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Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Illinois Innocence Project -- March 1, 2014

Last November, I received a large envelope from the Illinois Innocence Project. I was not expecting any mail from them and curiously I opened it. Enclosed was an enormous questionnaire and several release forms as well as a letter. The letter said that years ago they received a request for legal assistance in regards to my criminal conviction. At the time, they only worked on downstate cases and therefore never responded. However, recently they were given a grant to help prisoners in northern Illinois. If I was still interested in their help, I was asked to fill out all the enclosed paperwork and return it to them. Lawyers from the IIP will then evaluate my case and decide whether or not to accept it.

I flipped through the questionnaire and it was the most comprehensive one I had ever seen. There were about 30 pages of questions ranging from the most basic to the most complex. At the end there was also space to give additional information which may not have been covered but was important. Completing this form I thought would take hours, and there were some questions I could not answer even if I dug through all the papers I had in my cell. For example, I do not know my social security number, contact information for all my previous attorneys, or whether the blood evidence found in my co-defendant's car was kept by police. The questionnaire attempted to be simplistic in design, but by doing so it made some questions difficult to explain. I was pleased the IIP was going to be so thorough in their review of my case, however, I will bbe damned if I went through all this trouble for nothing and contemplated just throwing everything I was sent into the garbage.

Since my federal appeal was tossed out due to being filed a day late, I have written dozens of law schools and firms across the country seeking legal assistance. My family as well as a pen pal also reached out to dozens more. To my knowledge, none of them received a response and less than a quarter of my letters were answered. The legal agencies who wrote me back told me they did not take accountability cases or those where DNA could not directly demonstrate innocence. A few said they did not do pro bono work or they currently had too many cases even after I filled out their questionnaires. When the University of Chicago began their innocence project, I quickly contacted them before they received a flood of letters. I met with Tara Thompson and a couple of their investigators. However, just as I became hopeful they may help me, I was told someone at the law firm of Loevy and Loevy black balled me. Their innocence project was backed by this firm and the father-son team had final say over the cases the university took.

For a couple of years, I was represented by Chicago-Kent Law School. I did not write them nor did I consider their law professor impressive despite how he was repeatedly on television. However, like most of my time incarcerated, the matter was not up to me. My parents, through a civil attorney my father knew well, lobbied Richard Kling to take my case. He had a large caseload and therefore dumped my case on a new law professor. Prof. Daniel Coyne was arrogant and stubborn. He did not like me reaching out to other attorneys for advice nor questioning and directing his work. Eventually, he quit and returned a small portion of the money my parents gave him as a retainer. I did not care. Never again was I going to be a mere passenger in my own legal defense. Tried that before and only helplessly witnessed my own car wreck time and again.

I grumbled to my cellmate who was watching me flip through all the pages of the questionnaire sent to me by the IIP. Why should I fill this out? I did not know any of the law professors there or their investigative team.  They may be incompetent fools or stubborn, controlling squares like Daniel Coyne. They may just review my case and reject it as the University of Chicago did after I put in a lot of effort getting them up to speed. They may get bombarded by numerous other prisoners with cases in Cook County and pursue an easier conviction to appeal. Worse, they could accept it and then sit on it for years because of all the other cases they accepted. Then there was the possibility they would not consider my case a DNA case because it is not the typical forensic based murder conviction. As these thoughts went through my mind, my cellmate said, "You know you have to fill it out." He was right, of course. My current attorney could not handle my appeal and had been working, or not working, on it for almost 5 years. I needed help and beggars could not be choosers.

I was not expecting a reply, but in late January, I received a letter from the IIP's case coordinator. She told me they had began to evaluate my case and wanted my direct appeal as well as any new information which had not been presented in court. The problem with this was I kept my legal briefs in storage and did not have any extra copies. Prisoners are only allowed to keep two property boxes in their cells. However, because of court rulings, the prison administration had to allow men to keep and have access to all their legal paperwork. Some prisoners have ten to twenty boxes of discovery, appeals, transcripts, etc. Initially, Stateville stored the additional legal property at the law library and prisoners could gain access to them while there. However, these boxes were all moved to a warehouse called the personal property building. Personal property lines were only run once a week and getting on the list was difficult. I wrote the case coordinator telling her they may not receive the documents they requested until spring.

As I suspected, getting to the personal property building was not easy. Every week, I wrote letters to the personal property officer and repeatedly did not make the list. In frustration, I asked the cell house sergeant to see if he could make an addition, yet the following Monday there were no lines run because of a lockdown. In the meantime, I thought I would give the IIP something to look at. I kept a copy of my clemency petition in my cell. The petition has a thorough statement of fact explaining the period of time I lived with my co-defendant and his wife along with events which led to my arrest, prosecution, conviction, and sentence of natural life without the possibility of parole. Thereafter, I made a number of pleadings to the governor to grant me a full pardon based on actual innocence or at the minimum a commutation of sentence. The end of the petition has about 100 exhibits including evidence never heard by my jury or any court. A number of attorneys and even the Prison Review Board have remarked how well written and compelling my petition is. I wish I could share it with the public at large, but I have yet to find someone who is willing to create a website to put it online.

Last Monday, my name was finally listed over the cell house loudspeaker amongst the men permitted to go to the personal property building. Two lines of about ten prisoners each were to go out. I was in the second line which goes out after lunch and therefore I quickly trimmed my beard, exercised, and then bathed. In the chow hall, turkey-soy burgers were served. They were not my favorite meal particularly when saturated in grease from being deep fried (the ovens at Stateville remain broken), however, I had to attend it. Guards refused to let men out of their cells after chow and they were expected to go into the holding cage upon returning from lunch.

In the 8 foot cubicle, I waited with other men going to the personal property building, including Juan Luna. Luna is celled on the 4th floor and since he has been in the cell house, I have not had an opportunity to talk with him. I asked him how his direct appeal was progressing and was told it was denied. He is now working on a post conviction or what is legally known as a collateral appeal. I was surprised to learn he was representing himself and thought some attorney even without payment would take his case simply because he was convicted of an infamous mass murder. However, I was glad none had because this meant the state had to give him copies of all the police discovery which was on some 15 compact disks. For a long time, I have wanted to review parts of the Palatine Massacre discovery because it may contain information valuable to me.

The warehouse where prisoners' personal property is stored is a long building that served multiple functions. Inside, I gave a guard my ID card and was directed to a large almost barren room. The room was empty except for a half dozen school desks and a bench. I took one of the chairs with a folding table to sit in by the wall and away from anyone else. Although some prisoners go to the personal property building to socialize, I did not want any company. I made a list of all the things I needed to get or wanted to look at and reviewed it while I waited.

Almost a half hour passed before workers brought into the room a few carts of boxes. I did not know how much time I would have and quickly grabbed my box and began searching through it. I easily found all my direct appeal documents and thought the IIP would appreciate it if I sent them not only my attorney's briefs but the prosecutor's rebuttals, despite how they were deceptive and portrayed me in the worst possible light. Finding my collateral appeal was much more difficult and all I was able to locate was the initial petition. The trial judge's dismissal due to my attorney's failure to attach affidavits was gone as well as consecutive documents filed to the appellate and supreme court. Eventually, I remembered I sent these to my current lawyer almost 5 years ago and never made copies.

While I was going through all my legal envelopes, I found one marked "Media: Brown's Chicken Murders." These were newspaper articles I had found or were sent to me after James Degorski and Juan Luna were arrested for the massacre. I thought Luna may like looking at them and walked over to where he was sitting and dropped it on his desk. I told him he may find these interesting and went back to my chair. When we went to leave, Luna told me "thanks" and said he would like a copy of one article which discussed the thoughts of his jury after a holdout refused to give him the death penalty. Since I wanted to see parts of his discovery when he received it, I thought I should reciprocate and agreed to make any copies he liked.

In the cell house, I took the phone and brought it to my cell. Instead of calling my attorney for the collateral appeal briefs and court rulings I sent her, I called my mother. She has nearly 40 boxes of discovery, appeals and various other legal documents related to my case. It is so immense, I never bothered having it brought to the prison. Included in this small truck load are copies of my post conviction appeals and I thought I would just have her search and then send them to the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois in Springfield. However, after getting her on the phone, I was reminded of how sick and frail she was. I did not want to get her involved and would simply tell the case coordinator the most relevant parts of the appeal in writing. If they wanted the original which was forged by my direct appellate counsel, the court rulings, or subsequent briefs, I would direct my derelict current attorney to send them and failing this they will just have to order them from the county clerk's office.

By mid afternoon, I was exhausted and fell asleep for an hour. Upon waking, I made myself a hot cup of coffee to go along with some peanut butter sandwiches and state cakes. I do not often take in so much caffeine and sugar and got a jolt of energy I could not contain. Although I had exercised earlier, I did another 20 minutes. My cellmate told me to slow down and put my T-shirt back on. There were no female nurses to impress. Anthony occasionally jokes that I keep my shirt off to attract women that work in the cell house. His joke has no merit but for fun I told him I would call a female guard who was on the ground floor and do the Chip and Dale dance skit that we watched on an old episode of Saturday Night Live. The catch was, however, he had to strip down to his "spediums" (Speedo + medium sized briefs) and play the part by comedian Chris Farley. Apparently, he did not like this idea although he found it tremendously funny when I imitated some dance moves.

I slept terrible overnight not only because I drank the coffee, but because the nurse who passes out medications in the evening failed to stop by my cell. Anthony claimed she may not be a Patrick Swayze fan. Fortunately, yard was not run until late because Internal Affairs was conducting drops (urine drug tests) and I had plenty of time to get ready. Once on the small yard, however, I wished I had stayed in the cell. Nearly 20 prisoners were all trying to bench press with the same and only barbell. For much of the time I had to wait around for my turn and listened to dumb conversations or stories from "the hood." A black prisoner who simply goes by the name "Big" easily did 25 repetitions with the 220 pound weight making me look weak when I finally was able to do my set.

From the yard, prisoners were taken directly to the chow hall. I was disappointed men were being served "slick meat," but it was very rare to be given a slice of cheese. I bagged and then pocketed the cheese along with some bread to make a sardine sandwich when I returned to the cell before I spoke to Steve. Steve went to the law library every Thursday morning and I told him I had arranged it with one of the clerks to have copies made of all my appeals. He just had to be my mule. Steve complained about how he was always doing me favors but I did nothing for him. "What's in it for me?" he asked. I told him "protection". Did he actually think he could have survived so long with the likes of "Big" in the unit and what about "La La" and "Bad Scott"? I was only joking with him, though. Stateville was no where near as violent as it was in the 1990's when it was commonly referred to as the White Man's Graveyard. Steve told me to send him the papers the next day.

On Wednesday, I spoke to a couple of cell house workers about passing the large envelope of legal documents to Steve who was celled on the lower floor. My senile neighbor continued to forget to pick them up and I had to rely on someone else. The worker was busy packing a couple of prisoners' property for transfer. Apparently, Stateville was trying to rid itself of anyone who had less than 20 years remaining to do on their sentences. Generally, prisoners will quickly ask their counselors to put them in for a medium transfer even before they have reached eligibility. However, a few wanted to stay because they have friends here, family that live nearby, or good jobs. Six of the inmates transferred out this week had coveted jobs in industries: the soap or furniture factory.

In the evening, I wrote a letter to the case coordinator at the IIP to include with the package I was sending to them. Most of it explained my collateral appeal. The initial petition was filed without my knowledge by my direct appellate lawyer. He had forged my signature and even had a notary (Maribel Velasquez) lie and vouch for it. Richard Cunningham, who was accustomed to doing appeals for prisoners on death row, forgot that it was mandatory that convicts with LWOP or a term of years to include any affidavits. For this omission, the court summarily dismissed it. On appeal, a bum from the Cook County PD's Office was appointed to my case and filed a "Finley Brief" alleging I had no meritorious issues. A private lawyer my parents contacted quickly filed a response saying that was nonsense and listed numerous issues. However, the appellate court refused to entertain the brief he filed as did the Illinois Supreme Court.

After writing my letter, I tuned in to the season premiere of the CBS reality show "Survivor." The theme this time was brains versus brawn and beauty. Contestants were put on teams purportedly in these categories. However, those who were supposed to look beautiful, were only average in my opinion, and those who were supposed to be strong were not muscular. The group that was assembled to represent the most intelligent was the biggest disappointment. One black woman who claimed to be a nuclear engineer, I do not think could construct a square with Lego's. It was no surprise two members of the "Brain" group were sent packing.

Thursday morning, I watched the news as I typically do while eating my breakfast. Throughout the week, the LGBT community was in an uproar over a bill passed in Arizona that protected the religious rights of businesses to refuse service or employment to homosexuals. In a truly free country, businesses would be able to choose whomever they employed or conducted business with. However, once again, the principals of the nation were thwarted and the governor of Arizona buckled to pressure by vetoing the bill.

After watching national headlines, the local news of traffic and weather came on. It was only 5 degrees F and that was going to be the day's high temperature. Later an announcement in the cell house was made that yard would be cancelled and I wondered if law library was also. On Thursday, the law library line leaves at 6 a.m. if not earlier. My concern that the copies had not been made, however, was alleviated when an old black man who looks like he is a homeless vagrant handed me the package I gave Steve. Inside were the papers I sent him along with the duplicate copies.

At lunch I met with Steve. He said it was brutally cold when he went out to the library and I owed him one. He began to grill me about who I was sending all the legal briefs to. Steve was not dumb and knew I had found a new attorney or one willing to review my case. Although I get along well with him, I have avoided telling him about the correspondence I have had with the University of Illinois. All I needed was the word going around that they were now accepting cases from northern counties. It would cause a flood of prisoners at Stateville to write them. Finally, I told Steve but made him promise to keep it to himself.

Back in my cell, I put all the papers together to fit in a large envelope. Unlike ordinary correspondence, legal mail can be sealed. Personally, I did not care if anyone in the mail room read my appellate briefs. In fact, I would put them online if I could. However, I did not want anything falling out and I wanted to send the package out without a money voucher for postage which would delay the mail from being sent out till possibly some time in April.

At Stateville, all legal mail postage is free and paid by the inmate trust fund (money taken from prisoners in various ways). Unfortunately, the seal would not work and I had to search the cell house for a strip of wide tape or glue because I did not have another large envelope. Eventually, I found some glue and the package is finally on its way to the Illinois Innocence Project. Hopefully, I did not go through all these efforts for naught and they will help in my struggle for freedom.