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Cleared by DNA after 26 years
Ex-inmate wins battle to prove his innocence in '81 Chicago rape

Sunday, April 22, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Maurice Possley

Zeroing in on a suspect

Miller became a suspect because, days before the crime, Chicago Police Officer Kenneth Fligelman had stopped him in the 500 block of West Armitage Avenue for allegedly "looking" into parked cars, according to court records. Miller was not arrested at the time.

When the composite sketch was circulated in the Police Department, Fligelman believed it looked like Miller and brought him in for a lineup, where the two attendants identified him as the attacker.

At the time, Miller had never been convicted of a crime and he was working as a cook after completing a 31/2-year hitch in the Army.

Now retired, Fligelman said in an interview, "He matched the composite. My partner and I, when we saw the composite at roll call, we remembered him."

At trial, the attendants identified Miller. The victim said she thought Miller looked like her attacker, even though the attacker was described as having a few days' growth of facial hair and Miller had a full goatee.

Miller testified that he was not involved and at the time of the crime was home watching a championship boxing match between Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard.

'I was devastated'

The jury found him guilty of rape, robbery, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated battery. Judge Thomas Maloney sentenced him to 45 years in prison.

"I was devastated," Miller recalled. "And the judge -- he told me the evidence was overwhelming. I was very depressed."

Shortly after arriving at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Miller decided that he had to find a way to "improve myself. I went to school. At first, I got my GED. Then I took vocational classes in small engine repair and I got a job as a mechanic on the [prison] grounds crew ... repairing lawn mowers and tractors."

At the same time, he battled loneliness, as many of his family members and friends did not come to visit him in prison.

"They had me so guilty," Miller said. "I asked, 'Why me?' You lose hope every day; you have to find a way to gain hope every day. I had found God as a boy. Now I found God in my cell. You open your eyes and you can see there's something here that's more than just me."

At the urging of his mother, Miller began to read everything he could get his hands on.

"Mostly, though, it was spiritual books and philosophy," he said. "I missed joy. I missed happiness. It was very painful, being locked up every night. But I decided I didn't want the pain, the disappointment, the hurt. I just didn't want it no more."

'Life is to be lived'

Miller said he became a better man.

"I matured. I came to understand life is to be lived no matter where you are," he said. He credits his faith in God with helping him cope in prison, along with a desire to educate himself and "make something of myself. This [exoneration] is the hand of God."

Miller said he wrote hundreds of letters to lawyers and others seeking help. His letter to the Innocence Project, affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, ultimately triggered the DNA testing.

Mark Ertler, deputy supervisor of the Cook County state's attorney's office DNA Review Unit, said the Innocence Project reached out last year on behalf of Miller. Ertler located the evidence in the case, including the victim's half slip, which contained the attacker's DNA.

"This case is a good example of what the DNA unit was intended to do," Ertler said. He said that although the victim has declined to speak publicly, "It was never her intention to have someone who is innocent be prosecuted."

After Miller was excluded by the DNA tests, the unknown DNA profile was submitted to the FBI's convicted offender database and a match was found, Wolf said. Prosecutors have not identified the suspect whose DNA was a match. But because the database was formed well after the 1981 crime, the presence of the real attacker means he not only escaped prosecution for the 1981 crime, but he committed at least one other crime later.

Help from relatives, friends

Miller's cousin, Karen Hicks, owner of Yes We Can transportation service, which transports disabled people and others to medical appointments and therapy, said she took Miller into her home after he was released. She said Miller "teaches me patience and to pay attention to people. And I am going to be there all the way for him."

Meanwhile, Miller has relearned how to drive a car, use an ATM, operate a gas pump, and, for the first time, learned to use a cell phone.

"I've got emotional stuff to deal with -- how to deal with women," he said. "I've had a lot of emotions locked up and I've got friends who are helping me."

Fligelman, told that Miller was exonerated, said, "I have always wondered how people can pick someone out of a lineup when things happen so fast. It's unfortunate he had to spend that kind of time in jail if he didn't do it. ... That kind of thing churns my stomach. ... Who knows how many other cases like this might be out there?"

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