Cleared by DNA after 26 years
Ex-inmate wins battle to prove his innocence in '81 Chicago rape
By Maurice Possley
Tribune staff reporter
April 22, 2007
Jerry Miller could be angry that a rape victim misidentified him, or that he spent a quarter of a century in prison for a crime he did not commit. He could be bitter that he was paroled as a registered sex offender, forced to wear an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet that signaled his every move.
But Miller, 48, says he is "blessed."
Since his release in March 2006, he moved in with a cousin in the south suburbs and got two jobs, one at a bus service for the disabled and one as a cook in a Dolton barbecue joint.
At the same time, he continued fighting to prove his innocence, a battle he has finally won.
On Monday, prosecutors will ask a Cook County Circuit judge to erase Miller's conviction and sentence because recent DNA tests on evidence have excluded him as the attacker.
"I am not angry. I am thankful and I feel proud of myself," Miller said Friday in an interview, at an office near the Zion Christian Center in Dolton, where he attends weekly services. "I accomplished what I set out to do—to show that they lied on me. . . . I made it. I'm not swept under the rug anymore."
Miller's will be the 200th exoneration in the nation based on DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic in New York.
It will be the 27th DNA exoneration in Illinois.
Gary Dotson became one of the first in the nation in 1989, when DNA tests showed he had not committed a rape for which he had been convicted in a Cook County court—a case that hung over his head years after his accuser recanted.
Since then, the use of DNA to exonerate the wrongly accused has exposed flaws in the criminal justice system and led to myriad changes, such as videotaping of interrogations and overhauls of lineup procedures.
An analysis of the 200 exonerations, performed by the Innocence Project, shows that three out of every four wrongful convictions were marked by mistaken eyewitness identification, including Miller's case.
Crime lab errors or faulty science were present in 65 percent of the cases, according to the analysis.
The defendants in one out of every four cases were said to have confessed to the crime, although the DNA tests later proved their innocence.
Erasing an error
Cook County prosecutors, joined by Miller's attorneys, assistant public defender William Wolf, and Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founders of the Innocence Project, filed a motion Friday saying they would appear in court Monday morning to request that Miller's conviction be vacated.
On Sept. 16, 1981, the 44-year-old victim went to the roof of a parking garage at 506 N. Rush St. at about 9:30 p.m., heading home from work. According to evidence at Miller's trial, the woman was about to get into her car when a man came up behind her and shoved her inside.
The man threatened to kill her if she looked at him, she testified. She said the man beat her, robbed her, then forced her into the back seat and raped her. The attacker then forced her into the trunk and tried to drive out of the parking garage, according to testimony.
A parking lot attendant recognized the car when it pulled up to the exit and asked the driver if it was his. The man said it was, but the attendant was suspicious and ordered him to back up. When another attendant approached, the man got out of the car and fled.
The victim began banging on the lid of the trunk. The attendants heard her cries, found a set of keys on the floor of the car and rescued the woman, according to their testimony.
Shown an array of photos at a hospital, the victim said she could not positively identify her attacker. The parking lot attendants and the victim provided a description that was used to create a composite sketch.
Zeroing in on a suspect
Miller became a suspect because, days before the crime, Chicago Police Officer Kenneth Fligelman had stopped him in the 500 block of West Armitage Avenue for allegedly "looking" into parked cars, according to court records. Miller was not arrested at the time.
When the composite sketch was circulated in the Police Department, Fligelman believed it looked like Miller and brought him in for a lineup, where the two attendants identified him as the attacker.
At the time, Miller had never been convicted of a crime and he was working as a cook after completing a 31/2-year hitch in the Army.
Now retired, Fligelman said in an interview, "He matched the composite. My partner and I, when we saw the composite at roll call, we remembered him."
At trial, the attendants identified Miller. The victim said she thought Miller looked like her attacker, even though the attacker was described as having a few days' growth of facial hair and Miller had a full goatee.
Miller testified that he was not involved and at the time of the crime was home watching a championship boxing match between Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard.
'I was devastated'
The jury found him guilty of rape, robbery, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated battery. Judge Thomas Maloney sentenced him to 45 years in prison.
"I was devastated," Miller recalled. "And the judge—he told me the evidence was overwhelming. I was very depressed."
Shortly after arriving at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Miller decided that he had to find a way to "improve myself. I went to school. At first, I got my GED. Then I took vocational classes in small engine repair and I got a job as a mechanic on the [prison] grounds crew . . . repairing lawn mowers and tractors."
At the same time, he battled loneliness, as many of his family members and friends did not come to visit him in prison.
"They had me so guilty," Miller said. "I asked, 'Why me?' You lose hope every day; you have to find a way to gain hope every day. I had found God as a boy. Now I found God in my cell. You open your eyes and you can see there's something here that's more than just me."
At the urging of his mother, Miller began to read everything he could get his hands on.
"Mostly, though, it was spiritual books and philosophy," he said. "I missed joy. I missed happiness. It was very painful, being locked up every night. But I decided I didn't want the pain, the disappointment, the hurt. I just didn't want it no more."
'Life is to be lived'
Miller said he became a better man.
"I matured. I came to understand life is to be lived no matter where you are," he said. He credits his faith in God with helping him cope in prison, along with a desire to educate himself and "make something of myself. This [exoneration] is the hand of God."
Miller said he wrote hundreds of letters to lawyers and others seeking help. His letter to the Innocence Project, affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, ultimately triggered the DNA testing.
Mark Ertler, deputy supervisor of the Cook County state's attorney's office DNA Review Unit, said the Innocence Project reached out last year on behalf of Miller. Ertler located the evidence in the case, including the victim's half slip, which contained the attacker's DNA.
"This case is a good example of what the DNA unit was intended to do," Ertler said. He said that although the victim has declined to speak publicly, "It was never her intention to have someone who is innocent be prosecuted."
After Miller was excluded by the DNA tests, the unknown DNA profile was submitted to the FBI's convicted offender database and a match was found, Wolf said. Prosecutors have not identified the suspect whose DNA was a match. But because the database was formed well after the 1981 crime, the presence of the real attacker means he not only escaped prosecution for the 1981 crime, but he committed at least one other crime later.
Help from relatives, friends
Miller's cousin, Karen Hicks, owner of Yes We Can transportation service, which transports disabled people and others to medical appointments and therapy, said she took Miller into her home after he was released. She said Miller "teaches me patience and to pay attention to people. And I am going to be there all the way for him."
Meanwhile, Miller has relearned how to drive a car, use an ATM, operate a gas pump, and, for the first time, learned to use a cell phone.
"I've got emotional stuff to deal with—how to deal with women," he said. "I've had a lot of emotions locked up and I've got friends who are helping me."
Fligelman, told that Miller was exonerated, said, "I have always wondered how people can pick someone out of a lineup when things happen so fast. It's unfortunate he had to spend that kind of time in jail if he didn't do it. . . . That kind of thing churns my stomach. . . . Who knows how many other cases like this might be out there?"
Tribune staff reporter Carlos Sadovi contributed to this report.