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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

James Kluppelberg Freed After 24 Years -- May 31, 2012

Today, James Kluppelberg was released from prison after serving 24 years. In March 1984, a fire burned down a 3-flat apartment building at 4448 S. Hermitage in Chicago, Illinois killing a mother and her five children. The fire was initially determined by experts to be an accident, but when 4 years later a witness avoided prison time on burglary and theft charges by falsely claiming he saw Kluppelberg start the blaze, James was arrested and charged with arson and 6 counts of first degree murder. With other questionable evidence, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. It was during his years of incarceration that I was able to meet and acquaint myself with Kluppelberg. At Stateville, I learned about his case and post conviction appeals which were strung out for over a decade before prosecutors decided to drop the charges due to new exonerating evidence. I was surprised and very glad for the man who had spent half his life in prison to finally be set free. I hope he can make the most of what remnants of his life remain.

I first met James Kluppelberg in the late 1990's while at Joliet Correctional Center. I did not know he was convicted of a mass murder arson and only on occasion spoke with him. Kluppelberg lived in the Honor Dorm while I spent the majority of my time celled in East General Population. The dorm was considered a privilege to live in and only prisoners who had exemplary disciplinary records were permitted to stay there. Those who were in the unit had free movement within it and were not confined to a cell like the rest of the inmates incarcerated at Joliet C.C. From what I was told, there were some short office walls which gave prisoners some privacy but otherwise it was wide open. Inmates could walk around and socialize as they pleased. They also had access to the showers, public toilets, wash bins, and microwave oven any time they pleased. The dorm was almost treated like a minimum-security unit and many prisoners loved being there. However, the idea of being around so many people without the chance of ever being alone was abhorrent to me and I declined the offer to be moved there. East general population was much more to my liking because it was a small two gallery section isolated from the rest of the prisoners at Joliet. It was quiet, had little gang activity, and few distractions.

I rarely saw Kluppelberg at Joliet because of the different units we lived in but also because of our different assignments and past times. I went to school full time and even took extra classes to graduate before the college courses were discontinued. While I was at school, James worked Monday through Friday as a data entry typist. Furthermore, while I was a fitness fanatic lifting weights on the yard and competing on the prison's power lifting team, he stayed in the dorm lazily while not working at his job. Only on a rare occasion would I see Kluppelberg on the yard or at some other location. Usually, I saw him in movement lines when he was headed to the industries building or elsewhere. The same can be said when I was transferred to Stateville years later until I was moved to C House where we lived on the same gallery.

Kluppelberg always managed to acquire the best jobs in the penitentiary. At Joliet, the mattress factory and data entry jobs were the most coveted by inmates. If a prisoner was able to type fast, he could make up to $300 a month, and I even heard of a few men making $400 when a huge order came in which had to be processed without delay. To give readers some perspective, most inmates with jobs at Stateville currently make about $30 a month and $5 is deducted incredibly for room and board. When Joliet C.C. was closed down in 2000, James lost his data entry job but he quickly made friends and was assigned to work at the print shop and as a clerk at Stateville's prison store. These jobs did not pay as much but they are exclusive assignments that had many perks and benefits. Many prisoners appreciated the work he did to improve the selection of products at commissary. He was also able to do favors for men by having copies made and making sure their commissary orders were completed in full. Kluppelberg also got along very well with staff and his supervisors. At times, I thought he believed he was a part of the system and not a captive. Such coziness with employees and the clout it carried, however, eventually was noticed by Internal Affairs and this was why he was transferred to Menard C.C.

On television, I saw an old photograph of James Kluppelberg from the 1980's. He looked younger and had semi-long feathered blond hair. For all the time I knew him, he looked more like the bald middle-aged man with a blond goatee, Jamie Heiman, from the TV show "Myth Busters." When I left Joliet C.C., I did not see James again until I was transferred to Stateville and went out on a hospital writ about 8 years later. He still looked like the same man I knew in Joliet but James complained of many health ailments. I was told he suffered from heart disease, hypertension, loss of vision, diabetes, foot problems, carpal tunnel syndrome and the list went on. It seemed like he felt his entire body was falling apart.

Although I did not think James looked much different, he thought my appearance had drastically changed. It was no surprise to me when he speculated I was being sent to the hospital at the University of Illinois for cancer treatments. A number of other men I had known from Joliet thought I looked sickly and gaunt. No, I told James, I did not have cancer. My weight loss was due to a lower back injury and not being able to lift weights as I had before. I had repeatedly injured a couple of disks in my lumbar spine and these were now degenerating. Even if I had not injured my back, prisoners at Stateville rarely have access to weights and the work out equipment is paltry compared to the other prisons I have been at. I did not mention this to James, but the time I have spent at Stateville has been the most miserable and probably in some indirect fashion has probably affected my health.

While at the hospital, prisoners must wait handcuffed and shackled with nothing to do for many hours. During that time, Kluppelberg told me about his post conviction appeal and various parts of the prosecutor's case against him. From what he told me, the fire he was accused of igniting was initially determined to be an accident, but his trial attorney did not present this evidence to his jury, and on appeal his lawyer failed to attach the documents. The failure to submit the evidence on appeal led to its dismissal but he was able to win in the Appellate Court. It ruled his appellate counsel fell below a reasonable standard defendants have by right in the post conviction statute and the State Supreme Court rule 651c. This was very interesting to me because my appellate attorney failed to submit affidavits to the court showing my car was 50 miles away from the crime scene and could not have been used by my co-defendant, but trial attorneys failed to have them testify or contest the state's theory of accountability in any way. Unfortunately for me, however, the Appellate Court also dismissed my case and now I must file a successive post conviction citing Kluppelberg's case along with several others.

I am not certain if I asked or James just volunteered, but he also told me about how he came to be arrested and convicted. Although the fire was initially determined to be an accident, a few years later a former friend of his arrested for a burglary told authorities he saw Kluppelberg light the blaze. He and his girlfriend, or possibly wife, were then interrogated. The woman told police she also witnessed Kluppelberg commit the arson. Obviously, I was curious why she would do this and was told the police threatened to take her children and do other things if she did not cooperate. James failed to tell me he also confessed, but later on television news today, I learned his confession was surprisingly suppressed by the judge before trial. This was highly unusual but because he was interrogated by Jon Burge, the same police commander who numerous other prisoners blame for abusing them during interrogation directly or as in a supervisory role like my cellmate, I can see how the confession was not allowed into evidence.

Kluppelberg's appeal was initially based on ineffective assistance of counsel but it was dismisssed after 10 years. However, he filed a successive appeal with the help of attorneys at the University of Chicago Law School and Winston & Strawn based on prosecutor misconduct and actual innocence. The jail detainee recanted his prior testimony and said he was given a sweet deal by the prosecutor for his story. The deal was never disclosed to the defense nor was a confession by another person who said she may have started the fire, both of which are "Brady Violations" and a significant impropriety by the assistant state's attorney. Investigators on Kluppelberg's defense team also went to the attic window where the jail house snitch formerly claimed to have witnessed him torch the apartment. They found he could not see the building from his vantage point. On top of this, a forensic expert was hired who reviewed the evidence and found the burn markings not indicative of an arson.

Last year when I was moved to C House, I spoke with James more often because we were celled on the same gallery. However, like at Joliet, he rarely came out except to go to work unless there was something especially good to eat in the evening or a weekday. When he did come out or I saw him in movement lines, he usually associated with people I did not know or care for, including Jimmy Files, who claims to have assassinated President John F. Kennedy and has many other tall tales to tell involving mafia and CIA conspiracies. On occasion, though, I would talk to him and also ask how his appeal was proceeding. He told me the prosecutor continued to stall asking for continuance after continuance, apparently to delay an evidentiary hearing. The last time I spoke with him he said, however, the prosecutor was debating whether or not to retry him if the judge vacated his conviction. Apparently they decided not to, and when the circuit court ruled in his favor, he was abruptly released.

At 11 a.m. today prisoners in C House began shouting that Kluppelberg was released and was on television. I was sipping on some hot tea and waiting for the gym line to be run when I head the shouts. Immediately I turned to CBS to see James walking out the front gates of Menard C.C. It was odd seeing the prisoner I had known for nearly 15 years on TV, and a free man. Kluppelberg was by himself and by his demeanor and words he seemed stunned and lost. He told television reporters the experience was scary, shocking, numb, and sad. Everything he had was gone. He had no family, money, or a home to go to. He was leaving prison after 24 years with $14 in his pocket.

I thought about Kluppelberg's haunting words and his expression throughout much of this day. At the gym, I spoke to a prisoner about how his release must feel surreal. I cannot even imagine what it would be like outside these walls. However, unlike Kluppelberg, I do not think I have become institutionalized as much as he has. Kluppelberg assimilated into the penitentiary, its people and environment. His job became very important to him and he may have thought of himself as a cog in the wheels which turned Stateville. This created meaning for him while I contrarily see no meaning to my incarceration except my slow torture and death. I consider myself the walking dead within these walls and only with my release may some infusion of blood reinvigorate me.

Fortunately for Kluppelberg, he has some good lawyers who I believe will look after him and probably file a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the State of Illinois after he is issued a certificate of innocence from Governor Quinn. Much of the talk amongst prisoners at dinner today was if he can sue, and if so, how much he will be given. There was a heated exchange between two men, one of whom was arguing he was going to get millions and the other saying he would not get a dime because Kluppelberg must prove prosecutorial or police malfeasance. I kept quiet until I was asked for my opinion. From what I know, Kluppelberg has good grounds for a lawsuit. I do not believe Jon Burge can be an issue because James' confession was suppressed. However, if police coerced a woman to testify against him falsely, this can be grounds. The greater and more provable misconduct will be the manipulation of forensics and not disclosing evidence favorable to the defense. I personally hope Kluppelberg will be awarded a million dollars for each year he was in prison, but I reason there will most likely be a settlement for much less.

I was not aware Kluppelberg was represented by the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School until I saw attorney Tara Thompson speak on his behalf during the midday television news. I met with her a few times while at Stateville to discuss my case and see if their team of attorneys would file my successive post conviction appeal. She wanted to represent me but apparently someone at Loevy & Loevy, the law firm which supports the project, blackballed me. I was never given a reason why, but it may be the same reason other firms and law schools have turned me down. These groups do not like to take accountability cases because proving innocence is much more difficult than if a defendant is directly accused of committing a crime. This may be true in general, but my case is distinguished from most others. In fact, I think my innocence is much more apparent and easier to prove than Kluppelberg's.

The judge refused to give me the death penalty, despite the vehement arguments of the prosecutor because there was no evidence to show I was even at the crime scene. This leaves the state with the dubious far-reaching theory that I was still accountable for my co-defendant's actions. Although I am aware the jury mainly based their decision on the belief that I left Fawcett go to his death without warning him, the law states an accountable party must aid or abet in some way. They also must demonstrate intent. The prosecutor, lacking a personal motive, sought to establish that I was part of a group and therefore collectively shared their desires. It is no secret why I was compared to a Three Musketeer and my co-defendant was repeatedly said to be my friend, roommate and partner. As for abetting, there was the testimony of the interrogating officer who claimed I lent my car to Faraci on the day in question. The problem with this is that I have witnesses who place my car 50 miles away, but similar to the Kluppelberg case, this evidence was never presented to the jury. Furthermore, since my conviction, I have gathered other evidence. Additionally, there is blood evidence in my co-defendant's car which if preserved, may be identified through modern science as belonging to the victim.

I just watched James Kluppelberg give a statement to news reporters at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. I know the prison did not give him airfare, so apparently someone is looking out for him. I am pleased with much of what James has said, unlike other men released from prison after years of incarceration for crimes they did not commit. Usually men are jubilant and have big happy smiles from ear to ear. James' mood is not of unrestrained merriment but rather sorrow. How can these men be so happy after being tormented for decades and having the life sucked out of them? Even if one day the state is forced to cough up some money, how can this ever make up for the enormous injustice, perpetuated against them? No amount of money is going to give James back 24 years.

I was incredulous, though, when I heard Kluppelberg say he does not harbor any animosity. If this was not bewildering enough, he went on to thank Anita Alvarez, the Cook County States Attorney, for not retrying him. This is the same prosecutor's office which has been delaying his freedom for years. They fought tooth and nail for James' appeal to be dismissed and for him to die in prison. The prosecutor did not decide not to retry Kluppelberg when his conviction was vacated out of any generosity, niceness, or sense of justice. It was purely a political PR play. There was no way the state could have re-convicted Kluppelberg even if they sicked "James Mad Dog McKay" on him. I can only speculate that Kluppelberg was still dazed and confused from his abrupt and unexpected release.