Chicago Tribune

Man freed in murder dies short of dream

By Tonya Maxwell
Tribune staff reporter

April 28, 2006

Dan Young Jr. spent more than a dozen years in Illinois prisons, convicted of a rape and murder he didn't commit.

He was freed 14 months ago, after DNA tests exonerated him, and moved in with his sister on Chicago's South Side. He had a dream of returning to the city of his birth, just outside the Mississippi Delta.

He never returned.

Young, 45, died early Thursday after he was struck by a hit-and-run driver around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday while walking near 59th Street and South Ashland Avenue.

Once again, the sister who stood by Young for so many years, convinced of his innocence, is left to wonder how fate could twist against her brother, a man with a zeal for life despite limited mental abilities.

"He's already been through so much. For this to happen to him. I don't even know what to say. I don't know what to call this. Life is so unfair. Life is so cruel sometimes," said Betty Ray, whom Young lived with since his release.

"He has really suffered a lot in the past 16 years. I was thinking, what if he never got out, would today still be his day to go? But I would do the same thing all over again so he could have the freedom he had."

She said she hopes the driver of the car that struck Young comes forward. She doesn't want to spend another decade without closure. Police said they have no suspects.

Young was expecting about $130,000 in restitution from the state for his wrongful imprisonment, money that could arrive any day, his lawyer said. It was more than enough to buy a red brick house in his poverty-ridden hometown of Yazoo City, Miss.

"It's certainly tragic," said his attorney, Kathleen Zellner.

Young had asked Zellner to represent him as the case garnered media attention about problems with forensic evidence.

"He had a great disposition. Just the simplest things made him happy," she said, remembering Young as a man who was never bitter, though he wanted to see the detectives that investigated his case held responsible. "He was trying to get out of Chicago. He thought Chicago was a very bad place for him."

Chicago turned bad for him when he was arrested in March 1992. He and another man were charged in the rape and murder of Kathy Morgan, who had been found bludgeoned on the South Side 18 months earlier.

Young could not read or write, but he signed a confession that mental health professionals later testified should be tossed out. His verbal IQ was 56, only 10 points above the lowest possible score.

The judge allowed the confession and separate juries convicted the two men. Each was sentenced to life.

But in 2001, DNA testing on blood from under the woman's fingernails excluded the defendants as suspects. A later round of DNA tests on hair found at the scene also did not match either man.

Last year, Cook County prosecutors dropped charges against the defendants and 14 months later Young emerged from the Pontiac Correctional Center a free man.

"I missed a lot of birthdays," he said to waiting reporters. "I had a job. I had my own apartment. I had a life. I should have never been here. I've been saved."

Birthdays for Young were a special kind of gift. He tended to ask people when they were born on first introduction and the dates stuck in his memory. He remembered birthdays with a phone call and a card.

Earlier this week, he called Zellner and told her she could expect a great card for her birthday, May 7.

She still represents him in two lawsuits, one filed against Cook County and Chicago officials that alleges false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and false arrest. The cases likely will continue on behalf of his estate, she said.

But Young was most interested in the more modest sum he would receive from the state.

"He always wanted to talk about his new life and what he would do once he got his clemency money," she said. "He wanted to know if I would help him get a red brick house." She told him she would.

Sometimes he would grow impatient to move to Mississippi, where he has family. Zellner would coax him to stay until he could return in comfort.

"He would talk about going back and taking the bus back. We would tell him to wait for the money," she remembered. "There was a joyfulness about him despite everything. It's just really sad and ironic he didn't get to leave Chicago."

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