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Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Meeting with the IIP -- October 18, 2014

Since the beginning of the year, I have been in contact with the Illinois Innocence Project. The law school in Springfield was given a grant to take cases in the northern part of the state provided there was exculpatory DNA evidence. I filled out their comprehensive questionnaire and then followed by sending various appeals, police reports, and evidence which demonstrated my innocence including a great amount not presented at trial. Over the summer, I was concerned that despite the egregious nature of my conviction they, like numerous other law schools, were not interested. Many of them are overburdened and do not accept accountability cases. They typically will only represent prisoners who were found guilty as the principle and whose convictions can easily be overturned by irrefutable DNA. Recently a lawyer from the University of Illinois introduced himself over the telephone and this week I met with him as well as two students. The meeting went well, however, it remains to be seen how much help they are willing to extend.

On the last day of September I was on one of the penitentiary's small yards working out. The music of the heavy metal band Slayer and a cup of coffee had me amped up. Quickly, I was sweating and began taking off layers of clothing on the chilly autumn morning. My cellmate noticed me and said, "Go Putin!" in reference to Vladimir Putin who is occasionally made fun of in Western media for being televised bare chested. Not long thereafter I was the subject of other similar jokes when a guard went to the gate and began yelling my last name. He could not pronounce it correctly and inmates thought it was Russian. The Elephant exclaimed, "Russian mafia. That must be you." I was not certain whose attention the guard was trying to get but eventually he verified that I had a legal call.

Lawyers can arrange to speak with prisoners on an unmonitored phone line. A counselor will come into the unit and place the collect call. She was not present and I was told to wait in the holding cage. A black convict who had just returned from a hearing on a disciplinary ticket was in the cage with me and inquired why I was there. I told him I had a legal call, but from whom I did not know. I hoped it was a representative from the Cook County States Attorney's Office or the governor. Anita Alvarez claimed to be reviewing my case under her appointed Conviction Integrity Unit, and Governor Pat Quinn to my knowledge has yet to decide my plea for executive clemency. Both of these possibilities were farfetched and regardless not anything I would tell another prisoner about. Instead, I answered it was most likely a private investigator or attorney that I had contacted pertaining to a successive post conviction appeal. He then began to tell me how he hoped to get back into court with a DNA test which excluded his DNA on a gun. At his trial, the prosecutor claimed the test was inconclusive.

I waited about a half hour for the counselor to arrive. She escorted me into a little hallway which led into the adjacent quarter unit. Inside was a counter with a telephone on it. Before she began dialing, I asked who she was calling. She seemed a little puzzled and said, "Your attorney, of course." Then she showed me a paper with a phone number and name on it. The name was that of a lawyer at the Illinois Innocence Project and I was glad the law school was finally reaching out to me by phone. Previously, there had only been written correspondence between us.

After connecting me with the attorney, the counselor stepped outside the annex so I could have a private conversation. John came across as a personable and friendly man. It seemed his call was just meant to introduce himself and be social. However, I am not good at chit chat and sought a more substantive dialogue. I asked him about his credentials and what he was willing to do for me. Apparently, law professors are not accustomed to being asked how competent and experienced they were. The fact that hundreds of convicts were probably seeking his help also may have made my inquiries seem odd. After realizing this, I told him how many attorneys had let me down in the past and then joked he needs to send his resume before I would consider letting him work for me. At present, he was only looking at the DNA aspect of my case. I was disappointed because I had numerous trial errors as well as ineffective assistance of counsel issues to raise on appeal. There was also plenty of evidence outside of the blood found in my co-defendant's car which proves my innocence. Despite this I could not look a gift horse in the mouth and thanked him for whatever assistance the IIP was willing to give. In the following month John told me he along with a couple of students would meet me in person.

I did not expect the lawyer to visit this week. The previous Wednesday the penitentiary had been placed on a level 1 lockdown. A lieutenant was beaten by an inmate in the Roundhouse. The assault was in retaliation for the corrections officer bashing another inmate in the face, but I doubted this would matter to administrators. Any violence against staff was considered serious. Even a reluctant warden would be pressured by union officials to exact strong collective punishment. Furthermore, there was talk the prisoner did not act alone and gang members distracted guards in the building. Internal Affairs would probably want to conduct a prolonged investigation. Thus, on Sunday morning I was not surprised there was no prisoner movement except for kitchen workers.

I began my day as usual working out at the front of the cell. I was focused on my callisthenic exercises but had to comment to a guard standing nearby. He was escorting a nurse who passed out medications to both my neighbors in the morning. I asked "Sonic Hedgehog" why he was wearing the hat. The nickname I gave to this guard was due to his wildly spiked haircut similar to the video game cartoon character. The guard said he was having a bad hair day. I was wearing a T-shirt bandanna to prevent sweat from rolling into my eyes and retorted, "Me too." When I looked around to see if my cellmate had caught my humor, I found him underneath a sheet sleeping. Apparently, he had awakened early simply to watch VH1 music videos and then went back to sleep before I noticed.

Most of the day I spent reading newspapers other than to watch the end of a football game and the CBS television show "60 Minutes". The news program had devoted a large segment to government eavesdropping. The exposures of the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden had finally awakened the public to pervasive snooping and in response, Apple as well as Google created encryption features to meet demand for privacy. FBI Director James Comey claimed these new security measures will put more personal data out of reach of law enforcement and hinder investigations Possibly, it will keep local police from prying but I think CBS, which advertises itself as a big all seeing eye, was just a tool for Big Brother who wanted to lure those it saw as threats into a false sense of security. Also of great interest to me was an interview of James Risen who formerly worked for the New York Times until he exposed illegal spying practices in his book "State of War". How many freedoms and Constitutional rights Americans have forfeited or been usurped to fight terrorism I think can never be quantified.

The loss of my own liberty weighed heavily on my thoughts and when a nurse who was dispensing night time medications asked me how I was, I sarcastically told her it was just another wonderful day. The nurse is one of the rare pretty women who work at the penitentiary who I find attractive. If I did not have a sentence of natural life without parole I might ask her out on a date. She seems to be trying to hide her beauty by putting her long blond hair in a tight bun and wearing nerdish glasses as well as baggy scrubs. I see through the disguise, unfortunately, and it made me gloomier. I took out photos of a former girlfriend that were over a decade old and I listened to the cassette tape "The Wall" by Pink Floyd. A song called "Hey You" resonated with me the most.

On Monday, the penitentiary was placed on a low level 4 lockdown. Cell house workers as well as other men were permitted to go to their details. Phones were placed on the galleries for prisoners to use and I heard visits being announced. The change in lockdown status was a surprise to me, but because it was a holiday I did not expect the lawyer I had spoken with on the telephone a few weeks previously to come. Thus, I did not prepare and went about my morning as usual. I exercised, bathed, and then dressed in sweats to read. Before I opened up the first newspaper, however, I was notified I had a legal visit and scrambled to get ready. My cellmate noticed my agitation while multitasking, and reminded me to be nice. He also advised not slamming a mug of instant coffee but otherwise I may be a nonsocial autistic mute.

My hurry to be escorted to the front of the prison was unnecessary. While in line to be strip searched a guard told me my attorneys were meeting with several clients and I could wait in the holding cage until they called me. I was not aware the IIP planned to see anyone other than myself but it made sense that they make the most of their trip. Most law schools and attorneys who visited with their clients were from Chicago or the suburbs. John and the students who came with him had at least 4 hours of driving. The state capital is over 100 miles from here.

The holding cage is actually two that are side by side in a narrow enclave off a hallway at gate 5. The barred door of one of them was unlocked and I sat down next to a bald headed Caucasian prisoner. It soon became apparent to me that the guard was separating men according to whether they had already gone on a visit and were waiting for an escort back to their living unit and those waiting to go on a visit. Since there was no backlog, I deduced the sole prisoner sitting on the bench near me was also there to see John and Co. Prodding the man to open up about his case was not difficult.

Interestingly, the prisoner was convicted of a murder near Eastern Illinois University, the same school my cellmate was attending when he was arrested. Coal County he claimed was very corrupt and he was unable to get a fair trial or for that matter appeal. His conviction was upheld along with his 72 year sentence. I was not so much seeking information about the murder, his trial, or appeals, but how he came to be represented by the IIP. From what I was told, a local private investigator who was digging into the various malfeasance and or scandals ongoing in the county believed in his innocence. He worked with the creator of the Innocence Project at Springfield and asked if he would take on his case. Bill, however, was too busy and therefore told his colleague John to look into the matter. This was the first time he was meeting John and he was impatient to do so. Chuck, "The Hammer," though, would have to wait until after I saw him.

From my experience with other law schools, I was expecting the school professor to be accompanied by a couple of young students in their early 20's. However, I was surprised that they were much older. It was puzzling why a person would wait until in their 30's to seek a degree in law, although this may be to my advantage. The students under Professor David Protess appeared to be in high school and lacked maturity. They also seemed lost as to what to do and were easily scared off when they were threatened and told to stop investigating my case. I knew Brian Palasz was concerned about being scrutinized but I also knew he was mostly bluster.

After a round of handshakes and introductions, John sat at the end of the large table and the two students sat across from me. This I also found unusual until later. The lawyer began by saying all he was prepared to do was a motion for DNA testing. He was not only going to have the blood stain tested but the victim's clothing, shell casings, and various other things alleged to be evidence. No previous attorney had mentioned a desire to do this and John said the body may have been dragged and the casings planted. Police did a thorough search immediately after the victim was found and oddly nothing was found until months later when Robert Faraci took them to the site. It was an intriguing theory that I have pondered myself. However, what did it matter even if trace DNA still remained? I was not found guilty of committing the murder or even being present but simply for lending my vehicle. John thought any new evidence could open up doors.

I was skeptical the prosecution would not object to what in legal jargon was referred to as a "fishing expedition." Furthermore, I was seeking counsel that would represent me on a comprehensive post conviction appeal. John said the law school had limited resources. There were over 1,300 prisoners who had requested their help and they had to pick and choose amongst them. Personally, I thought my case was one of the greatest if not the most blatant miscarriages of justice, but I could not argue. With that the law professor told me they had only 30 minutes to spend with me and they came here to see what I had to say. I did not know what he meant by this and there was a long pause. Was I expected to acquaint with the law students? Ramble on about my case? Give a sales pitch? I hope it was not the latter because I was not good at selling myself. Therefore, I thought to put the ball in their court by asking for their perspective and when they said they thought I was innocent, I asked why.

The female student seemed to have done her homework and I was impressed by her vast scope of knowledge. At times, I thought she knew my case more than I did. She must have been the person who voluntarily stayed on campus to conduct research over the summer. Despite this, there were still some questions or curiosities she had such as, "How did you meet Bob? Why did you go to Florida with them? Why did you return?"

I met Robert Faraci through Brian Palasz. Brian was out of state to avoid being picked up by police in connection with a burglary of a jewelry store. It was then that his friend Bob was released from prison. Brian asked me as a favor to him to take care of Bob and help him get on his feet. About a year later when I was having troubles at home, Bob invited me to stay with him and his wife, Rose. I was not aware there was already an eviction proceeding in the works and moving back to my parents' house was out of the question. I also was not aware Bob had killed anyone and to my knowledge that was not the reason they were moving to Florida. The victim's body had not yet been discovered and I assume they never thought it would be identified if or when that occurred. Rose had family connections in Clearwater and they both sought to get away from conflict with their other connections to organized crime. For me, the move was only temporary because I intended to go to school in the fall. I left early because I was tired of always being caught in the middle of their fierce domestic fights, among other reasons.

As I spoke, the professor seemed to like just listening or watching my interplay with the students. Despite having cloudy blue eyes, he made intelligent comments or inquiries every so often. For example, he wanted to know what the prosecutor argued in Faraci's trial. This was important because major court rulings have come down overturning convictions when the state's theory diverged. The prosecutor cannot have his cake and eat it too. Many times assistant states attorney James McKay and Paul Tsukuno used unscrupulous tactics to kill two birds with one stone.

Another question the lawyer had was about the many inconsistent stories of my co-defendant. The brazen lies Robert Faraci told over the course of his talks with his wife, a mafia informant, various friends, jail detainees, the police, and even his own testimony at trial went far and wide. From saying he drove me to the Brown's Chicken Restaurant in Palatine where I went inside and killed everybody, all the way to I just told him that I committed the massacre of those seven people. There was one where he shot Fawcett and then he said he was only present out of a fear for his own life. A half hour was simply not enough time to go over all of Bob's tall tales. Thus, I said one of the most glaring reversals that is documented by the police was his insistence that Brian Palasz was present at the murder site until he was told that Brian had an alibi. Coincidentally, Brian also disappeared from Rose and Nadine's narratives as well. It must have been a conundrum for the Cook County States Attorney's Office when the     "3 Musketeers" changed to 2, and then became only 1.

Ultimately I spent almost two hours with the attorney and students. In fact, we could have continued talking except it was almost closing time and they still had to see another prisoner. I tend to believe my case is one of the more intriguing case studies. However, if it was just mere interest that mattered, I would have been freed long ago. What I need most is action and there does not seem to be anyone willing to lend a hand. John said he would represent me solely to request the court for forensic testing, but thereafter he could make no promises. In two year's time, I may be back to square one. Often I am reminded of the Greek myth of Sisyphus who is condemned to roll a heavy stone up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again, time and time again.