When Justice Isn’t Served: Man Serves 25 Years for Rape He Didn’t Commit

Imagine spending an evening watching a boxing match with your family, when police knock at your front door and arrest you for allegedly raping a woman in a parking garage and then putting her in the trunk of her own car. Then imagine that you are convicted of this crime and spend 25 years (more than half of your life) behind bars with hardcore criminals knowing that you are innocent the whole time.

This is what happened to Jerry Miller in Chicago, Illinois. A few weeks before his arrest in 1981, a Chicago Police Department officer stopped Miller for allegedly looking into a car window. He was not arrested at that time, but the officer wrote down his personal information. That same officer saw the composite drawing made of the rapist and thought that Miller resembled the man in the sketch. The police then went to Miller’s home and arrested him. The two attendants who stopped the rapist as he attempted to drive the victim’s car out of the parking garage before fleeing picked Miller out of a lineup. The victim never positively identified Miller as her attacker, but tentatively said it could have been him.

Jerry Miller says that although there was media interest when news of the crime first broke, there was “not a reporter in the building” when his case actually went to trial. Miller goes on to say that his family was asked to leave the courtroom since there was a chance they could be called to take the stand. In the end, only his father was allowed to testify on his behalf, because his lawyer told him that it would be “counterproductive” to “just parade family members up” to say he was at home the night the crime took place.

On October 1, 1982, Miller was convicted of rape, robbery and kidnapping. Judge Thomas Maloney sentenced Miller to 45 years in prison. He was only 22 years old at the time. According to Miller, racism (the victim was white and Miller is black) and the fact that there was basically no one in the courtroom to witness what was happening are the two main reasons he was wrongly convicted. While in jail, he tried to appeal his sentence several times, but all of his attempts were turned down. He was released in March 2006, after being incarcerated for 25 years.

Miller began to hear about DNA testing on the news in the mid-1980s, but didn’t know if it could help him. In the year 2000, he wrote a letter to the Innocence Project, a New-York based group that uses DNA evidence to help free people who are wrongly convicted. Colin Starger, Staff Attorney for the Innocence Project, says that since the project was very small at that time, receiving hundreds and thousands of letters, they were not able to examine Jerry Miller’s letter until late 2005.

After examining Miller’s letter and the facts of his case, the Innocence Project felt that DNA testing could most likely prove Miller’s guilt or innocence. Starger says that the Innocence Project will take on “any case where DNA testing can prove it one way or another.” In Miller’s case, the victim’s slip soiled with semen from the perpetrator had been saved and could be DNA tested. In addition, Miller’s conviction was based solely on eyewitness identifications. Starger says that in 77 percent of post-conviction DNA exonerations, there has been eyewitness error.

When the Innocence Project decided to take on Miller’s case, the whole process took about a year and a half.  When the DNA testing results came back, they excluded Jerry Miller. The perpetrator’s profile was entered into the FBI convicted offender database and a match was made. The DNA evidence connected the semen to the true perpetrator, a man named Robert Weeks who went on to commit a series of other violent crimes after the rape in 1981 that sent Miller to prison. Jerry Miller was cleared on April 23, 2007, becoming the 200th person in U.S. history to be exonerated post-conviction by DNA evidence.

When asked how he maintained his sanity during his time in prison, Miller said they he stayed focused on getting home. He says that prison is a place where many people act like animals and he was fortunate that he was able to stay positive and do the things he needed to do to educate himself and stay on track.

Miller was released from prison a year before he was exonerated. When he was first released, he was placed on a very restrictive parole that would have lasted three years if he was not exonerated. Miller says that the whole ordeal–from start to finish–was difficult, but the parole really tested him. He was listed publicly as a sex offender and was required to attend sex offender classes that he had to pay for even though he did not yet have a job. Miller says he didn’t know if he would make it and that the truth came out just in time.

Starger says the reason that cases like Miller’s are not investigated sooner (or ever) is because with over 2.2. million people in prisons or jails, the system is completely overloaded. He also says that if you were to assume an error rate of one half of one percent based on that number, then that would mean there are 11,000 innocent people in prison today. Starger acknowledges that this is an extremely controversial topic, but emphasizes that no matter what the actual rate is, it is too high. As for Miller, he thinks that most of the problems with the system have to do with the people who run it, but he does think that it can get better.

The Illinois State’s Attorney’s office offered Miller a personal and public apology. According to Starger, the victim has not issued an apology and Miller does not expect one since she never misidentified him. Starger does say it would be nice if the parking attendants apologized, although he is not certain if they are still alive.

Miller has not yet been compensated for the unjust time he served. However, there is a compensation statute in Illinois that he should be eligible to receive money from. In addition, Miller says he will most likely file a lawsuit. Although he can never truly be compensated for all of the time he lost, Miller says, “I’ll tell you what: we’re going to let them try!” But for right now, he is working (for Yes, You Can!, an organization which helps disabled people, and also in a restaurant), spending time with friends and family, and celebrating his newfound freedom.

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to imagine experiencing all of the horrible circumstances that Miller lived through. Now can you imagine dealing with all of that and not being bitter or angry? It’s hard to imagine, but Miller has emerged from this situation with an optimistic and positive outlook on his future. He says he wants the same things that everyone wants in life–a family, financial stability, and the chance to enjoy life. He has expressed interest in computer programming and business. In addition, Miller says he “likes telling the truth about his story” and is considering a few book offers.

Miller “weathered a very difficult storm for 26 years” Starger says, “but he is more than capable of going forward in ways that will make him proud and make all the rest of us very proud as well.”  Miller says that all he needs is for people to give him “a little bit of help” and he will be okay. Will he ever be able to have a “normal” life? “I think it’s possible. I mean, why shouldn’t it?” Miller says, “The truth has come out.”

Read the full transcripts of the interviews:

Jerry Miller

Colin Starger, Innocence Project Staff Attorney

 

Find out more about:

The Innocence Project

Jerry Miller’s case