Woman freed after '05 conviction tossed: 'Just glad to be free'
February 25, 2013
By Duaa Eldeib Tribune reporter
9:29 p.m. CST, February 25, 2013
At exactly noon on Monday, the prison official turned to Nicole Harris and a room full of her family, friends and lawyers and made the announcement.
"You're free to go, folks," he said.
The Chicago mother who had spent more than seven years in prison for the murder of her son — before an appeals court threw out the conviction in October — clutched the hand of her childhood best friend and skipped into the crisp winter day, the barbed wire fading into the distance.
Minutes earlier, Harris waited in a small outer room of downstate Dwight Correctional Center. Her older son Diante Dancy entered first, and Harris enveloped him in hug after hug, kiss after kiss. She wept as she ran her hand across his cheek, clutching him so tightly that his dad, Sta'Von Dancy, joked that the boy would need an oxygen mask.
"There are no words," Harris said later, describing what it was like to hold her son. "I didn't let go of him."
Harris was 23 and a recent college graduate who had just moved back to Chicago with her family when she was convicted of murder in the 2005 death of her 4-year-old son Jaquari Dancy. But Harris has long maintained that the confession that helped convict her was false and that Jaquari died accidentally.
In October, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated her conviction, citing in part the circumstances surrounding her 27-hour interrogation, which Harris said included threats and manipulation by police.
One of her attorneys, Alison Flaum of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, noted that police first confronted Harris when she was in a hospital chapel, where she had been taken after collapsing when told her son had not survived.
Jaquari was found in the family's Northwest Side home with an elastic bedsheet cord wrapped around his neck. Diante, then 5, told authorities at the time that he was alone with Jaquari when he saw him wrap the cord around his neck while playing, but the trial judge barred Diante from testifying.
Prosecutors noted that Diante also said he was asleep when Jaquari died. They argued that Harris strangled Jaquari with the cord because she was angry that he would not stop crying.
But in the ruling overturning her guilty verdict, the judges wrote that Diante's testimony "would have changed the entire tenor" of Harris' case and supported her claims that Jaquari's death was accidental and her confession false.
Still, Harris' release is not the end of her legal battle. The state has appealed the October ruling, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. In addition, Cook County prosecutors still could move to retry her. On Monday, a representative from the state's attorney's office said no decision on a retrial has been made.
Last week, the appeals court ordered Harris' release while prosecutors decide their next move.
"I just feel overwhelmed with joy," said Harris, now 31. "In the beginning, I had lots of hope. I knew that the truth would come out, and then there were days when I was just like, 'Do I really have to stay here until 2035 for something I didn't do?'"
But she said she knew that prison "was not my final destination."
"I'm glad to be free," Harris said. "I just want to be with my son. I want to be his little shadow."
Diante, now 13 and nearly as tall as his mother, said he "really couldn't wait" for her to be released.
"I'm just happy and want to spend time with her and get to know her like I used to," Diante told the Tribune. "And I want to make sure she knows me now, because I'm not the same little boy."
The sight of her son's smartphone was reminder enough for Harris of just how much things have changed since she was sentenced to 30 years in prison. As she sat across from family and friends at the suburban steakhouse she chose for her first meal after getting out, she ran her fingers across an iPad for the first time, marveled as someone showed her a new game on his cellphone and watched the giddy reactions of family friends as she blew them a kiss over FaceTime.
Steven Drizin, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which defended Harris along with the law firm Jenner & Block, toasted her Monday, saying, "All good things for you from now on."
In hopes of ensuring that Harris does not return to prison, one of her attorneys followed a Korean tradition, feeding Harris tofu immediately after her release. Though reluctant, Harris ate the tofu and was quickly handed a can of Coke to wash it down.
"I trust that eventually we'll have full victory, and it'll be all over," Harris said.
||False Child Abuse