Toward the end of an event at Quimby’s on Monday Dave Eggers did a little math. In a survey, police and prosecutors reported they get it right 99.5 percent of the time. If that’s true, he argued, the 0.5 percent of cases they get wrong works out to approximately 11,000 innocent people in prison today. Up on the platform with him, James Newsome, who’d been one of that number for more than 15 years, jumped in. “I’ve never met a prosecutor who believed that anyone was wrongfully convicted. Never.” He asked if there were any prosecutors in the audience. No hands went up.
Newsome and Eggers were on hand to promote a new book from McSweeney’s, Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated. Though Surviving Justice probably won’t be a best seller, a standing-room-only crowd of between 50 and 60 had shown up. The book is the first in a new McSweeney’s series called Voice of Witness, oral histories on human rights abuses inspired by a chance meeting. In 2003, after a talk by Studs Terkel at the University of California at Berkeley, Eggers was approached by Lola Vollen, founder of the newly organized national Life After Exoneration Program (LAEP), which assists exonerated prisoners with free job training, psychological counseling, legal help, and medical treatment. After Terkel’s talk Eggers had oral history on the brain. In fact, he was already working on a collection of interviews with public school teachers (published last year as Teachers Have It Easy). He’d also recently gotten an offer from Orville Schell, the dean of Berkeley’s journalism school, who’d encouraged him to come up with an idea for a course. By the summer of 2004 Eggers had a classroom of students at the school, ready and willing to begin interviewing exonerees who’d be brought to class by Vollen, with a book as the final product.
Newsome was the first of a dozen men and one woman featured in Surviving Justice. “He came out to be interviewed but also to tell the students how to interview other exonerees,” Eggers told me before Monday’s event. “One of the first things he said was don’t start with ‘Aren’t you angry?’ or ‘Aren’t you bitter?’ He made a real point of saying that these are human beings, and there’s a whole range of thoughts, emotions, and experiences that you have to get through before you get to ‘What do you think of why you were in prison?'”
The book came out in November, and a film on the subject titled After Innocence, has its Chicago debut at the Music Box on Friday, February 3. Though Eggers wasn’t involved with the movie, Vollen is in it, and, he says, “we share some of the same goals.” There’ll be a Q and A with Vollen and others after the 7:30 PM screening.
Eggers first got interested in the subject about ten years ago when he saw a Bill Kurtis report on the Gary Gauger case. Gauger, the McHenry County organic farmer convicted of murdering his parents in 1993 and sentenced to death in ’94, had his conviction overturned in ’96 and was pardoned by Governor George Ryan in 2002. Eggers followed other cases as they appeared in the newspaper and was struck by what the exonerees usually said immediately after release. “They’re happy, they don’t want to talk about being angry, they don’t want to talk about being bitter, they don’t even want to talk about their case.” There must be more to the story than that, Eggers thought. He imagined an “unfathomable rage.”
Eleven years after his own release, Newsome now runs a shoe store on the south side. Affable and outgoing, he explained that his case was somewhat different from those of other exonerees. Convicted of murder, armed robbery, and armed violence in 1980 and sentenced to natural life in prison, he wasn’t cleared by DNA, but by fingerprints left at the scene that weren’t matched to anyone, including him. His own detective work, conducted from behind bars, led to the discovery of the real killer. “I knew that one day I’d be able to unravel this situation,” he says. In 2003 he won a civil suit against the city when witnesses who’d picked him out of lineups testified they’d been directed to do so by the police; the all-white jury awarded him $15 million, the largest sum ever won by an exoneree. To survive his “15 years in hell” he prayed daily, finding parallels in Job. “He had everything taken away and was rewarded tenfold,” Newsome said at Quimby’s. “And that’s what happened to me.”
But at the first question from the floor he became visibly upset. A teacher in the first row said he had used the book in a class and asked Newsome what he’d say to students of his who think that 15 years for 15 million bucks doesn’t sound like such a bad trade. “Tell anybody who asks such a foolish question, I didn’t know if I’d make it out of there alive.” He witnessed five murders in prison, he said, and a cellmate hung himself. The consequences, he says, are wide-ranging and long-lasting. Nowadays, before he leaves home he always records a message on the answering machine detailing where he’s going to be, “so I can justify my whereabouts later.”
The wrongfully convicted and fully exonerated belong to an exclusive club with around 400 members, says Lola Vollen. The LAEP serves 75 of these, most of whom haven’t received a dime or an apology from the state that imprisoned them (Illinois is one of only 19 states with laws providing monetary compensation to exonerees). Almost all believe the trauma they’ve lived through can’t be understood by anyone who hasn’t been there.
Before she started the LAEP Vollen, a doctor, worked with the survivors of the aftermath of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Croatia, Kosovo, and Somalia. Political asylum seekers and torture victims display traits similar to those of exonerees, she says; she based her program on the model provided by the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs. “Exonerees are victims of a very large bureaucracy, and when they come out–on average they’ve been away for 12 and a half years–they enter into a culture and a context that’s very unfamiliar. They have no job, they have no money, they have no housing . . . they’re very isolated.
“No one understands prisons,” she adds. “It’s like coming from a foreign country, and unless you’ve been one of its residents, you just can’t imagine.” Monica Mahan, a social worker who counsels exonerees at Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, agrees. “To me, the most demeaning thing a therapist can say to their client is ‘I understand you, I feel your pain.’ ‘Cause we don’t. We understand it in an intellectual way, but we don’t understand it in the way that they’ve really experienced.”
Among the people at the reading was Sue Gauger, who knew Gary Gauger before his conviction, never believed he was guilty, and married him after his release. Her husband also contributed to the book, but he didn’t accompany her. “Gary’s still feeling the effects,” she told me. “He rarely leaves the farm. There’s a lot of emotion that’s been tamped down.”
Gauger’s parents were murdered and he was sent to prison, where any display of vulnerability can get a person killed. He’s never grieved properly, she said. Recently he’d read a profile of an autistic boy and told her, “That sounds like me–I’m neither good nor bad, I’m just there.”
Even after he was fully exonerated, most people shied away from him. His sister had a business “which dropped off to almost nothing,” recalled Sue, and it was tough to get customers for his farm stand as well. “But it got better after he had the affair with me.” She’d left her husband, who owned a candy store in Richmond, Illinois, for Gauger. “People must have said, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who had the affair with the candy man’s wife!’ That changed the focus, and then they could come back.
“But,” she added, “very few have embraced him. That’s very rare.”
The last question of the day for Newsome was political: who was the state’s attorney at the time of his conviction? “Richie Daley,” he answered. As a line formed to get books signed by Eggers, I asked Newsome if I could interview him. He refused. He’s worried that more publicity might have a negative effect on his business, and he’s burned out on the issue. He excused himself and left the store. He didn’t come back.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.