Freeing the innocent

We had just placed our lunch orders at an upscale restaurant in downtown Joliet when the call came. What was expected to take most of the day ended up taking only about an hour. We were on our way to watch a wrongfully convicted man be freed from prison after nearly three decades.

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I accompanied the Springfield-based Illinois Innocence Project on Feb. 11 to see their client, Christopher Abernathy, set free. I’ve written about the group extensively, becoming intimately aware by osmosis of the gaping holes in the justice system which allow innocent people to be imprisoned. IIP has seen several victories throughout their existence, and they’re applying what they’ve learned to help improve the system.

Abernathy was accused on false testimony of the gruesome rape and murder of a young girl he knew. There was no physical evidence against him. His freedom finally came after IIP arranged DNA testing on several items of evidence in the case, which proved he was not the killer.

Back at the restaurant, the waiter rushed to the kitchen to reroute our food from plates into plastic to-go boxes, and we promptly piled into the van, wolfing down our food as the driver sped through the city. We pulled up to Stateville Correctional Center beneath the imposing 30-foot-high concrete walls and walked to the lobby. The howling wind made what would otherwise have been a pleasant day almost unbearably cold, but I stood with the other photographers in the parking lot outside the lobby door. A few minutes later, Abernathy walked out, wearing only a few thin shirts to protect him from the wind. He was in such pain from a shoulder injury that he had to cradle his bad arm with his good one, so he wasn’t in any shape to hold a press conference.

Accompanied by his family, his legal team and the private investigator who kept his case alive for eight years, Abernathy walked to a waiting car and waited to be driven away from the only life he’d known for more than 29 years. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be cut off from the world for that long, then suddenly be thrust into the society and expected to live a normal life. The unfamiliarity, fear, isolation and loss of identity (even if for the better) would be overwhelming.  Luckily for him, he has a dedicated team of supporters who will move heaven and earth to help him. Indeed, they already have.

Read more about the case here.


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