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Innocent behind bars
A year after DNA evidence and the Connecticut Innocence Project freed him from a 45- year prison sentence, James Tillman stood before a capacity crowd in the QU Law School’s Grand Court Room to relive his real-life nightmare: being imprisoned for 18 years on a false rape conviction.
His journey from a being a wrongly convicted inmate to a millionaire is one of courage, inner strength, injustice, and forgiveness.
“I just always wanted to just clear my name before I die,” Tillman said. “I just always wanted to say I’m not a rapist.”
When Tillman was released in 2006, the state awarded him $ 5 million dollars in compensation.
The event, titled “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”, was held on Wednesday, Oct. 24 and was sponsored by the School of Communications, the School of Law, the Quinnipiac Criminal Law Society, the Black Student Union, and the student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.
A white female was abducted and raped in January 1988. Tillman, a high school dropout working at a carwash, was arrested in his home after his picture was picked out of a police lineup.
“The police came over my house, they stuck a gun in my side,” Tillman said. “I’ll never forget it. They brought me down to the police station, and they charged me with first degree kidnapping, first degree rape, first degree sexual assault, first degree assault, and there were like three or four other charges. They told me that I was facing like 70 something years.”
“At which time I told them, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy. I never did anything to this woman, I’ve never seen her before in my life.’ I said, ‘I’m not perfect, I’m not professing to be perfect, but you have the wrong man for this. I would never take that from a woman’,” Tillman added.
A panel discussion and brief question and answer segment followed Tillman’s speech.
Panelists included Connecticut Innocence Project Director Karen Goodrow, whose relentless efforts were essential in exonerating Tillman.
Other speakers included Hartford Courant editorialist David Medina, Quinnipiac associate law professor and former federal prosecutor Jeff Meyer, and U.S. District Court judge Stephen Robinson.
The discussion was moderated by Stan Simpson, a renowned columnist for the Hartford Courant and a professional in residence at Quinnipiac.
Although Tillman was offered the opportunity to take a lesser sentence through a guilty plea, determined to defend his innocence, he chose instead to go to trial.
“I just could not plead guilty, to this rape,” he said. “I told the judge that I would serve a hundred years before I plead guilty to this rape.”
Tillman lost the case, and was sentenced to serve 45 years in prison. Although his case was supposed to be the first in the state of Connecticut to undergo DNA testing, it was never done.
“I felt like I hated the government,” Tillman said. “I felt like I hated everyone. I felt that I should’ve had the right to do what I wanted to do. If I wanted to be a bum, I should’ve had the right to be a bum. If I wanted to be rich, I should’ve had the right to be rich. I didn’t have any rights whatsoever. I felt like I was being kidnapped, and I’m getting charged with kidnapping.”
The jury, according to Tillman, was made up of upper middle class whites. Besides his mother, he said, he was the only African American in the court room.”There were no blacks in my jury,” Tillman said. “I felt that I should’ve had a cross section, but it didn’t happen.”
Although the DNA process began after his sentencing, the evidence was said to be inconclusive.
Tillman took initiative, spending hours in the library studying the legal system in an effort to find anything that might aid him in his case.
He recalled hoping, every day, that his accuser would realize her mistake and return to free him.
“At which time I just continued to just be angry,” said Tillman. “I started seeing that I had all this hatred in me. I was carrying it, and I was hating everybody, but it wasn’t doing me any good.”
Inspired by the story of another inmate, who had been through the same jail and was also wrongly accused of rape, Tillman became deeply religious, committing himself to Christianity, compassion and forgiveness.
Although the inmate, who Tillman encountered at the Connecticut state prison, was tempted to take a guilty plea after hearing of Tillman’s sentence, his faith kept him from doing so.
“He said that it scared him, just seeing my life being taken, and that he was just ready to cop out,” Tillman said. “And he said that he really just started reading the Bible. And I just said, ‘You know what? Let me try it. It worked for him, let me try it’.”
Filled with renewed strength, Tillman began reaching out to other inmates, offering advice and comfort. He also delved deep into his newly found faith, reading the Bible daily and participating in the prison church choir.
“I started seeing myself caring, and it felt good, to be able to care about others,” he said. “I cried with inmates, I really started caring, and I forgot about myself.”
Tillman said that for the entire 18 years he was incarcerated, his mother never failed to miss a weekly visit.
“She stuck by me,” he said. “I never had to ask her for anything, she was always there.”
In 2005, Tillman received a visit from Goodrow and Brian Carlow of the Connecticut Innocence Project.
“I was just so overwhelmed, that I broke down crying,” Tillman said. “I felt that someone was coming to help me, that someone was looking into my case.”
The Innocence Project, which was launched in 1992, is a national nonprofit legal organization which utilizes DNA evidence to free wrongly convicted inmates. Sixty percent of the inmates exonerated by the Innocence Project are black males who were imprisoned on false allegations of raping white women.
Through DNA evidence, Tillman was exonerated in 2006, but his story is not unique. More than 200 inmates faced similar situations.
“This continues, this issue of DNA and wrongly convicted inmates is a national phenomenon,” Simpson said.
The system is also fraught with lab error. Sixty-five perrcent of Innocence Project cases involve mistakes that occurred in the crime lab.
According to Meyer, Connecticut does not have a law in place that would require police to record confessions.
“People think DNA is always kind of the salvation, but imagine, if the lab screws up, what’s the consequence?” Meyer said. “What happens in those kinds of cases? What kind of safeguards do we have?”
Meyer said the key to preventing such situations is to implement preventive practices, instead of merely focusing on dealing with such incidents in their aftermath.
“It is the fear of every good person in the system that someone is wrongly accused or convicted,” Robinson said. “I would like to see good people go into this process, because ultimately, at the end of the day this process relies on individuals. And that’s how we go a long way in fixing a lot of the problems, if good people are in the process.”
Robinson described his role as a judge, stating that it is his obligation to ensure that all appropriate evidence is presented, and that the proceedings are conducted in a fair and impartial manner.
“I was particularly taken when Mr. Tillman talked about walking into a courtroom and feeling that there was no one there like him,” Robinson said. “Therefore you have a person who felt like he was being judged by a group of people who had no commonality with him.”
The issue of false confessions was also discussed, which is common among defendants looking to mitigate their sentence.
“In fact, the Innocence Project has had cases where people have actually pleaded guilty, where people have admitted their guilt, only to find, through work and testing of biological evidence and DNA, that in fact that person that confessed to the crime, actually didn’t do it,” Robinson said.
Twenty-five percent of the cases within the Innocence Project involve false confessions.
“I would like to see a change in the law such that the snitch testimony, so called jailhouse testimony, is not admissible in a court in Connecticut unless there’s sufficient evidence,” Goodrow said.
Tillman said that although he has not contacted his accuser, he feels no animosity toward her, and does not believe that her charges against him were racially motivated.
“I send out my love to her,” he said. “And I send out my forgiveness to her. She was a victim, so maybe she thought she had the right person. I don’t know, but I’m just going to give her the benefit of the doubt, because I don’t want to accuse her of something, like I was accused.”
Panel members, however, noted the role race has played, and has continued to play, in the justice system.
“I think there’s quite a bit of studies out there that validate concerns of cross racial identification,” Meyer said.
Simpson agreed, noting how certain cases, particularly those which involve a black male and a white female, can spark institutional racism.
“I think that drives some of the racial issues we have,” Simpson said. “An all white jury is going to be predisposed to believe a white woman accusing a black man of rape, despite the evidence, or lack of evidence.”