The justice system in the United States can often seem opaque and contradictory to people who come into contact with it – and one of its unfortunate truths is that in some cases, the wrong person is arrested and convicted for a serious crime.
In the new book “Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted,” authors collaborate with exonerees to tell these stories, from initial arrest to life after release.
Joining Chicago Tonight for a conversation are the book’s co-editor Laura Caldwell, a professor at Loyola University’s School of Law and director of its Life After Innocence program; and Sara Paretsky, who helped write one of the book’s essays. Paretsky is also the author of the best-selling novels featuring private investigator V.I. Warshawski.
Below, an excerpt from “Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted.”
EVERY DAY IS A NEW BEGINNING
LIFE AFTER INNOCENCE
Juan Rivera (Illinois exoneree), as told to Laura Caldwell
FREEING AN EXONEREE is like releasing a newly minted human being onto the planet. For each exoneree, it is like being churned out of a human factory, stamped with a set of looks, a way of talking and then turned out into the world with little or no knowledge of that world or of oneself as a person within it. It’s true that upon release any prisoner, guilty or not, who has missed the proliferation of cell phones and myriad other technology will feel left out, adrift. But to an innocent person who has suffered one of the most surreal journeys imaginable, the process of acclimation is intense. Some do better than others. They are experienced practitioners in the art of forgiveness. Most struggle with emotions and anger, but most win that fight on a frequent basis, just like they won the ultimate fight of their life—the one for their freedom.
Every morning, Juan Rivera wakes before the click.
The click, in prison, was the sound the cell door made when the guards in the station high above you released the bolt on your door at 5 a.m., allowing you to go to the chow hall for a ladle of watery oatmeal. If you didn’t take advantage of the open door to your cage, the bolt would soon hammer down again. So even when he wasn’t hungry, even when he was deep-bone tired from “sleeping” on a steel bed, Juan Rivera got up. Eventually he awoke before the door opened—waiting, waiting, always waiting to get out.
But he has prevailed. He is no murderer. He is no rapist. He often thought he was losing his mind when they kept saying that he killed a child, a sweet eleven-year-old blonde-haired, green-eyed child. He had thought he might never recover from the jarring, jangling juxtaposition of who they thought he was and who he knew himself to be. But luckily (and he is lucky, he knows this), the court system finally, finally, finally agreed with him.
Now that his attorneys have freed him and given him his life after innocence, now that there is no click—no cellies, no lockdowns, no correctional officers—he still wakes before that time. But now he is free to love his fiancée, who loves him and who gave him his miracle baby girl. Another sweet little girl who changed his life.
So he awakes ready to care for his baby, to let her mother get some sleep, but first he must deal with the dread that life has long deposited in his head and in his heart. And the way he deals with it is to ignore, absolutely ignore, it. Once he has acknowledged and moved past that, he blinks his eyes open.
He rolls over and watches his fiancée, her shiny rust-red hair falling past her eyes that he knows are so tired. He wants to take away that tiredness, but a short time later when the baby wakes, crying, she has to nurse her. When his daughter is finally satiated—she can eat so much!—he takes her and burps her. He doesn’t like the method of putting the baby over his shoulder; he gets better results by sitting her on his lap, her sternum and neck supported by his large hand and giving a little pat, pat, pat on her back. He can tell when she isn’t in the mood for that—he can divine these things because he watches her all day—and so on those mornings, he drapes her lightly on her belly across his knee and once again gives her a pat, pat, pat until the tension in her belly releases. Such small joyful pleasures, those moments.
Then he lifts her, breathing in her delicious baby smell, and cradles her to him, sings to her, bounces her, delights in her. Her first and middle names mean “my light, my little star.”
When his little girl is ready to sleep again, he puts her in her mother’s arms, and then he dresses for the outside. It’s Chicago and so in the summer he need only step into flip-flops. In the winter, so much more is technically required. But in prison, no one gave him coats or socks or scarfs or hats, so now he puts on only the minimally necessary—shoes, pants and two sweaters. Whatever he wears, stepping into it each morning reminds him that he may go outside of his own free will and he may go wherever and do whatever he wants.
And what he wants to do, every morning, is watch the sunrise. How he pined for sunrises when he was in— evidence that the world was still turning.
His apartment is far north of the city, across the street from Lake Michigan, and he walks through only one intersection to reach it. In the summer, the humidity sears; in the winter, gale-force winds pummel him. The lake can be a lapping blue pool one day, then choppy gray and frothy and heaving the next. And although that unpredictability used to sometimes fray the edges of his nerves, he is learning—no, he has learned—to relish it all.
Sometimes he sits on the boulders that rim the beach. Other times he walks to the water’s edge. But nearly every day, he thinks of her—the other little girl.
As he watches the fiery-red orb majestically float from the lake, he hopes her twin sister and her family have found a bit of peace. Always he’s hit with a wave of grief for them. They don’t have their baby girl anymore, their light, their star. But some part of her remains alive in his mind every morning.
Soon he will leave. He will walk—boots clomping or flip-flops slapping—to return to his sleeping fiancée, and also her soon-to-be awaking son, now his son, and he will return to his little girl. His legacy.
Juan Rivera was nineteen years old when the police in Waukegan, north of Chicago, began to focus on him as a potential suspect for the 1992 rape and murder of an eleven-year-old babysitter. He was a high school dropout who had recently moved to Waukegan from New York City’s South Bronx and had very little guidance at home. His IQ was purportedly low and he had a third-grade reading level. Juan had gotten into some minor trouble, including burglary. He was depressed, got high a lot, and even tried to commit suicide, twice. After being convicted of the burglary, Juan was at home during the murder, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet on a home monitoring system. The system clearly showed he never left his home. After four days of violent interrogation, Juan was forced to sign a confession.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Numerous appeals resulted, and he was retried two more times. He was reconvicted each time, notwithstanding DNA evidence that ruled him out as the perpetrator, which the prosecution explained away by asserting the eleven-year-old victim had been having consensual sex, something her family and twin denied. Finally, on appeal in 2011, almost twenty years after his initial conviction, the Illinois Appellate Court found that Juan’s conviction was unjustified. The prosecution finally dropped the case, and Juan sued Lake County law enforcement for willful misconduct. Evidence in the civil case showed the prosecution had gone so far as planting the victim’s blood on a pair of shoes allegedly owned by Juan but actually not sold in stores until after the crime. Juan received a settlement.
LAURA CALDWELL is the author of fifteen books, including the award-winning Izzy McNeil series, the first of which is Red Hot Lies, and the nonfiction work Long Way Home: A Young Man Lost in the System and the Two Women Who Found Him. Her research for the latter book motivated her to launch Life After Innocence at Loyola University Chicago School of Law; she continues to serve as its director.
Although he was imprisoned for eighteen years, Juan Rivera had to endure three separate trials, three separate wrongful convictions for the 1992 rape and murder that he did not commit and from which DNA eventually exonerated him. Juan’s case provided ample evidence of misconduct by both law enforcement and prosecutors; eventually, it appeared, the prosecution continued to press its case primarily to cover up such misconduct rather than to incarcerate a guilty individual. In 2011, when the appellate court overturned his third conviction, the court took the unusual step of barring prosecutors from retrying Juan Rivera, and he was released.
THE INNOCENCE NETWORK
The Innocence Network is an affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted. The Network also works to redress the causes of wrongful convictions and to support the exonerated after they are freed.
A directory of the organizations, including contact information, is maintained at www.innocencenetwork.org and can be searched by state or geographical area. The Network’s directory also indicates the nature of the cases that each organization serves. For more informa- tion, please contact the relevant organization directly.
Copyright © 2017 by Laura Caldwell. Published by permission of Liveright Publishing.
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