Imprisoned for life for a double killing after what he said was a coerced confession, Eric Caine spent years behind bars quietly wishing he had been condemned to death instead.
Had that been the case, the 45-year-old Caine figures he would have been freed about eight years ago, when a former governor emptied Illinois' death row and pardoned four of those inmates _ including the man tried alongside him for the stabbing of an elderly Chicago couple.
After pressing for years to get his case re-examined, Caine finally walked out of prison and into the sunshine Thursday after more than two decades of incarceration.
A judge had ordered his release a day earlier, the same day the former police commander Caine accused of threatening him with a gun reported to a federal prison for lying about the torture of suspects.
"Let me breathe the air _ I just want to enjoy this moment right now," Caine said after strolling out of Menard Correctional Center, the maximum-security lockup near the Mississippi River, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis.
Wearing jeans, a multicolored striped shirt and shoes provided by his attorney, Caine brought out with him what little he had _ a Bible and family pictures. He said he craved oxtail stew, hopes to find a job, start a ministry and marry girlfriend Sara Bush, whom he met while her grandson was doing time at Menard.
"This is the first day of the rest of my life," Caine, clutching Bush's hand, told reporters across the road from the prison.
Just the previous night, he was watching TV and heard a newscaster mention his name, then something about being released. Caine got confirmation Thursday morning, after he reported to his assigned detail in the prison's law library.
Caine said he isn't bitter about his incarceration, though he plans to seek recourse over his time spent behind bars.
"It will not make me whole. Only the grace of God will do that," he said. "But I will tell you I cannot describe the anguish that I have been suffering from throughout the years, seeing everybody getting justice and me being forgotten. I felt extremely discarded, as if I didn't matter."
Moments later, Caine was having his first meal as a free man: A chicken-bacon melt with onion rings at a diner in Chester.
Caine's 1989 conviction came largely on the basis of his confession and statements made during police questioning. Both he and his co-defendant, Aaron Patterson, claimed then-Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge and his "Midnight Crew" of detectives coerced them into implicating themselves in the 1986 killings of the couple found stabbed 34 times.
Caine says that Burge walked into the police station room where he was being held, put a gun on the table and told him he'd be worse off if he didn't confess.
Then one of the detectives cupped his hand and hit Caine so hard on the side of the head that he ruptured his eardrum, leading him to give a false statement while "blinded by pain," his attorney, Russell Ainsworth, said this week.
Ainsworth said there was no other evidence of Caine's guilt, including fingerprints or DNA. At the time of the slaying, Caine testified, he was at his aunt's birthday party.
After allegations surfaced that Burge and his detectives were coercing black suspects into confessing to crimes, prosecutors began reviewing past convictions involving Burge's squad.
Patterson, who had been sentenced to death, was pardoned along with three other men on the state's death row in 2003 by then-Gov. George Ryan after the Republican said he had concluded Patterson's confession was coerced. All four inmates made similar torture claims and years after being pardoned reached a $20 million settlement with the city.
Caine said Thursday he came within one vote of being sentenced to death by a jury. After seeing that death-row cases drew glaring media and political attention over concerns about wrongful convictions, he said, he wished he had been condemned as well _ especially after Patterson got freed.
"If I would have been on death row, I would have been out a long time," he said.
Cook County Judge William H. Hooks ruled in January that Caine was entitled to a post-conviction hearing based on his allegations of torture, and prosecutors decided to drop the case rather than proceed, said Stuart Nudelman, a former judge acting as the special prosecutor in Caine's case.
"We were left with, at this point, a questionable confession and really no other evidence," Nudelman said.
Ainsworth speculates that former governor Ryan may not have known about Caine's case when he freed Patterson.
Hooks' ruling that Caine should be freed came Wednesday, the same day Burge reported to prison in North Carolina to begin serving a 4 1/2-year sentence for lying about the torture of suspects.
Ryan's 2003 pardons put a spotlight on Patterson, who in the wake of his release after 17 years in prison _ most of it on death row _ cast himself in the role of a community leader and was highly critical of the police.
But little more than a year after being freed, he was arrested and accused of dealing drugs as a ranking street gang leader. Patterson, 46, is now serving a 30-year sentence at a federal prison in central Pennsylvania.