Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Un-Bitter Man

There's a lot of bitterness going around these days, and everyone can understand it. Years ago, I knew very few people out of work, now it sometimes feels like I'm one of the few people who has a job. Everyone's world has contracted in some way by our economic smack-down. But it's my hope that we fight that bitterness if at all possible. Bitterness starts a swirl, a bad one, that can only lead to other negative emotions and negative events.

How do we do that, though? When I'm fighting some kind of bitterness, I think of the people I know who've managed theirs. And there is no one better than Life After Innocence client, Jerry Miller.

In 1981, Jerry, a 22-year old former Army cook, was arrested and charged with kidnapping, raping and robbing a woman in downtown Chicago. He was convicted in 1982 and served 24 years in prison. His prison record, which numbers nearly 1000 pages, is replete with the statement, Will not admit guilt. He was required to attend sex offender classes and grew increasingly lonely as many family members and friends no longer visited him. "I missed joy," he later told Maurice Possley of the Chicago Tribune. "I missed happiness. It was very painful, being locked up every night."

Jerry (like so many people today) found him self asking, 'Why me?' But he says he finally decided that he had to find a way to gain hope every day. "You open your eyes and you can see there's something here that's more than just me." He says that as he matured, "I came to understand life is to be lived no matter where you are."

A few years ago, when Jerry was 48, he was released on parole as a registered sex offender, requiring him to wear an electronic monitoring device at all times and prohibiting him from answering his door on Halloween or leaving his job for lunch. He continued to attend required sex offender classes, and every time when introducing himself he stated, "My name is Jerry Miller, and I am innocent of the crime of which I am accused."

Miller was fortunate to have the Innocence Project of New York learn about his case. With their help, DNA testing on semen from the rape proved conclusively that Miller did not commit the crime – and instead implicated another man, Robert Weeks, as the actual perpetrator.

Jerry was one of the first clients of the Life After Innocence Project, which we formed at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, in 2009. The project is designed to help innocent people like Jerry to begin their lives over again after a wrongful conviction (or a not-guilty at the trial level). During the time we've worked together, Jerry has become an amazing friend to me and all of the students. He continually inspires us with his constantly positive outlook. "Look, Laura," he has often said to me. "When it comes down to it, I'm blessed." Life, he has told me, is all in the way you look at it. (To see Jerry's elegance and grace, please check out his appearance on the Colbert Report.)

Jerry filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Crime Lab who wrongfully reported so many years ago that Jerry's DNA was inconclusive. On Friday, the lawsuit was settled, putting an end to Jerry's long, long, long battle. The delightful thing about Jerry, however, is that we all knew he would flourish, we knew he would continue to be an inspiration to us, no matter what situation he found himself in. We congratulate him and we celebrate him. And whenever I'm feeling bitter, Jerry is the face who appears in my mind.

(Post Script-an unofficial celebration will be held for Jerry tonight, February 25, at The District (170 West Ontario), starting at 6. For those in Chicago, join us!)