Freed inmate struggling to prove his innocence in Salt Lake City robbery
By Emiley Morgan
Published: Friday, Nov. 20, 2009 9:43 p.m. MST
When Harry Miller was told he could leave prison, he curled up into a ball and "cried like a baby."
He cried so hard his sheets were soaking wet.
He was 4 1/2 years into a five-years-to-life sentence for aggravated robbery — a crime he was accused of committing in Salt Lake City less than two weeks after he had a stroke in Louisiana.
Miller has always maintained his innocence and believes he was wrongly imprisoned. Now, a decision issued Thursday by the Utah Court of Appeals may afford Miller the justice he believes has long eluded him.
In that decision, Judge Pamela Greenwood wrote: "Because we determine that Miller's petition presents a 'bona fide issue as to whether (he) is factually innocent of the charges of which (he) was convicted,' we reverse and remand for a hearing to determine Miller's factual innocence."
Miller still doesn't understand how he was convicted of the Dec. 8, 2000, crime, because he says he was bed-ridden in Louisiana at the time.
"I just wonder how they could say I had done that when I had proof where I was," he told the Deseret News. "There's no way a man who had a stroke in Louisiana spent $500 to go to Salt Lake for $50."
Miller was convicted of robbing an elderly woman at knifepoint at a Salt Lake-area Stop n' Go convenience store.
Miller lived in Utah from 1989 to 1999 before returning to his home state of Louisiana. Miller says he didn't return to Utah until 2002. He was arrested in 2003 for investigation of a robbery at a Dee's restaurant, but that case was eventually dismissed.
He says police used his photo from the 2003 arrest and showed it to the elderly woman from the 2000 case and she identified him as the man who robbed her three years earlier.
Miller insists he was in Louisiana then and says his entire right side was debilitated by the stroke.
"I was partially paralyzed," Miller said. "My whole right side went dead on me. I couldn't talk, I couldn't stand up, nothing. And if I wanted to tell you 'good morning,' it would take five minutes."
Miller told the trial court about the stroke and its effects as part of his alibi defense. But he was the only witness to that fact. His sister, who took care of him after the stroke, did not testify in the trial because she was tending to other family business in Louisiana and couldn't make it.
She did, however, write a letter saying she saw him every single day after the Nov. 25 stroke, but her testimony was deemed unreliable by the court.
Miller was sent to prison and spent his time struggling to understand how he ended up there.
"It was hard," Miller said. "Too hard for me to believe I was in there. And once I was in there, I figured I couldn't get out. I couldn't talk to anyone else on the outside except my lawyer."
Miller appealed his conviction to the Utah Court of Appeals. During this process, new attorneys discovered evidence that supported Miller's alibi — including the testimony of Miller's niece and medical assessments from a nurse who treated him following the stroke.
The Louisiana nurse wrote in an assessment completed on Dec. 14 — six days after the robbery in Salt Lake City — that Miller was "able to ride in a car only when driven by another person or able to use a bus or handicap van only when assisted or accompanied by another person." The nurse also visited the still-recovering Miller at his Donaldsonville, La., home on Dec. 7 as well, the day before the robbery.
Miller's niece told investigators she lived in the same house as Miller and had seen him every day between Nov. 25 and Dec. 13.
Patrick Lindsay, Miller's former appellate attorney, said it was difficult to track down evidence of the alibi for a number of reasons, but primarily because the crime took place almost four years before Miller's trial. Also, Miller's stroke affected his memory and they were having to track down information in rural Louisiana.
Lindsay said he doesn't blame the attorney who represented Miller in his criminal trial, because he knows how hard it was to find all the people and information needed.
Based on the new evidence Lindsay was able to find, the Utah Court of Appeals ruled that the case should be sent back to the district court. Prosecutors, however, decided against putting him on trial a second time and dismissed the charges. Miller was then released from prison in July of 2007.
Although he was now a free man, Miller still wanted justice. He sought a new lawyer to help him clear his name and make up for the years he lost while in prison.
New legislation, cited in the Court of Appeals decision, was passed in 2008 that allows for a determination of factual innocence as long as there is a "bona fide issue." The statute is a relatively new part of the Utah Code's Post-Conviction Remedies Act and was just passed in February of 2008, said W. Andrew McCullough, Miller's current attorney. It is an amendment that allows for the determination of factual innocence,
"The Miller case is really almost a poster child for this work," said Jensie Anderson, head of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project, a group that helps those believed to be wrongly convicted. "You have a conviction for an armed robbery in Salt Lake City when he was recovering for a stroke in Louisiana. No one questions that he was innocent. The question is whether they will let him back in to prove his innocence and that is the challenge for most of the innocent."
While the Post-Conviction Remedies Act proved important, Miller's case still has a ways to go. The Utah Court of Appeals ruling will simply allow for a new hearing in Miller's case — a "fresh hearing" before a new judge, McCullough said, where they can present the new evidence that would support his alibi.
And winning — so far as it means vindication, retribution and compensation — is important to Miller.
He said he may be out of prison, but that time behind bars is still on his record and hangs over him every single day. He lives in Arkansas and struggles to find steady work. A prison term in your past never bodes well, he says.
He knows that the court's ruling could be seen as a major victory in his case, but that doesn't change his day-to-day life.
"Every day I wake up and still feel like I'm locked up," he said. "I can't make money, can't get my own apartment. … I hope that it helps do something for me."
||Life After Exoneration