innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Judge Erases Rape Conviction

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Exonerated after 18 years behind bars for a rape he did not commit, James Calvin Tillman left Hartford Superior Court on Tuesday with a clean slate and no clear sense of his future."It's all up to Jesus now," said Tillman, 44, who spent much of his time in prison singing in the choir and reading the Bible.

While Tillman rebuilds his interrupted life, some Connecticut officials expect the Hartford man's case to be the impetus for change.Several lawmakers want the General Assembly to pass a law outlining when and how to compensate the wrongly convicted.

Such laws are in place in 21 other states.State Sen. Andrew McDonald, co-chairman of the Legislature's judiciary committee, said Tuesday that his committee will draft a bill after reviewing other states' policies and holding public hearings."Fortunately, we don't have much experience with this in Connecticut," he said.

"I think we'll have some good legislation to advance in the next session."Connecticut Chief Public Defender Gerard Smyth also plans to cite Tillman's case when he asks state leaders to fund the Connecticut Innocence Project in his next budget.Tillman was the first person exonerated by DNA testing through the Connecticut program, which has two attorneys who research cases while also juggling their public defender jobs.

They currently are reviewing about 120 other potential wrongful convictions, attorney Karen Goodrow said Tuesday.Funding the Connecticut Innocence Project would allow the public defender's office to assign attorneys to work specifically on more cases like Tillman's, Smyth said.

"If there's even one more person in there, we need to find that out," he said.Tillman was 26 and working at a car wash when he was arrested in 1988 and charged with kidnapping, raping and beating a woman in downtown Hartford.She picked Tillman's picture from a series of photos and identified him again at his trial. Friends contradicted his alibi, and tests presented during the 1989 trial showed Tillman's DNA and that of the attacker shared a particular trait.

Scientists and investigators now know that trait is shared by one of every five people, hardly as rare as it seemed in the 1980s when DNA technology was still in its early stages.Recent testing determined that evidence on the woman's nylon pantyhose and dress did not match Tillman's DNA.

He was released from prison in June while final tests were conducted. Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Miano dismissed all charges against him Tuesday.The judge, prosecutor and defense attorney agreed there was no willful misconduct during the trial."That fact does not make the pain of this situation any less," said Miano, adding that Tillman's case emphasizes how unreliable witness identifications can be.

Assistant State's Attorney Edward Narus said Tuesday in court that the victim has been updated on the progress of the case. Original evidence kept from the rape will be sent back to the Hartford Police Department, which will again investigate.

Tillman maintained his innocence and rejected a plea bargain that would have given him eight years in prison.His younger brother died of a heart condition while he was in prison, and he walks with a cane because he broke his leg and it never healed properly.Yet he said he is not angry or bitter.

"God lives in my heart and I love everybody," he said Tuesday as he left the courthouse. "I can't live my life hating nobody."Tillman's mother, Catherine Martin, visited him every week. She often drove through rain and heavy snow from to the Cheshire Correctional Institution, where she and her son sang gospel songs to each other through the clear pane that divided them.

"I always told my son, never give up. Have faith in God and he will carry you there," she said Tuesday.Tillman would not say whether he plans to sue or seek other compensation for the wrongful conviction.Some states provide set dollar amounts for every day or year of incarceration.

Others add free college tuition, counseling and other services.But Connecticut has no set procedures. The General Assembly can grant people permission to sue for wrongful conviction or, as some states have done, pass a special act to pay an exonerated person directly.Several lawmakers have said they support the idea of creating a compensation policy, and that Tillman deserves something for the 18 years taken from him.

"The notion of the system doing an injustice to someone who's innocent by incarcerating them needs attention," said state Sen. Jonathan Harris, D-West Hartford. "We need to be able to look at ways to compensate them. That makes a lot of sense to me."

Copyright © 2006, The Associated Press

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