Innocence Project Panel Discussion Part 2

Tavis continues his conversation on the work being done by Northwestern University, Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition and others in Illinois to combat false convictions.

A 16-year-old Chicago girl accused University of Chicago probationary police officer Ken Berry of abduction at gunpoint and sexual assault. Berry had no criminal record and insisted that sex with the girl was consensual. Convicted and sentenced to 35 years, Berry was later determined innocent and his police and court records were expunged.

Randy Steidl lived in a small farming community in southern Illinois. In a 90-day period, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of a newlywed couple. After serving 17 years—12 of them on death row—he was exonerated when it was proven that witnesses fabricated testimony against him.

Marcus Lyons, a 29-year-old Navy vet and member of the naval reserve with no previous police record, was convicted of raping a woman in an apartment complex in Woodridge, IL. He served three years of a six-year term before being released after DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Johnnie Lee Savory was 14 years old when he was whisked away from junior high school and, absent his parents or legal representation, interrogated about the murders of two teenagers in Peoria, IL. He was ultimately convicted of the crimes, sentenced to 50-100 years and served 30 years—two-thirds of his life—in Illinois prisons before being released on parole.

These are just four cases of wrongful conviction that have surfaced in Illinois following investigations by Northwestern University's Innocence Project.


Tavis: Tonight we continue our look at the work being done to deal with those who’ve been falsely accused and wrongfully convicted. As we told you last night, the human toll on the innocent people behind bars is only part of the story while the debate over the use of taxpayer funds is now front and center in American politics.

Consider what these cases of wrongfully conviction are costing all of us in America. A recent study in Illinois found that 85 false convictions over a 35-year period have cost taxpayers $214 million dollars and that figure will rise perhaps to $300 million or more after more lawsuits are settled. And in 81 of the 85 cases, the study found misconduct or error on the part of state officials.

So tonight we’ll hear more about the work being done at Northwestern University and the involvement of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

But first, the story of Ken Berry, falsely accused of a crime while on duty as a police officer at the University of Chicago. Ken Berry, you’ve been awfully patient and it occurs to me as I say that that you know something about patience after all that you’ve been doing, so thank you for your patience.

Let me give you the microphone and give me the back story on the tragic story of Ken Berry. I’m glad that we saved you for last to tell your story, although it wasn’t designed that way.

I intimated a moment ago, as I said a moment ago, the fact that one was in law enforcement, one was a security officer, and this could happen to him while he’s protecting and serving others, this is what happens to him. But tell me your story.

Ken Berry: Well, that’s it in a nutshell. In 1991, I was a police officer with the University of Chicago campus police and I was arrested, tried, convicted of a sexual assault that I did not commit. I had a consensual relationship with a young lady and it was made out to be like I was criminal number one, you know, crooked cop and just everything.

Everything happened so fast. In Cook County, if you have a serious felony charge, usually people stay in Cook County jail a year or two, maybe more, fighting those charges. I was arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced to prison in Stateville Correctional Center in four and a half months.

Tavis: I’m stumped here because I’m trying to figure out how you think all of that could happen in four months.

Berry: There’s a few different dynamics. The main thing was I had an incompetent defense attorney. I had never been through anything like that before. Neither had, you know, the members of my family. They hired the first attorney whose name came up and he was incompetent. I believe that everybody in the courthouse knew he was incompetent other than me.

The State’s attorney cleared their docket of trials. It just doesn’t happen that quick in Cook County. I was arrested November 16th of ’91. I went to trial March 3 in 1992, sentenced April 2 in ’92, shipped out to the penitentiary April 3.

Tavis: And served how long, Ken?

Berry: I served eight years, one month, seven days of a 35-year sentence.

Tavis: You know that number pretty well, obviously.

Berry: I know it pretty well.

Tavis: Down to the day.

Berry: To the day.

Tavis: How’d you get out?

Berry: The law firm that I work for now; I’m a senior paralegal with the law firm of Winston & Strong –

Tavis: – wait, wait, wait. You’re a paralegal?

Berry: Yes.

Tavis: Wow.

Berry: Yes. You know, I heard Marcus say earlier that his education saved his life. When I was in prison, everybody knew me as a jailhouse lawyer. That’s all I did was stay in the law library. The law is what put me there, the law was what was gonna set me free.

Tavis: You work for that firm now?

Berry: I work for that firm now.

Tavis: What do you do every day?

Berry: You know, there’s a lot of different things that I do, but I’m a member of the pro bono committee. I get a chance to help our people, minorities people, that couldn’t necessarily get justice, get access to justice.

Tavis: Johnnie, tell me more about you. You had –

Jesse Jackson: – I want to give a shout out because here is a school that dedicated its top lawyers and its credibility. That’s why one reason you have some of these Chicago cases because you have an infrastructure of lawyers who pursue it.

I mean, this could be as true in South Carolina or Georgia. The difference really here is not that the situation’s different. The difference is a competent legal team of students and professors dedicated to the proposition.

Tavis: But to your point, though, that could be replicated across the country.

Jackson: Absolutely.

Tavis: There could be Northwesterns all across the country, law schools, that is, who have divisions and programs like these that do this kind of work, so that could be replicated. Northwestern is not unique in that regard except they do it better than everybody else at the moment, but others could in fact do that, and what benevolent work that would be for law schools around the country, hint, hint. I digress on that point for the moment.

Johnnie, I want to come back to something that Ken said a moment ago because it occurs to me that all of you do this in your own way, but Ken does this for a living every day. You do this at Rainbow PUSH for a living every day. Talk to me about the burden, the joy, the responsibility.

I don’t want to put words in your mouth. You tell me what it is for you that you have dedicated the rest of your life to representing others who are enduring the same thing you had to go through.

Johnnie Lee Savory: After meeting Jonathan Jackson and sitting down with the Reverend, I wanted to erect the Innocence Project within our community. There’s only two African Americans that I know of. Dr. Walden, he has tried for so long to do that. He was the first African American that was granted a pardon here in the State of Illinois.

We need that in our community. We need to go into the inner city colleges here in Washington, Malcolm X, Kennedy King, and erect programs such as the ones that we have been a part of, and teach these to our young children and give them, ignite their passions, so we can deal with the overwhelming volume.

The volume of mail that I receive here at Rainbow is more than I can answer, so my dream here with the Reverend’s guidance and Jonathan is to bring these young students in and allow them to answer these letters, allow them to disseminate information that could be most helpful to the people sitting here behind bars.

That’s the greatest thing that I can do for them because I have yet to begin to live my life. I want to be married. I want to have a family, and I don’t have those things. And I can’t allow it to just rob me of that dream also.

Jackson: Two things generally came out, you know. I took Johnnie to a downtown restaurant. He was a man with a child’s mind. I took him to the White Sox baseball stadium. We went to the museum. All of his insides, his youth, was left in those walls. He’s now trying to catch up with himself.

But, Johnnie, I thought it would be very helpful to Tavis, because your case went to the Supreme Court.

Savory: Did I say Supreme Court? Yes.

Jackson: And it set the precedent for?

Savory: Well, DNA testing for the State of Illinois was set here in Supreme Court. It is my case that allows everyone in the State of Illinois to have DNA testing except me [laugh].

Jackson: His case is the case that set the precedent for DNA.

Tavis: I’m trying to process what you’ve just said to me that your case sets the precedent and everybody can be benefited by that but you. It’s kind of a dubious distinction. What do you make of that?

Savory: It leaves me also because here it is. I only want DNA testing to solve the case and I would think that that’s what the system would want to do is solve the case of bringing the real person to justice. But it’s not the case because they already knew that DNA would clear me because previous testing already proved that the samples taken did not belong to me.

But there was another suspect in the case which they did not afford the evidence to us. Rather, they just made it disappear. So I can understand their reasoning for wanting to keep the truth a secret.

Tavis: Randy, I have sat here for all this time and have looked into your eyes. This is not my first time meeting you. I’ve met you all before, hence my coming back to Chicago to do this program because I was so moved by our initial meeting.

In all the time I’ve spent with you and those in the audience tonight, others who’ve been wrongfully convicted, falsely imprisoned, served many, many years, I have not detected one scintilla of bitterness. I’ve seen tears on this stage. I’ve seen anguish on this stage. I’ve seen angst on this stage.

I’ve seen a lack of understanding about why and how this could happen and still be happening, but I’ve not detected one bit of bitterness. How is that possible? Are you guys all Academy Award-winning actors [laugh]?

Randy Steidl: I focus my anger on the system itself. That’s why I’m a member of Witness to Innocence. It’s an organization based in Philly that is of and by and ran by exonerated death row inmates.

We get out and speak to colleges and legislators to try to change the death penalty system in this country. I sit on the Board of Directors of that and it’s therapeutic, but yet every time we tell our stories, it’s traumatic also. But that’s the only way we’re gonna get the system to change.

Tavis: Ken, no bitterness?

Berry: Bitterness won’t do anything to help me, my situation or the fight that I’m currently fighting. The only thing that would do is tear me down, so it would be counter-productive to me.

I think we all have been fighters. We’ve all had to fight to get to where we are right now, so the bitterness is a fight that’s gonna hurt yourself. In my opinion, that’s why it’s not on this stage and it’s not needed.

Tavis: Come on, Marcus, give me some bitterness.

Marcus Lyons: I am angry, but, ironically, I’ve channeled it. I grew up, ironically, in the Dewey Miller housing project.

Jackson: Navy hero.

Lyons: Hero. That’s where I guess I got my fight from. I’ve just awarded my first Marcus Lyons Dewey Miller Scholarship from the projects to one young high school individual out there. She wrote a beautiful essay for me.

I sit back and look at the struggles that she’s having growing up in the projects and I remember growing up out there. I said, you know what? Help somebody come out of that. You came out, you did good. Help somebody else come out.

My focus is I want my 24 years back. I wanted to be a Navy officer and that was stripped from me, but they don’t know I fight like a Navy Seal. President Obama just watched the Navy Seals. I fight like one. They’re gonna see more of me. So am I bitter? Yes.

Tavis: How about you, Johnnie?

Savory: I reached conclusion before I came home. I cannot help anyone like Ken if I’d allowed myself to be tormented by bitterness. It would have been a cancer and would ate away at me and I wouldn’t have been no good to myself or anyone else. Does that mean I don’t get angry?

I have a mentally handicapped sister that I can’t have custody of until the governor signs my pardon. That makes me angry that I have to go five hours down to Southern Illinois to see her and, with the help of Reverend and Jonathan, with a job that allows me to go see her.

But I want custody of my sister. I promised my dad, so I can’t allow anger and bitterness to rule my being at this time. I cannot do it because she needs me and I want a family and I want to one day be married and have children. It would destroy all that and I can’t do that.

They couldn’t help me if I did not help myself. So through the grace of God, He controls my bitterness and anything that would hinder me from going forward.

Tavis: I get the sense, though, you cry a lot.

Savory: No, I don’t.

Tavis: You don’t?

Savory: But every time I think about how they wanted to take my life, and every time I think about how they continue to impede my life, it evokes my emotions, so I cannot hide all that I feel. I’m able to express how I feel when I’m with Jonathan or Reverend or with these guys. I can be honest about my feelings.

You cannot be honest about this in its entirety because the people that done you wrong will try to read your emotions and give a false perception of you. But here I feel comfortable and I’m able to allow myself so the people that I hear, the people that are looking, can understand that we sit here on this stage.

All we want is our life back and that’s why Reverend did a call of action for 50,000 signatures. In actuality, it should be 200 million signatures. It should be put on Governor Quinn’s desk, if that’s what needed to get his attention, to do the right thing about innocent people. He’s already pardoned 467 guilty people.

So if you can pardon guilty people, truly you can pardon one innocent person, let alone we want all five including Tabitha, who’s a mother that has been stripped of her parental rights, but found innocent, who sits in Mayo Hospital dying of MS. We have to talk to her. We have to talk to Mr. Kein [sp], also Oscar Wall.

It’s too overwhelming, as Jonathan tells me so many times. But at least this gives us a platform to send a clear message that we want our life back not tomorrow, we want it today, and if he believes that we’re going away, he’s sadly mistaken.

Jackson: You know, what’s striking about this also is that each of them is getting in therapy by helping others is descriptive to you gain life when you lose your life. So no one works harder than these guys. You know how a baseball player trots around when he hits a home run?

When Johnnie gets somebody who’s about to get out of jail and goes to visit him, he starts jumping. Or he brings somebody in who’s out of jail, but don’t know what to do with the new world. How do you manage? How do you get a job? They’re almost, respectfully, like kids. They’re just happy setting captives free. It’s almost kind of therapy.

Tavis: Randy?

Jackson: Look at what Randy’s doing. He’s just into this. All of them are getting their salvation by selfless actions.

Steidl: I would just like to say that all of us here have had our reputations besmirched and our family’s name disparaged. How much longer are we to have this Damocles sword having over our necks?

Unlike the previous two governors, my case has been there nine years on the governor’s desk. I urged Governor Pat Quinn to stop listening to those who advocate against me only to protect themselves, and grant my innocence-based pardon.

My family, my grandchildren, deserve to have that name officially cleared. This is 25 years now of their lives too.

Tavis: You raise a powerful point. I want to come back to you in a second before my time wraps and talk about public policy, what we do about this vis-à-vis public policy.

But, Randy, since you raised this point, how much of what’s not being said today is really about the pain, the suffering, that everyone who’s connected to you suffers as well?

Steidl: Exactly. My children didn’t deserve what happened to them in 1987. I had custody of a nine-year-old son. I was divorced. Had to go live with my mom and dad.

My mom and dad didn’t deserve that burden, but here it is, 25 years later, I have grandchildren that age and yet, living in a small farming community where my family was born and raised, they have that stigma because we have not been officially pardoned.

I just think that politics as it is, if Governor Quinn can pardon actually guilty people, then what’s the problem with pardoning innocent people? What voter in the State of Illinois would have a problem with that?

Tavis: Reverend, let’s talk in the time I have left. Let’s talk public policy. As I said at the top of this program, Illinois seems to be ground central for this issue, given what’s happened in this state, as we sit here tonight and have this conversation.

All across America, there are wrongfully convicted, falsely imprisoned individuals, many of them sitting on death row as we speak. What do we do about this issue vis-à-vis public policy in America?

Jackson: We have to address poverty. We’ve bailed out the banks when they were on the brink driven there by greed and lack of oversight. Bailing them out may have been necessary, but it should have been linked to the lending, to reinvestment.

100,000-plus homes in this city are abandoned or vacant lots. If there were a plan to replace boards with window panes, to fix collapsed roofs and glazing, you would have more jobs than there are people so people can begin to get their therapy through working.

The effective use by the [inaudible] of the nine public transportation, the re-segregation, the people cannot work them out of poverty, it must be addressed. The poor, the healthcare, is becoming – the disparities are becoming even greater.

I remember the president saying one time, “Judge me by how we treat the least of these.” He’s right. It’s a great scripture. I think that right now we have the richest Americans ever. Wall Street’s never been so awash in cash. We had 300 billionaires ten years ago, now we have 1,000 billionaires.

So we have more rich people up top and more wars and more poverty with jobs being outsourced, out to cheap labor markets and product from there being in-sourced to our country. So the work is diminishing, man, so there’s just abounding pain. We really need a kind of intervention.

I think, on the one hand, given what we know now about the drug war victims, a kind of presidential commission to review, remedy and act would be like a good kind of gesture. It’s such a doable thing. I think this issue – the poor can’t keep perishing.

In Chicago, about 500,000 who get a free breakfast and lunch nine months a year. It’s summertime and they’re not getting those two meals a day, and swimming pools are closed. There’s no organized entree of track and field adult supervision, so they perish.

As long as they’re in isolation, there seems to be a certain toleration for it. This is a great moment, I think, to fit the many Americans who are food insecure.

I mean, I think the ownership we bring $2 billion dollars a week out of Afghanistan, make a commitment to reinvest bottom up and not just top down. I think it would be good for the healing of the nation. It would be good for our leadership and I think it would transcend even political parties.

I remember when Johnson did the war on poverty so many years ago. When he made the case, most poor people are not like they’re white, they’re female, they’re young. Whether they’re white, Black or brown, hunger hurts.

That kind of moral appeal cuts across lines. I think we need that breath of fresh air at the bottom. Right now there is simply dry, dry, a dryness at the bottom. We need the kind of lubrication, a kind of revived and renewed hope.

Tavis: I want to thank you for helping me to organize this conversation today.

Jackson: Oh, what a joy.

Tavis: No, it’s been a conversation long overdue and I’m just honored and humbled to be on the stage with you gentlemen. So let me thank you one at a time. Johnnie, thank you.

Savory: You’re welcome.

Tavis: I appreciate you.

Savory: Yes, sir.

Tavis: Marcus, thank you. I appreciate you. Randy, thank you. I appreciate you. And, Ken, thank you.

Jackson: You know, these are the extremes. Between the extremes and the beginning, there’s a whole body of people who are not on death row. They’re on protracted death row.

They’re in jail three or four years waiting for trial. They don’t have a lawyer and they don’t have food. They don’t have a place to store it. For many of them, jail becomes a homeless shelter. A jail becomes for them a jail hotel.

I say this in closing, when Jennifer Hudson’s mother and brother were killed, they had a prayer in the street one night and I heard footprints coming. I looked up and they’re little kids coming in with tams on, little gangbangers. One kid to the Reverend say, “I want to get well. They’ve closed the detox centers. I want to get well.” He was 15 years old.

The other two said, “Look, Rev, we got the skills, now we can’t get the gig.” I didn’t know what to say to him except, if they go to the high school down the street, they get five meals a week. If they go to prison, they get 21 meals a week.

So for them, jail’s a step up. They have everything in jail they don’t have on the streets. They have organized recreation, adult supervision, discipline. They have a life behind bars they don’t have in the streets. So these are the extremes and they represent pain because they were so close to being killed by the state.

Ultimately, being killed is very protractile. It’s a kind of slow death. Once they go in that system, they can’t get out and get credit, get education, get a job, have a normal life, so they’re the living dead and we all deserve a better system.

Tavis: All the best to you in the coming months and years with the struggles that you are engaged in. I hope that one day justice delayed will not be any longer for you justice denied. Thank you for coming on the program. I appreciate it.

Dr. King once said every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle. These men we’ve met in Chicago are a powerful and profound testament to that formulation and, thanks to their sacrifice and their continued courage, the notice of justice for all is hopefully more than just a phrase.

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Last modified: July 6, 2011 at 4:53 pm