdad. It’s good for me.”
He says he doesn’t hate the police and prosecutors. “I’m not going to let them win,” he asserts, “and the main way they would win is if I broke down and let all the pain, all the negativity that they placed upon my family and everybody, including the Nicarico family–all the pain that the state caused all them–they would win if I gave up. I don’t hate them. I pray for the prosecution. I pray for the detectives. I pray for all of them because I know the day of judgment comes.”
Cruz says he holds no grudges, but he’s still angry. The anger reaches back to the beginning of his case. He mentions a daughter who was put up for adoption after he was indicted. He says the mother was pressured. “My daughter’s mother put the baby up for sealed adoption, so I can’t know where she’s at until she’s 18…
“When my dad died and my family called Jim Ryan’s office to have them notify me, because that’s the procedure that you had to go through–at least that’s what the penitentiary told my family–and Jim Ryan didn’t let me know until the day that my dad was being buried. My dad was in the hospital dying for two months…
“When my mother got ran over, my little sister, who was four at the time, I think, and my aunt–they were walking down the street and got ran over by a car. They were in the hospital and didn’t know if they were going to live or die for two weeks, and again Jim Ryan knew and wouldn’t let me know anything. I found out by accident three weeks later.
“So when people tell me ‘poor Jim Ryan’ this or that, hey, I don’t see nothing poor about him. I have no sympathy for him. I have no bitterness for him either, but I have no sympathy for him.”
Despite death row at Menard, some of his harshest memories are of the guards in the county jail. “Du Page, it’s nasty over there,” he says. “They play a lot of head games there, they’re really into power-control head games over there. A lot of racism with the guards. It’s sad.”
All the guards were white the first time he was held there, he recalls. During the years that he was back and forth between death row at Menard and county jail for his three trials, Du Page hired some black and Latino guards. This attempt at diversity made no difference to him. “All of them thought they were white,” he says. “It was amazing not just because of their vocabulary but because of the way they were puttin’ down their own people. In their minds they were all rich white people. That was the way they acted.
“I didn’t have any problems with the inmates, my problem was the guards. Even when I got released they were trying to give me a hard time–that’s how bad they were.”
Cruz says he was leaving jail for the last time, walking to a waiting bus, and the guards “were standing there like it was supposed to be a gauntlet, I guess. And they’re standing there just waiting to shoot down the bus, like in the movie The Gauntlet with Clint Eastwood.” He says a guard raised a threatening hand. “I saw him getting ready to push me, seen him through the glass on the door, and that’s when I said, ‘Don’t you lay that hand on me.’ I said, ‘Don’t do it, because you know what? You can just unpack my stuff and I’ll just stay in here then.'”
There was a brief standoff, a camera crew arrived, and the moment passed. But that wasn’t the last guard he saw. “One of them I seen right when I got out, like maybe a month later. He was coming out of a bar over here in Chicago with two of his buddies, and I walked up to him and he stopped and his buddies froze, and I said, ‘Whassup, man?’ I didn’t have a problem with him. It was like, what was up?
“And he reached for his gun. But he realized he didn’t have his gun with him, and then he reached his hand forward for me to shake it.” Cruz shakes his head. “I was like, ‘What’s up? How you doin’?’ He goes, ‘You know I never had problems with you, Cruz, and I never did anything to you. It was them guys, you know?’ And I said, ‘No you didn’t, so what are you scared about?’ And his friends looked at me, and I said, ‘What, you’re gonna draw your guns on me? Draw ’em.’ They just looked at me, and I said, ‘Whatever.’ I said, ‘You know, you guys are so immature.’
“I just walked away, ’cause it was ludicrous.”
He hasn’t had problems with the Chicago police. “I’ve had a lot of Chicago cops that have pulled me over to congratulate me, that have said, ‘You Rolando Cruz?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ They say, ‘Congratulations, buddy. You’re helpin’ us, you’re helping us to get rid of these bad guys and the bad image that’s on us.’ They’ll pull me over just to tell me that! And it makes me feel good. I mean, the first time it was like, ‘Now what?’ But no, they turn around and tell me. And it makes me feel good.”
Cruz stepped out of prison a wanted man–wanted by CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN…A media tornado followed him wherever he went. “When I came out I didn’t know what to anticipate,” he says. “It was like you open a door and the whole scenery is white, you just paint it, you walk down and start to see it start changing colors on its own. I was like a little chicken coming out of its eggshell just being hatched. ‘Whoa, what’s happening, what’s up with this?'”
Cruz thought he had plenty of options for employment. “I had two stacks of business cards with two rubber bands on each stack compressing them to two inches thick.” He holds both hands out, thumbs and forefingers spread apart. “A little over two inches thick,” he says. “Everyone told me, ‘I’ll hire you. I’ve got a job for you.’ When their hands were called, well, ‘It’s not like I have a job, but I think I might know somebody.’ Or, ‘You know, I can’t hire you because the media’s gonna be over here all the time, they’re gonna be harassing, and detectives–not right now, maybe in a couple years.’
“You know, buncha lies, buncha lies, that was what I was fed. And after six months I got sick of it and I left. Six months to the day, to San Antonio with my family.” In San Antonio he worked two jobs, 16 hours a day, but after six and a half months there he came back to Illinois.
“Since I’ve been up here I worked as a youth advocate–contrary to what Bill Kurtis said when they did American Justice.” He said, ‘He tried his hand at social work.’ Well, I was still working there when he said that. Everyone said, ‘Hey, I thought you still worked there,’ and I said, ‘I do, why?’ And they go, ‘Well, he said you used to.’ I said, ‘Well, the guy’s like a lot of other people in the media. The media loves to lie about you.’ And they don’t ask you. He’s never asked me a question. Bill Kurtis never talked to me.” He shrugs. “It didn’t bother me.”
Cruz eventually left the job about a year ago, after working at it for a year and a half. The long hours and low pay weren’t the reasons he quit, he says. He was on call 24 hours a day, working with teenage gang members, one of them a kid who called one night asking Cruz to pull him out of a gang war. “I went there at 3:30 in the morning, and that’s when Cicero cops arrested me for curfew violation.” Cruz was 34 years old. The judge laughed the charge out of court. But Cruz had had enough. “It’s a thing where wherever the clients are at I would be harassed for being with them. Right away, ‘You’re associating with gang members, you’re in a gang.’
“This one reporter, he goes, ‘So do you still hang around with gang members?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I do. But I work with them to help them straighten out their lives.’ When the reporter put it in the paper he said, ‘Rolando Cruz admits he still gang-bangs.’ I mean, c’mon, why do you have to lie about it?”
He says he felt the stress getting to him. “I knew that if I kept working I would start being less effective as a good social worker, and I couldn’t afford to deprive the kids of the best of my abilities. So I resigned.”
He went to work for a company that sells gravel, putting in long hours six days a week. He left after six months. “People said these were good jobs and you quit, you know? But people forget that my job experience is that of a 20-year-old. Look, I’m 35 years old. How many jobs have you had since you were working age to 35? So how can people tell me I’m messing up? I’m not messing up.”
Cruz has been offered scholarships at Northwestern and DePaul, but he says he can’t work full-time, go to school full-time, and enjoy any kind of relationship with his wife to be and the children. If he took all that on, he says, “I’m no longer in a relationship. I may be there when I’m asleep, but that’s it. A lot of people that believe in me, support me, don’t comprehend that I want a life. I’ve never had a life to live. As an adult I’ve never lived yet, I’m just beginning to live. And people are constantly trying to take that away from me too. They don’t realize it.”
Cruz is between jobs (though he did work at the board of elections for election day–“I got two hours’ sleep in the past two days,” he said the day after), but he believes he’s discovered his calling. He wants to establish a not-for-profit agency he calls Pursue Justice. He’s tried once already, but couldn’t get it off the ground. “God willing, things will work out this time around. It’s my second shot at it. First time was a good one, but it was too soon. I had just come out and I didn’t have a chance to breathe. I hadn’t had a chance to go see my family, or go to see places, to do something. I came out at 32, 33, and it was constant pressure–come there, go there, meet this, meet that–and I was like, wow, how about me? You guys are forgetting something. You’re forgetting Rolando Cruz. He wants something out of Rolando Cruz too, you know.”
What Cruz wants out of Cruz now is Pursue Justice. “The purpose of it is twofold,” he explains, “the first being to educate governments and the public about the reality of the death penalty and the injustices that occur. But also, equally and the same, would be to formulate defense teams for individuals that are wrongly accused.” Prisoners often write to him for help, and he says he helped some guys on death row to write letters to the media and to lawyers. There’s a certain way to do it, he says.
“I went from the local media to the most-watched news show in the world, 60 Minutes, and I don’t know how it happened. It just came natural. I just got pissed off one day and said I’m gonna use the media. I had a friend go call [Muriel Clair] from WGN news, and that’s the first one I did. My lawyer told me I couldn’t, and I said, then you’re fired. He said, ‘Well, we’ll discuss that. Go ahead and do your interview.’ It was not like I was asking him.
“I know I’m good at that, and I think I’m darn good. I believe my defense team was 20 times better than what O.J. had as a defense team. I mean, his defense team has fallen apart since. They all fight with each other and they all want to degrade each other, which mine has never done, mine has never fallen apart.” Also, as he points out, “It wasn’t by a play of words that I was proven innocent.”
The other purpose of Pursue Justice would be to support his public speaking. Cruz has spoken at universities, high schools, middle schools, even some elementary schools, and to government officials in Italy, Mexico, and Canada. He must be good at it, he says, because the requests keep coming. “They ask for me by name.” He grins.
It wasn’t always easy. “When I first got out,” he recalls, “I got out on a Friday and I had this speech the following Thursday at Northwestern, and I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to address the crowd, which was over a thousand people, I believe. I’ve spoken to crowds under or near that number since, but I always know what to say now, and I don’t know why I know. It just comes out as it comes out. I never plan anything that I speak about, I never prethink it, write it, nothing. And it’s all from the heart. I assume that the message is always the same.”
Just the day before, he’d spoken at Lewis University in Romeoville. “I took the 12-year-old to the speech yesterday and he asked good questions afterward. He’s real smart.” But it was his first speaking engagement in six months. “I had stopped speaking and the reason was people seem to get offended that I ask for some kind of payment. But I can’t work and speak, ’cause if I work then I can’t take the time off to speak.
“There are people who right away assume it’s because you’re trying to make money off it–that’s the last thing I’m trying to do….My purpose in speaking was never to get paid, but rather to educate people. And now it’s a different thing where I have to pay my bills, and people forget that aspect of it.”
He doesn’t see himself as famous, but others do. He’s been on TV, right? But the shows that he’s been on don’t pay. “Everybody assumes that you’re rich, you have all this, you have all the wealth in the world–and it’s not true. I mean, I drive a piece of junk and people assume, ‘Hey, why don’t you drive a brand-new Navigator?’ For what? I mean, I’m trying to figure out how to pay the rent all the time.
“So it gets kind of hard. And you lose your privacy. Because if I take my lady out to eat, people recognize me. I mean, it’s cool if somebody comes up and says ‘Hi, how ya doin’? Congratulations,’ or thank you, or thanks for speaking out. But then no, they want to get into personal issues and talk about all kinds of things, and after a while it gets monotonous and you’re like, God, come on, I don’t ask about your personal life, why do you ask about mine?”
It’s a strange sort of fame. He had to be one of the most hated men in Illinois, convicted of being a monster who’d rape and murder a child. Now, he says, he meets no one who believes he’s guilty, and to some people he’s a hero. “I’ve had people who’ve said God’s got a plan for me and you have to do this and you should run for office, and it goes back to, why me? Why even tell me what I have to do with my life?”
His TV appearances have dwindled. But Cruz says, “I’m still not done, ’cause I still have the criminal case going on in Du Page against them and a civil trial coming up afterward, and that’s still going on. And that’s going to be more media, more coverage, more recognition. It’s going to start steamrolling again.” He adds, “I’m more prepared this time than I was before. I appreciate the fact that people respect what I say now, where growing up people didn’t, and I used to lie and everything for attention because nobody really accepted me for me. Where now people accept me for me–maybe a little bit too much, because they want me too much.”
But he says, “I understand why some people look up to me–for the battle, not ever giving up, never losing. And I’ve had people tell me, ‘Come on, at some point in time you must have said forget it, go ahead and execute me.’ I never gave up.”
To illustrate, he tells the story of the day he found out he’d lost the direct appeal of his second conviction. He was sitting at a table with a lawyer and a friend waiting for another of his lawyers, John Hanlon, to return from court. When Hanlon walked in, Cruz could tell by his face that he’d lost.
“What’s up?” Cruz asked.
“I told you I’d never lie to you,” Hanlon responded. “We lost four-three.”
The others began to cry. “What are you crying for?” Cruz said. “Look, I got a blanket I’ve got to finish crocheting, I’ve got a painting I’ve got to finish painting, we got work we got to do. We’re on thin ice. We all know what we got to do, we gotta get off this thin ice. Do it.”
“So I never gave up.”
The men who tried to kill Cruz still have their jobs. “People in Du Page County, they keep voting in Birkett [as state’s attorney], and they got Ryan they put back in office for attorney general. People who are supporting them can’t walk with their head up, ’cause they are no better than child molesters. They’re no better than a John Wayne Gacy [whom Cruz knew on death row], ’cause they’re supporting people who are willing to murder in the name of advancement. And if you’re gonna support people like that, you’re as bad as the people who support the Ayatollah Khomeini.
“Jim Ryan says this and that, but Jim Ryan will never give me the open debate that I want. I’ve offered to him, and even Eric Zorn offered him, and offered to pay him for the time it would take. But Jim Ryan sends his little colleagues and all the excuses in the world.
“Joseph Birkett was confronted on TV about Dugan–why don’t they prosecute Dugan? He says because there’s no evidence. But what about the DNA, the statements, the eyewitnesses? He said, well, it’s not up to us to determine the weight of the amount of credibility to give to that evidence. That’s right! Put it in front of a grand jury and let a grand jury decide. They know they won’t do it, their whole futures are at stake. They know, they know.”
I ask what I think is a stupid question, but still–What does he think of the death penalty? He answers that it’s not a stupid question and he gets asked it all the time. He has a pat answer. “In a perfect society I’d support it 110 percent. In a perfect society. And the reason I would is because in a perfect society there would be no murders.
“People say yeah, but how about John Wayne Gacy and Dahmer? Well, how about ’em? They’re exceptions to a rule. You don’t have a death penalty for people who are exceptions to a rule. If you’re going to have a death penalty, have it for everyone across the board that commits murder, including DuPont and the CIA agents that commit murder in other countries and the president that is ordering this and the House and the legislature who is ordering this, that are ordering these murders because it’s in the name of democracy. Well, no matter what you call it, it’s still murder.
“You cannot have a death penalty in this time and age. You cannot have it.” He thumps the table with practically every word. “Too many innocent people have been executed, too many innocent people have almost been executed, and too many innocent people have suffered because their loved ones have been torn apart from it.
“It has done more bad than good.
“Equality,” he says quietly. “I teach my kids about equality at home. I believe in equality. We are of one race, the human race. No matter what religion one is, everyone believes that mankind came from one. So we are all the same race. We must stand as one…
“We cannot let the government do what it’s doing. We cannot keep Jim Ryan in office, Joseph Birkett in office. Robert Kilander prosecuted me and had me sentenced to death. He is still running for judgeship in Du Page County! [Kilander was retained on the bench in the last election.] It is ludicrous. The Republicans, the officers in Du Page County, are they saying it’s OK if you’re white and rich and powerful in politics to kill or attempt to murder? And yet if you’re a gangbanger and you drive by and you shoot somebody, you kill them, but you shoot ’em, oh wait a minute, that’s a crime. What is the difference? Why was not Jim Ryan or any of them charged? Jim Ryan was charged with nothing. I have no idea. Why was none of them charged with the real crime–conspiracy to commit murder? Conspiracy is when you plot and you plan, and they plotted and planned when they made that vision dream statement. Because they sought the death penalty. They sought to have me murdered.
“Forget the politically correct term of executed, let’s be realistic–they tried to murder Rolando Cruz. Why haven’t they been charged with conspiracy to commit a damn murder?” Cruz’s tone of voice, strident and angry, changes to puzzlement. He truly doesn’t understand. “Why haven’t they been charged with torture, violations of human rights? They tortured us–psychologically, physically they beat us up. Why weren’t they charged?
“If the citizens of Du Page County continue to wish and appreciate and enjoy the suffering and the dictatorship that’s going on in that county, so be it. That’s them. But they have to be of a sick mind to wish dictatorship upon themselves. I don’t wish that upon my enemy. I don’t wish that upon Jim Ryan! But if that’s the way he wants to live, being under a dictatorship, then him and the rest of Du Page County should move to Cuba. And appreciate Fidel Castro more.”
So Cruz still believes in justice, despite everything.
Cruz does so much talking about his experience–in speeches, in forums, in therapy–that it would seem the talking must help put those years in perspective. Cruz says, “No, it doesn’t. It’s weird for me because I still don’t understand why was I the one they picked out, the one they had to lie about? I mean, you got your smart-aleck street punks–they’re a bunch of smart-aleck Du Page County cops. They come lying, going to oppositional gang members, telling them he said this and he said that, and back and forth. They’re instigating the lies. They knew the lies were going on, they even said they knew the lies were going on, prosecutors even said they knew it was all lies. They started it, they started their game, and they picked me. Why me? I don’t know.
“Why me in the sense of, why am I the one that was able to put together a defense team? Which–you know all this big hoo-ha over Scott Turow? Just because he’s an author? The guy did nothing for Hernandez. I don’t care what anybody–the reality is he did nothing. He’s a media hound, that’s all he is.”
He explains, “The LA Times wanted to do an article, and they were going to play off the title of his book [Turow’s Presumed Innocent]. But they wanted to interview me. He said no and threw a fit–that it was all bad and he told my lawyers that they shouldn’t let me do it ’cause it’s not right and all this and this and this. But when they said, ‘Well Scott, we’ll interview you too’–‘OK!’ Now it’s OK because Scott Turow’s going to be in it. He’s a media hound. I have no respect for him, none at all.
“Hernandez didn’t get released because of Scott Turow–Hernandez got released because of Rolando Cruz. Everyone that knows the case knows that’s right–that’s not a pat on my own back. That’s realistic. I’m the one that put together my defense, I’m the one that pushed the issue, I’m the one that opened up the eyes of the media, I’m the one that opened up the eyes of the public into the courtrooms.
“And that’s why I say, ‘Why me?’ I don’t know why Rolando Cruz was able to do that.
“When I was putting together my defense team I made it mandatory that anyone that would respond to me that said they were interested, or kind of interested, they had to come see me first. And talk to me. So they could know I was human. So they could feel, and see what they’re feeling. And that’s the pain that I’m feeling. And I wanted them to know what injustice really was. And you’re not going to know it until you see it.
“But it’s weird, it’s real strange to me. Why would I be the first one on death row to get a rehearing in the state of Illinois and have it overturned? Why was I given the ability to do this? Maybe there is a plan for me somewhere down the line. Maybe this is down the line and I’m living it. I just don’t see what I’m living.”
He’s been talking for two hours and would say more, but he’s got to go. I walk him out onto my porch, and as we’re standing there a squirrel approaches. “I was on ABC news with Peter Jennings,” he says, “and this really happened. We were walking and a squirrel came up to me with no fear and just put his paws right on my hand.” He’s still delighted. “So I started feeding the squirrels by my house. I saw a neighbor feeding them nuts, so I got some nuts. I’ve got three squirrels coming up now.”
He smiles. But now it’s really getting late. He’s got to pick up the kids. He’s got to rake the leaves. He’s got to make dinner. You know, like a person with a life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): cover photo by Robert Drea.