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50 Years After “I Have a Dream” for a Chicago Man Exonerated of Murder
(Photo: Michael Coghlan / Flickr)

50 Years After “I Have a Dream” for a Chicago Man Exonerated of Murder

(Photo: Michael Coghlan / Flickr)

Lee Antione Day exemplifies the difficulties the wrongly-convicted face subsequent to exoneration, but, like Martin Luther King Jr., he refuses to “drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Lee Antione Day is a second-chance dad boasting photos of his kids, a collage of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama on a shelf behind his desk. He also keeps an old picture of himself, when he was a young musician with a dream, before his nightmare began.

He recalls a day in 1993, when a judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and 25 years for an attempted murder he did not attempt.

More than two years prior, a dice game outside a liquor store on Chicago’s hardscrabble West Side turned lethal. Two men were shot. One perished, one survived. A family member of the deceased implicated Day. The other shooting victim, who lived to tell, picked Day out of a lineup, but later testified at trial that he had been pressured into making the identification and that it was a lie.

Just before sentencing Day, calling him “Sir,” the judge asked if he had anything to say.

He did.

Day, then 31, told the court he hoped his years in prison would spare his kids the same fate: “I’d like to say I’m sorry for the family. I’m sorry for my family. . . . And I still say now that I’m being wrongfully accused of something that I didn’t do, and I would like to always have another chance to be a father to my kids.”

Nine years and 100 days later, Day got that chance. The prosecution dropped all charges against Day after an Illinois appeals court granted him a new trial – based on evidence that his trial lawyer failed to present eyewitnesses who could have cleared him.

“I had no idea it was going to happen,” Day, 51, says today. “I knew nothing of it.”

Free at last – or so it seemed – on a dreary Wednesday.

Fifty years ago, King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, declaring now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children. But for Day, and the 1,195 former US prisoners whose exonerations are documented in the National Registry of Exonerations, lasting justice is far from reality.

Not every state has a law to compensate the lives and livelihoods lost by the wrongfully convicted. Many that do, don’t offer much. In Illinois, the burden of proof is on exonerees to convince a judge of their innocence before they can have their records cleared and receive compensation.

The certificate of innocence process varies among the about 29 states that allow for some sort of compensation (some provide job training, attorney fees – some don’t). In Illinois, you have to both prove your innocence and prove you did not contribute to your wrongful conviction in any way (for example, by confessing – further victimizing those who may have falsely confessed). Public policy groups like The Innocence Project want to see that process standardized from state to state.

But these legal barriers eluded Day when he left Chicago’s Cook County Jail in 2002. What captured his attention – and even scared him – was that his hometown appeared alien to him. He didn’t know which way to go because he had nowhere to go.

It was raining that day, justice rolling down like waters on his back, and he was clothed with another man’s sweatshirt. Day had plucked used garments from a musty mountain of abandoned clothes on his way out of the jail.

“I’m standing in the rain, smelling like a mule,” Day remembers from his neighborhood office, a community center where he mentors parolees and helps them find work.

Unlike parolees, Day was not afforded any resources to help him reenter society. The legal underpinning of this huge gap in the system – whereby if you commit a crime, you get reentry support; if you’re innocent, you don’t – is that in the eyes of the state, exonerees are not necessarily innocent. They are set free because the evidence is no longer strong enough to keep them behind bars. And so it was that Day found himself an exile in his own land.

Although innocent himself, as a former prisoner, Day identifies with the parolees he mentors. He calls them brothers. He calls them Overcomers, the name of a support group he leads on Wednesday nights at the community center.

“Once you become a parolee, then that means you have an opportunity to get your life together,” Day says. “They gave me an opportunity, and I wasn’t gonna play with it.”

Like many exonerees, it took hard work to find work. Day would come so close to punching in, only to have his record spook a prospective employer.

After nearly two decades of living with the stench of lockup, Day was granted a certificate of innocence in 2011, a close call, as he nearly missed the deadline to file for it. He hadn’t known that such a certificate process existed or that his name could ever be cleared. Receiving the maximum compensation amount, Day’s pay worked out to about $51 a day for every day he was locked up, not including the more than two years he waited for his jury-less trial – he had unknowingly waived his right to a jury. Had he served more time, it wouldn’t have mattered. The state law caps compensation at less than $200,000.

But Day refuses to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred. Instead, he has satisfied his thirst for freedom by rehabbing a property near his childhood home, the manifestation of an organization he cofounded, called “Life After Justice.” Its mission is to provide transitional housing and mentorship to exonerees and facilitate job training and employment.

“Being an exoneree, you have no opportunity for training. You have no programs set in place for you,” Antione says. “We’re pushing [our plans] through to try to make things happen for exonerees today.”

Most of all, Day hopes the Life After Justice house will be a refuge for exonerees upon release, a place where they can clear their minds and rediscover the dreams they had for their lives before wrongful convictions shook them awake.

Day never woke up from his own dream of being a musician.

“Music was my first love,” Day says. “And it derailed from me, you know, in that one day.”

In February, he took the stage at Buddy Guy’s Legends, a famous Chicago blues club where big names like Willie Dixon, Van Morrison and The Rolling Stones have played.

One of his bands, “Exoneree,” kicked off the night with “Mustang Sally” – a crowd-pleaser for the lawyers and judges who paid the $100 ticket price for The Illinois Bar Foundation fundraiser.

A fellow exoneree, who served nearly 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit, played lead guitar. Day tapped on Ludwig drums and sang softly, apologizing between songs for coming off a cold, having lost his voice just days before.

Deep into the set, the band eased into a song written for a brother still on the inside. It was an instrumental number, giving Day’s voice a reprieve.

But as he sang the closing number with the words, “Glory, Hallelujah,” his voice grew in power.