One of five men sent to prison for the rape and murder of a middle school classmate two decades ago walked out of an Illinois prison Friday, exonerated by new DNA evidence that also has cleared at least two of the others, including his half-brother.
James Harden, now 36, stood outside the walls of Menard Correctional Center in Chester and said the taste of freedom was "like breathing new life in my body."
His half-brother, Jonathan Barr, will have to wait while paperwork related to a decades-old juvenile conviction is worked out, his attorney said.
"Another one or two days or whatever after doing 18, 20 years, it's like a drop in the bucket," Craig Cooley of the New York-based Innocence Project said.
A judge on Thursday vacated the convictions of Harden, Barr and another man, Robert Taylor, after DNA evidence pointed to another suspect. Taylor was released Thursday from Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.
The other two, Robert Lee Veal and Shainne Sharp, served shorter sentences that ended years ago for the rape and shooting death of 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews in 1991 in Dixmoor, Ill. Prosecutors say they plan to ask those convictions be vacated as well.
The case is among dozens of wrongful convictions in Illinois made public in recent years. Allegations that Chicago police tortured and forced confessions in some of those cases led to a 2000 moratorium on the death penalty, which Gov. Pat Quinn abolished earlier this year.
Harden, who has never had a driver's license, held a job or finished high school, was uncertain just what he'll do in the days and weeks ahead. His father and mother died while he was in prison, though he still has a grandfather in the Chicago area.
He said he hopes to personally proclaim his innocence to Cateresa's mother.
"I don't want that lady thinking that we had anything to do with her daughter's death," he said.
Two of the boys signed confessions and agreed to testify against the others. Veal, then 15, couldn't read, had severe learning disabilities and didn't know what he was signing, attorneys now say. Taylor, who also confessed, later said he was coerced and recanted his testimony.
Prosecution of the group that came to be called The Dixmoor Five continued, even though DNA evidence taken from Cateresa didn't match any of them.
Sharp is currently locked up in Indiana on a drug offense, according to the Indiana Department of Corrections.
Prosecutors reopened the Matthews case this year after attorney Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project found evidence in the case pointed toward a convicted rapist now serving a drug sentence in Illinois. The man has not been charged in the case, but authorities said he remains under investigation.
"We got lucky we found the evidence," Cooley said. "We finally found it after a year and a half of searching for it when we were told repeatedly it didn't exist."
Dixmoor police Chief Lanell Gilbert acknowledged the evidence wasn't originally stored in a way that made it easy to find. He said the facilities would be "up to par" soon.
Harden said he regularly saw Barr in prison, even if it was just for a minute or two as they headed for meals or to chapel.
"We're extremely close," Harden said. "That's my baby brother."