Wrongly Convicted Prisoners' Freedom on Hold Because of Illinois' Budget Fight

by | October 13, 2015

By Lolly Bowean

Long before he was exonerated of a 1994 home invasion, robbery and sexual assault, Christopher Coleman imagined starting a real estate business in his hometown of Peoria.

Coleman, now 41, thought he was steps away from opening that business after he was released in 2013 after nearly two decades in prison. His plan: to use a July payout from the state Court of Claims for his wrongful imprisonment -- $220,732 -- as seed money.

He said he even quit his job and began lining up business deals.

But instead of repairing and renting out houses as he hoped, Coleman is one of several wrongly convicted inmates whose compensation has been delayed by the state's budget impasse.

He has no idea when he'll actually receive his money.

"My life has been placed on hold because of my finances," he said. "I would like to be self-sufficient and help my family. I never thought the state would be this bad and get behind on paying the people that live here.

"So many people in our state are hurting and I am one of them," he added.

After more than four months of negotiations, lawmakers have yet to pass a budget, leaving dozens of agencies, programs and initiatives along with untold number of residents in limbo. The Court of Claims, which handles compensation for the wrongly convicted, cannot make payments to those who are exonerated. That money, based on a formula that considers how long inmates were incarcerated, typically helps them begin a new life, get job training and medical care, and take advantage of educational opportunities.

A Senate bill would release some funding, but that legislation is still awaiting action.

Meanwhile, men like Coleman who unjustly spent years of their lives in prison have to wait -- in a way victimizing them twice.

"It's pretty tragic for these people because when the benefits were passed, the point was to make compensation happen faster," said Karen Daniel, director of Northwestern University law school's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "Many of these former inmates lost everything when they went to prison. Not only did they lose housing, relationships, friendships, they lost resume-building experiences. They were not paying into retirement accounts. Now they are trying to build a household out of nothing."

Having battled the criminal justice system for their freedom, the inmates leave prison empty-handed, said Vanessa Potkin, a senior attorney with the Innocence Project in New York. Then they have to wrangle with the criminal justice system to qualify for a payout; in Illinois that means getting a certificate of innocence from a judge. About half the states give payments to the wrongly imprisoned.

Illinois' budget impasse further delays what these former inmates need -- money to get their lives restarted.

"When clients have to wait to get compensation, they haven't been liberated," said Potkin. "Their fight continues because they have to piece together back their lives. The certificate of innocence is important, but the damages of the wrongful conviction still lingers and it is not addressed until that compensation comes."

Potkin has watched as her clients have struggled to overcome the psychological damage of prison. They return to their families and often don't know how to operate new technology and their job skills, if they have any, are outdated. They have to reacquaint themselves with their communities, figure out how to find work and how to fit in where their presence had been eliminated. It's basically starting life all over again, she said.

"Prison is dehumanizing, degrading and a horrendous experience," she said. "Our clients spend decades locked in a cage for something they did not do. To say, 'Now go live your life.' Who can do that without any resources?"

Coleman spent much of his adult life -- more than 19 years -- behind bars for armed robbery, home invasion, residential burglary and aggravated criminal sexual assault, although there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

He was released on bond after the Illinois Supreme Court reversed his conviction. Months later, the Peoria County state's attorney's office dropped the charges.

He is now back in Peoria, staying with his mother, father and nephew in a small, two-bedroom house that his parents rent. His father was recently hospitalized and had to have his leg amputated. That has put additional financial strain on the family.

"It's a modest piece of change for spending 20 years in prison, but nevertheless it's something that would allow me to chase the dreams I have," Coleman said. "I'd love to move out and be independent. I want to buy this house for my parents, so they can be homeowners."

Attorney Flint Taylor has two clients, both of them arrested as teens, who are awaiting payment. Lewis Gardner and Paul Phillips both were wrongly convicted of taking part in a 1992 double murder on Chicago's North Side and served about 15 years. Now they are both owed $220,732 from the state. Gardner is working at a fast-food restaurant to support himself and Phillips is searching for work, Taylor said.

"They hadn't even finished high school when they were imprisoned," he said. "The deck is stacked against these men who come out of prison, even if they've been exonerated. ... These men have a great deal of strength; they are determined to continue life on the outside. That doesn't forgive the governor and his people of passing a budget that would not only help them, but the other people who are most impacted. That's usually the poor and people of color."

Like Coleman, Angel Gonzalez, 42, spent much of his life in prison for a rape and abduction in Waukegan in 1994.

Gonzalez was exonerated after recent DNA tests undermined his confession and the victim's identification of him as one of her two attackers. He was released from Dixon Correctional Center in March and prosecutors later raised no objection as a judge granted him a certificate of innocence.

A prosecutor who helped put him in prison shook his hand and apologized.

He also is due a $220,732 payout that is on hold.

"Imagine coming out of prison with nothing," he said. "I've been looking for a job. But I have yet to get on my feet or be able to rent an apartment or get a car or get a driver's license. My situation -- I need to get dental work done, see a (therapist)."

He is looking for work and slowly getting acclimated to freedom.

"Pretty much I don't have anything right now," said Gonzalez, who is living in Rogers Park and staying afloat with the help of others. "What can I do but keep on fighting?"

Tribune reporter Dan Hinkel contributed.

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