While the financial cost of wrongful convictions can be estimated, no accountant can tally, no calculator can measure, and no spreadsheet can tabulate the human cost—a toll that’s horrible to consider: innocent men and women serving hundreds of years in prison while murderers and rapists roam free, families destroyed, and exonerated inmates released to a hostile marketplace.
In 85 cases of wrongful conviction, innocent men and women served 926 years for crimes they did not commit, according to a joint investigation by the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions. The study encompassed only cases in which the wrong man or woman was sent to prison for murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, or armed robbery.
Forty-two men lost more than a decade of their lives, and five lost a quarter century or close to it. Often they have emerged as exonerated relics, unfamiliar with cell phones, intimidated by computers, lepers in the marketplace and sometimes pariahs in their chosen neighborhoods. All have lost what most of us hold dear—contact with spouses, children, parents, and other relatives. Some, sentenced to death, would be in the grave today if the state had had its way.
The BGA/CWC investigation found that while those wrongfully convicted men and women were targets of society’s wrath, the actual perpetrators, left on the street, went on to commit at least 97 felonies, including 14 murders, 11 sexual assaults, 10 kidnappings, 19 armed robberies, and 43 other charges, such as attempted murder of federal officers, aggravated battery, and various narcotics offenses.
And those figures are incomplete. A full documentation would require resources only government can afford. In many cases the wrong man or woman has been determined, but not the right one, so there is no way to conclude how many crimes the actual perpetrators committed, sometimes over the course of a quarter-century.
But the number of years of incarceration and the sum of the felonies can’t begin to convey the actual human cost. Hidden in the numbers is a universe of pain borne by individuals, families, communities, and even generations.
Jerry Miller: Vindicated After 25 Years
Consider, for example, the human cost of the wrongful conviction of Jerry Miller, who spent 25 years under the thumb of prison and parole officers who believed he’d committed a very brutal sexual assault. While the now 52-year-old Miller lost more than half of his life, the real perpetrator indulged in a decades-long crime spree, victimizing a series of women and assaulting 11 Chicago police officers, according to the BGA/CWC investigation.
DNA testing has shown the man whom Jerry Miller did time for was Robert Weeks.
At approximately 11 p.m. on September 16, 1981, Weeks attacked a salesperson approaching her car in a parking lot at 506 N. Rush Street in Chicago.
According to police documents, Weeks beat, raped and robbed her, and then stuffed her into the trunk and tried to drive off with her car. The parking lot cashier, however, recognized the vehicle and refused to allow Weeks to exit. A second cashier challenged him and he fled on foot. The victim, rushed to the hospital, suffered a fractured nose, her left eye was swollen shut, and she was bleeding so profusely from a laceration in her vaginal wall that no vaginal swabs were collected as evidence, according to a 2009 forensic report filed as a court document.
Two police officers, not connected with the investigation, saw a composite sketch of the perpetrator and thought it resembled Jerry Miller, whom they had stopped in Lincoln Park five days before the rape.
Miller, 23 at the time, had been honorably discharged from the Army about a year earlier, had worked as a cook at a restaurant not far from the Lincoln Park Zoo, and was back in the neighborhood because he’d heard that a donut shop in Lincoln Park was hiring. Two police officers had stopped him, asked what he was doing, and let him go. Now they thought they might have their man on the Rush Street parking lot attack.
Jerry Miller, taken shortly after his 1981 arrest for rape. Because the rapist had worn a hairnet, police had Miller wear one as well. The victim picked two other men out of the photo array, but at trial said that Miller "looked like" her attacker. (Undated)
Miller, who had never been convicted of a crime, was put in a lineup monitored by two detectives and the two officers who’d stopped Miller in Lincoln Park. Both cashiers fingered him, though the police report indicates that one identification was "tentative." At trial, the victim testified that she believed Miller "looked like" the man who attacked her. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, but the eyewitness identification proved to be enough. On October 1, 1982, Miller was convicted of rape, robbery, and aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to 52 years.
According to police and court documents, while Miller was in custody for nearly a quarter-century, Weeks was in and out of prison himself, having committed the following offenses:
- September 21, 1981: Five days after the parking lot rape, Weeks attacked a man near Division and Ashland at 11:55 p.m., beating his face and body with a chain in an unsuccessful attempt to steal the victim’s watch.
- April 4, 1982: At 4:10 a.m., Weeks grabbed a 33-year-old woman who was coming home from work, pulled her into an alley off Division and Ashland, punched her in the face, bounced her head against the pavement, raped her, choked her, kicked her in the head, and then robbed her. She required surgery for a broken cheekbone and spent five days in the hospital.
- April 9, 1982: Five days after the above rape, Weeks grabbed a 34-year-old woman at approximately 1 a.m. as she parked her car in an alley in Wicker Park, struck her in the face, choked her, bit her on the forehead, and tried to force her back into the car. He was unable to proceed further because a civilian responded to her screams, gave chase, and alerted police.
- April 9, 1982: Weeks attacked the four officers who arrived on the scene in response to the above attack. According to court documents, he bit one officer in the hand, kicked two in the groin, and struck another in the face. Weeks pleaded guilty to the attacks on the two women in Wicker Park and the attacks on the officers, and in August, 1982 was sentenced to 12 years by Judge Thomas Maloney.
- August 13, 1996: After being arrested while breaking into cars in Wicker Park, Weeks kicked the squad car window causing the door to bend out.
- February 10, 1999: Weeks pleaded guilty to violating sex offender registration requirements.
- December 22, 2000: Weeks raped a 28-year-old Wicker Park resident as she returned home from a party at 4:30 a.m. The woman was treated for lacerations, contusions, and hematomas to her face, neck, ribs, and legs. Weeks, who fled the scene, was not identified as the perpetrator for six years.
- February 7, 2001: Weeks attacked a 23-year-old woman near Division and Ashland at 1:50 a.m. as she walked home from work, hit her in the head with a rock, broke her nose, crushed her orbital bone, and raped her. Aside from severe facial and head injuries, she suffered a compound fracture of the right wrist that required surgery. Weeks was in prison on other charges by the time he was identified as the perpetrator six years later.
- March 23, 2001: After being taken to a South Side police station on a battery charge, Weeks attacked five Chicago police officers while being booked and taken to the lockup. He punched one in the face, kicked two in the head, spat in the face of a fourth, and kicked a lieutenant in the groin and back (leaving a footprint on his shirt). The lieutenant was also treated at Mercy Hospital for lacerations to his hand, sustained in the effort to get Weeks into a cell.
- May 1, 2004: Weeks attacked two Chicago police officers who had arrived at the O’Hare L platform in response to a complaint of public indecency. They tried to arrest Weeks, had to call for backup, and after he was subdued, the responding officers were taken to Resurrection Hospital, one in an ambulance, the other in a police car.
(An attorney for Weeks declined to comment.)
|Illinois Department of Corrections inmate
Robert Weeks as of March 24, 2011.
By the time Weeks was sent to prison for the L platform attacks, the wrongfully convicted Jerry Miller was in his 23rd year of incarceration.
"[It’s] a long time," he said in a recent interview with the BGA. "A lotta people died, a lotta things changed.
"Some people miss you, some forget you. I stayed in touch with those who wanted to stay in touch, but people move on with their lives. And they’re supposed to, they have to, because otherwise it would be like they would be inside with me. I wouldn’t want to wish that on anybody. So I said, ‘Go on with your life, I’ll catch up with you later.’ Lot of people did that."
During that long stretch, he begged a series of law firms to take on his case to no avail. In 2000, he heard from another inmate about the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that works to free the wrongfully convicted using DNA testing. Miller thought there might be DNA in his case, and he wrote another letter.
Six years passed in the back-and-forth that followed, and on March 20, 2006, with the Innocence Project committed to his case, Miller was released on parole. After serving nearly half of his 52-year sentence, he boarded a bus to Chicago wearing prison-issue khakis and with "about $30" in his pocket.
Soon afterwards, he met with his parole officer and learned that his hard times weren’t over. Miller says that was the first time he heard that he had to register as a sex offender, that he was required to wear an electronic monitor at all times, that he was forbidden to live near a school or day care center or with relatives who had children, and that he had to enroll in sex offender classes and pay tuition to attend them.
"I was really very upset because I had just done 25 years for a crime I didn’t commit and now I had to further be humiliated," Miller said. "I thought prison was bad. But now I was like the scum of the earth."
He went to live with a cousin. She gave him a job driving disabled adults to various appointments, and he got a second job at a barbecue restaurant in Dolton, Ill. But he could see how much he was disrupting his cousin’s life. His photo was on the state sex offender website along with his address, date of birth, height, and weight. Parole officers came knocking on the front door.
"They literally have run of your house," Miller said. "They walk through, questioning you about who is there. On Halloween, they are like storm troopers. They tell you don’t go to the door, do not interact with the trick-or-treaters—if you do, you will go back to prison."
Miller kept insisting he was innocent, but disbelief, he says, was the natural reaction. He recalls being asked, "Well, why did you do all that time? Why are you on parole, if you are innocent?"
After a year on the outside, he told the BGA, "I was at the end of my rope. I felt, ‘I just can’t do this anymore. Come and get me. I am through with this parole.’
"And not more than an hour later of goin’ back home and thinking it over, I received that phone call. It was right on time."
|Slip worned by woman raped in 1981 by Robert Weeks.
In 2007, DNA testing on the garment exonerated
Jerry Miller. (Exhibit, Miller V. Mahon, 2009)
That phone call, on March 27, 2007, was from his attorneys. "You need to find somewhere to sit down," they said, and then they told him that DNA test results had cleared him, that his genetic code was no match for the code in the semen on the parking lot victim’s clothing.
"I was ecstatic. Started callin’ everybody on my phone. I was laughing and saying, ‘I told you so,’ and next thing you know, my phone died. I told my parole officer, she was really happy, but I was still on parole, they couldn’t treat me any different than anyone else. With the people they deal with, how many times did they hear that the guy was innocent? They hear that from everyone. When I went to the sex offender class I told them and they was looking at me cross-eyed too."
A few weeks later, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Miller’s attorneys filed a joint motion to vacate and dismiss Miller’s conviction, and on April 23, 2007, a judge ruled in favor, making Miller the 200th person exonerated in the United States by DNA testing.
About two weeks after Miller learned that DNA testing had cleared him, an Illinois State Police forensic scientist matched the specimen code from the 1981 parking lot rape to Robert Weeks. That link would not have happened had Weeks not attacked the two Chicago police officers on the L platform in 2004. After that offense, Weeks’s DNA profile was entered in the National DNA Index System, a criminal registry.
But in terms of justice, that link meant nothing. At that point in 2007, the statute of limitations had long passed on the rape that had robbed Jerry Miller of more than half his life.
However, six months earlier, on October 13, 2006, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office had been able to use Weeks’s DNA profile to charge him with the two Wicker Park rapes he’d gotten away with in December 2000 and February 2001. On November 19, 2009, more than two years after Miller was exonerated, Weeks was sentenced to natural life in prison on charges resulting from those two sexual assaults. He now resides in Pontiac Correctional Center.
In 2008, Miller filed a civil suit against the police department, naming the police crime lab employees and the two police officers who’d picked him up in Lincoln Park as defendants. Miller’s attorneys also sued the Chicago police detectives who’d worked on the case, alleging that their behavior in the 72 hours Miller was held in the police station after his arrest was suspicious.
According to testimony at Miller’s criminal trial and court documents filed in his civil suit, the detectives had shown the victim a photo array, ostensibly with Miller’s photo in it (he was in custody at the time). The victim picked out two men as possible suspects. Because the police failed to mention the photo lineup in their reports, Miller’s attorneys argued that it was clear that she had failed to identify Miller and had instead picked two other men.
In their complaint, Miller’s civil attorneys also charged that the parking lot cashier who was noted as providing a "tentative" identification in the lineup report grew to "sure, positive" by the end of the day as a result of a conversation with one of the officers, witnessed by no one else.
According to People’s Law Office attorney John Stainthorp, the local attorney who represented Miller along with others affiliated with the Innocence Project, by the time the case neared trial, the central issue appeared to be validity of the "inconclusive" results of the Chicago Police Crime Lab’s testing on the semen on the victim’s clothing, tests which, in the pre-DNA era, often excluded suspects based on their blood type. Miller’s legal team had hired a nationally renowned expert to repeat the tests while being observed by scientists hired by the defense. That expert’s report concluded that the results should have excluded Miller, and he could not understand how a scientist following standard procedures could have come to any other conclusion.
In pre-trial motions in the civil case, Miller’s attorneys argued that a forensic officer’s reported finding should be viewed as part of a pattern of skewed results produced by the crime lab during the 1980s, saying that "prior to, at the time of, and subsequent to the prosecution of Jerry Miller," the lab had failed to turn over scientific evidence exculpatory of criminal defendants in the cases of 14 men who were convicted and then, years later, determined to be innocent.
The accused officer declined to have an expert of his own perform any tests. In a pre-trial motion his attorneys argued that the inconclusive finding might have been the result of his failure to perform the test properly, but in that event, he had simply made "an innocent mistake while performing the testing," and negligence alone was not enough to support Miller’s claim that he had been framed.
Shortly before the case was to be tried, the city and Miller settled the suit for $6.3 million. According to Chicago Corporation Counsel spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle, taxpayers also covered the $1.7 million bill from attorneys hired to represent the city in the suit.
So what are the human costs of the wrongful conviction of Jerry Miller? Had Miller not been charged for the parking lot rape, might a police officer have connected Weeks to it?
The 1981 attack took place long before computers assisted such police work, yet there was a clear pattern to Weeks’s three assaults in 1981 and 1982.
All three women suffered severe facial injuries; all were white victims describing a black attacker; all were attacked on Chicago’s Near North Side by someone who prowled late at night; and two of the three were attacked outside their cars.
Police noticed the similarities between Weeks’s April 9, 1982 attempted rape and his April 4 completed rape, put him in a lineup, brought the April 4th victim in, and she identified him. If the September 1981 case had remained open until Weeks was arrested for the April 1982 attacks, might someone have noticed the similarities in all three attacks? Might Weeks have ended up in a photo array or a lineup shown to the sales representative raped six months earlier? Could his subsequent rapes and his attacks on police officers have been prevented?
We’ll never know.
One fact is certain: Nothing can restore Jerry Miller’s life before his nightmare began.
He was misidentified by eyewitnesses, suffered for lack of proper forensic testing of the specimens, and served time for a rapist—now known—who cannot be prosecuted because the statute of limitations passed long ago.
A variety of safeguards can be put in place to reduce wrongful convictions.
Many are already running elsewhere, most could be accomplished with minimal cost, and all would help to reduce the devastating human toll of wrongful convictions.
John Conroy is a senior investigator with the Better Government Association, and Rob Warden is the executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University School of Law.