Credit: Mari Cohen

Last Tuesday, when Roosevelt Myles was released from prison after 28 years, he held a celebratory gathering at home with close family. His fiancee, Tonya Crowder, cooked fried chicken and french fries for everyone. But as the gathering went on, she became concerned that Myles was talking to everyone but not eating. Did he not like her cooking? Incarcerated for the length of their relationship, he’d never had a chance to try it. No, he told her, he just wanted their first meal home together to be special, just the two of them. So later, after everyone left, Crowder heated up a portion of the food and they ate together at the kitchen table. They’ve done so for dinner every night since.

“We look at each other across the table, and it’s just me and her,” Myles told me Saturday, sitting at that same round glass table. “It’s so much love.” Around the kitchen, shiny, colorful garlands still hung from his release celebration—he and Crowder had been so busy, zipping around town to see friends and family and run errands, that they hadn’t had a chance to take them down.

It’s the same table where, about a year ago, Crowder emotionally described the toll of waiting for Myles’s release. He was arrested on Chicago’s west side in 1992 for the murder of Shaharian Brandon and convicted in 1996, but his conviction primarily rested on a witness who changed her story multiple times and who now says she was coerced into framing Myles by a cop frequently accused of misconduct. (Myles says that officer, Anthony Wojcik, also beat him after his arrest.) In 2000, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Myles deserved a hearing on his wrongful conviction claim because his original trial attorney failed to present his alibi witnesses. But due to a series of negligent lawyers and structural problems in the public defender’s office—and lack of intervention from the judge assigned to the case—years and years went by, and he never got his hearing.

In 2012, Myles’s sister introduced him to Crowder. She became convinced of his innocence and, in addition to becoming his fiancee, became a crusader for his cause, supporting his efforts to get attention from advocates on the outside. In 2017, Myles finally secured pro bono representation from civil rights lawyer Jennifer Bonjean, who has won several wrongful conviction battles in Cook County. Still, by last summer, Crowder said, she had to learn to stop getting her hopes up about potential release dates, since she’d been crushed too many times before, like in February 2019, when Cook County associate judge Dennis J. Porter shocked Myles by denying him the hearing he’d waited so long for.

Credit: Paula Jackson

The Illinois Appellate Court overturned Porter’s decision this past May, finding that Porter had improperly dismissed Myles’s new evidence, including testimonies from a man who says he was with Myles at the time of the crime, and from the original eyewitness, who has now recanted. Bonjean said the ruling “gets the job done,” though she disagrees with some of how the appellate court responded to Myles’s claims—including the fact that they didn’t address the long delay because, they said, Myles would have needed to present the transcript from every brief court date in the 20 years his case was pending. Bonjean said this would have been nearly impossible given that many of those court reporters are likely no longer working.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has declined to appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, so it’s likely that further proceedings will happen in the fall. One of Bonjean’s first orders of business will be to file a substitution of judge motion to remove Porter, who has presided over the case since the 90s, because, she told me, “there have been extrajudicial matters that lead me to believe that he is incapable of presiding over the matter fairly.” In the meantime, as court matters churned on, Myles completed his entire sentence, with the help of a new law that allowed certain inmates to shave time off with the completion of professional and educational programs.

Myles still wants his name fully cleared, and Bonjean said it’s a “travesty of justice” that he’s completed his entire sentence before having the hearing the appellate court first ordered in 2000. Still, at least he’s now waiting at home. The next time Myles enters the courtroom to face Porter or another judge, he’ll walk in freely, with his family, rather than in handcuffs. In the meantime, he and Crowder get to begin the home life they’ve long been waiting for.

So far, that life has included lots of reconnecting with family and friends: visits with siblings, nieces and nephews, and Crowder’s children; a chance encounter at the barbershop with someone he knew before incarceration; meeting his grandniece for the first time. Rather than having to wait for him to call from the prison’s pricey phone system, family and friends are now constantly calling and FaceTiming his new smartphone. His sister was waiting for Myles’s release to bury the urns of their parents, who died waiting for him to win his fight for release, and he got a chance to view the urns in her home. “I couldn’t bear to look long,” he said.

Myles already has a job lined up to work as a new executive board member for the Evans Exoneration project, where he’ll also do paralegal work reviewing innocence claims, and a Peoria reentry organization called Jobs Partnership has also secured a job for him in local industry. With enough money coming in, he hopes he and Crowder will soon be able to buy a house in the area. He’s especially interested in giving back to the community with his work, he says. Watching the Black Lives Matter uprising from prison, he connected his own experience with Chicago police abuse to the ongoing national struggle against police brutality. “I myself was murdered by the police, but allowed to walk among the living dead, in prison for a crime I had no knowledge of, 28 years of my life have been buried,” he wrote in a letter from prison in June, titled “We can’t breathe.”

Credit: Courtesy Tonya Crowder

There have been challenges readjusting after 28 years inside, of course. The clothes that Myles’s family bought for his release no longer fit because he lost so much weight during his last few months inside due to anxiety about the pandemic, during which inmates were placed in continued lockdown without much information about what was going on. Myles has to learn from scratch how to use a smartphone and a computer. He’s relearning how to drive and has never pumped gas—before he went into prison, attendants still did it for you. He’s already learning about the stigma that comes with having served nearly 30 years of time—for example, a bank clerk treated him with suspicion when he explained why he hadn’t had an account in years. As a condition of his release, he has to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, which requires him to be in the house before 10 AM and after 10 PM for 90 days, though the term might be cut short with good compliance. And, of course, he’s finally emerging into a pandemic-stricken world, with many of the gatherings and outings he might have hoped for upon release unavailable.

But Myles is confident he’ll brush off most of these obstacles, and he’s happier than he’s been in a long time: “I have no complaints whatsoever.” And some things haven’t changed. Outside, in Peoria, where Myles lived briefly before he was arrested in Chicago, it still smells like the Archer Daniels Midland corn processing plant, just like it did in the 1980s. Myles has enjoyed sitting on the porch, taking in the scenery, the smell bringing back memories: “I know people are driving by and saying, ‘Why is this guy just sitting on his porch?’ If y’all had been through what I’ve been through, you’d be sitting right next to me.”

And he and Crowder are easing smoothly into life together, talking about everything, sometimes in the middle of the night, since their days are so full. He’s only been out of the house without her once; when they’re apart just for a bit, he misses her. “I’ve been away from her too long,” he said. “She sacrificed a whole lot for me.” Sitting together at the table, they did their usual gentle ribbing—making fun of each other’s mishaps, or sparring, with laughter, over how much space they’ll each get in the closet. “We may not always see eye to eye, but that’s my best friend,” Myles said. “And that’s how best friends are supposed to be,” Crowder chimed in.  v