Q&A with Jerry Miller, A Man Exonerated After Spending 25 Years in Jail for Rape

Q. How did you hear about the Innocence Project and how did you get them to take up your case?
A: Well, I had been hearing a lot about this organization and DNA in the mid-80’s, but I didn’t realize they could help me until I learned more about it. But just watching the news…

Q: Before you found out about the Innocence Project, did you try to appeal your sentence sooner?
A: Yeah, I did. I filed a direct appeal. I even filed something at the county level. It was all turned down.

Q: Do you feel racism played a major role in your conviction?
A: I think racism was the reason why it happened.

Q: What was the first thing you did when you were declared innocent?
A: On April 23rd? My family was watching in the area where they were designated to be, and I just walked into the crowd with my family members. That’s the first thing I did.

Q: Did your friends and family members believe you were innocent the whole time?
A: Yeah, especially my immediate family because I was at home with them at the time — father, mother, brothers, and an uncle… I’m quite sure somebody had doubts, because everyone can’t believe everything. I felt doubt from some of them, but I felt hope from a lot of them.

Q: What was the hardest part of this whole ordeal?
A: Well, just being away from my home and put in jail. The whole thing was hard, from the first day to the last.

Q: What was your day-to-day life like in prison?
A: In the beginning, it was tough. It was like being dropped off in a new world, a world that takes no prisoners. I had to be careful because I was young. I knew how to fight. Every now and then, I ran into someone that I knew or knew about me, so I had friends. I had a little support.

Q: Did you meet other people in jail who you believe were also wrongly convicted?
A: Not many. When I was in the county jail, anyone who would listen to me, I would tell them I was innocent. Some would take it to heart, say “I believe you and I just want you to know, you’re not the only one.” There were guys that were innocent, but the charges were so small, they were only looking at like a year or two. Guys don’t fight that. They just do it and then go about their business. But there are a lot of people that police put drugs on them or something. A lot of people who do say they are innocent, nine times out of ten they are. Because guys in the penitentiary don’t care what you think, unless you’re a child molester, not even crooks and criminals like child molesters. But other than that, most guys don’t lie about their innocence.

Q: How do you feel about the U.S. Justice System now? Do you think things have improved in the last 25 years?
A: Yeah. Everything must change. So if it’s bad, it’s either gonna get worse or it’s gonna get better. I think it can get better because most of the problems with any system are the people who run it. The people are put in play, so they interject their personalities and bring it to work with them. So that’s most of the problem.

Q: What do you think needs to happen so that innocent people like you aren’t wrongly convicted?
A: Well in my case, it should have been looked at more closely. Because it was a case that started out on the news but ended up not even being covered. When I went to trial, for the first trial, there wasn’t even a reporter there. There wasn’t a reporter in the building. There wasn’t anyone in the courtroom but my family and they were told that they had to leave the courtroom because they might have to testify. So if you take them out, there was no one in the courtroom to see what was happening.

Q: Did your family get a chance to testify on your behalf?
A: My father did. What the lawyer said was to just parade family members up there to say I was at home would be counterproductive. That’s basically what his strategy was.

Q: Are you going to be compensated in any way?
A: Yeah. In Illinois, what they have is a law that says that if you are wrongly convicted there is a process you go through or a percentage of an amount of money you would get. So I am going to get that and other than that, I am going to file a lawsuit. More than likely, I will file a lawsuit.

Q: Does this even mean anything to you now? Is there any way you can even be compensated for all that time you lost?
A: No, I can never be truly compensated for that. That’s just the way it is. But I’ll tell you what: we’re going to let them try!

Q: Do you know how much money you will get based on the Illinois law?
A: No, because for right now, for reasons you can probably understand, we are just looking into it. That’s my comment on that.

Q: Do you feel like you will ever be able to have a “normal” life?
A: Well, I’ll tell you what, I don’t know. All I know is that I just want the same as what anyone else would want. I want a family, I want to be financially secure, I want to enjoy life. I never really got a chance. I was just 22, so I was just finding things out on my own. I think it’s possible. I mean, why shouldn’t it? The truth has come out.

Q: Do you have any children?
A: No, I don’t have any children.

Q: How did you maintain your sanity knowing that you were innocent?
A: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it’s because I evolved into the person that I was meant to be. It’s a place where people act like animals. Everyone doesn’t. You can obviously tell by me. I just was lucky, fortunate that I did the right things that would keep me on that path to getting home. That’s all I concentrated on anyway, getting home. When I got home, then I had to educate myself. I had to go to school and occupy my time and have positive thoughts and just do the things to stay positive.

Q: Did faith play a role in helping you maintain your sanity?
A: Well growing up, my mother would take us to church. As most families do, they bring God into the child’s life, and that’s what happened to me. But my understanding was no more than a child’s understanding about God because I never really went to bible study or a lot of the extra things that you do to learn about God, so I just had exposure to him. But if you get into a situation like mine, just talking to people is not enough. And as I matured, I realized that the world is not an accident.

Q: How has this experience changed you and your overall outlook on life?
A: I know I’m more than I was when I went into the penitentiary. And when I got out, I had no idea that the road would be like that. I didn’t understand what I was headed for when I was hit with that sex offender title. They even had me going to classes, classes that I was supposed to pay for. I had to pay $40 every time I went to that class. Twice a month I had to go, and I didn’t have a job yet so I had to come up with that money. Until I got a job, my family had to pay for it. Because they said if I didn’t go, I couldn’t come out of my house. So I had to come up with the money and I did.

Everything worked out, but it was hard. It was real hard. After doing 25 years in the penitentiary, that tested me. I didn’t know if I was going to make it. It would have lasted three years if I wouldn’t have proven my innocence. I would have been under that strict parole for three years. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I would have made that. I would’ve probably ended up back in the penitentiary. I don’t know. My family tells me God only puts on you what you can take and I guess he knew I couldn’t take it no more. So the truth came out just in time.

Q: So what have you been up to since you got out?
A: I was out for a year before I was exonerated. I’ve been working. I’ve been working for a couple of companies. One is Yes, You Can!, which helps disabled people. I also work in a restaurant.

Q: It must have been hard for you to get a job at first with that sex offender label.
A: It was hard. Even the two jobs that I have came from family and friends. You know if you meet somebody you can kind of get a feel for a person and once you get a feel for me, you will realize that, when you do find out what I was going through, what I was up under, you will realize that something was not right and it wasn’t right and I proved that.

Q: Do you have any plans to write a book?
A: Everyone who finds the time to meet with me, to listen to me, has asked if I would write a book. A lot of people say I should. A lot of people say if I just keep talking, all they have to do is just record what I’m saying.

Q: I think it would definitely be worth it. People need to know what happened.
A: I’ve reached a lot of people. More people than I expected to. I just wanted the truth to come out and it did.  And it seems like not only did the truth come out, but it’s reached all across the world.

Q: Congratulations on your exoneration. I hope that you are able to fulfill everything that you want to do now.
A: Well, I think I can. All I need now is for people to give me just a little bit of help and I’ll be okay. I like telling the truth about my story.

Learn more about Jerry Miller’s case.

Find out more about the Innocence Project.