An Exoneree Shares His Story Of Wrongful Conviction In 'Anatomy Of Innocence'

Mar 30, 2017
Originally published on March 30, 2017 10:05 pm

Jerry Miller spent more than 25 years behind bars for kidnapping, rape and robbery — crimes he didn't commit.

Miller was released from prison in 2006. In 2007, after decades of insisting he was innocent, Miller was finally vindicated: He became the 200th American to be cleared by DNA evidence of a wrongful conviction. Today, that number is closer to 350.

Miller's story is now part of a new book called Anatomy of Innocence. It fleshes out personal accounts of wrongful convictions, with a twist: In each chapter, a mystery or thriller writer tells the story of a real-life exoneree.

Miller was paired with John Mankiewicz, an executive producer of the Netflix show House of Cards. Their chapter goes beyond the years Miller spent behind bars, and describes life after prison but before exoneration, when Miller had to wear an ankle bracelet, keep a 9 p.m. curfew and register as a sex offender. He couldn't attend nieces and nephews' birthday parties because he wasn't allowed to be around children.

Miller shares his memories of the day he was exonerated, and Mankiewicz discusses the challenges of telling Miller's story.


Interview Highlights

On how Miller managed to stay hopeful after his conviction

Miller: I had a life to live, so I had to choose how I wanted to live it, you know. What comes from a man who is negative and basically is mad at the world because he was wronged? You can't, I can't function — I couldn't function like that. And I couldn't draw people to my aid like that. You just have to accept what has happened and grow from it. You know, to just walk around angry, you know, in some cases an angry old man — I mean, that's a waste of the rest of your life. I'm more practical than that. I made a logical decision to do positive things and to think positive.

On the day Miller was exonerated

Miller: Even now I kind of get a little shook. ... I was getting ready to get my life back. I knew it was going to happen. It was strange and, you know, my family, we basically had a caravan. We rode out to the [Cook County, Ill.,] court building down at 26th and California. And everybody was dressed sharp and, you know, was happy for me. And I just was real proud that I didn't give up. ...

When they called me up before the judge, I passed through people who was waiting to have their cases heard or whatever, and they saw the news media and they was like, "Who is that? Who is that? What's going on?" ... I'm hearing them, but I'm focused. I have to go up here and maintain my cool in front of this judge. And so when it all happened and they saw what was taking place, everybody — it was a lot of people, you know, waiting — and everybody started clapping.

On how writing Miller's story was different from writing House of Cards

Mankiewicz: I felt a big responsibility to tell the story right. ... I had a very small audience of one [Miller] that I cared about ... thinking that I'd gotten it right. ... So many other people had been telling lies about him over a period of 26 years, you know, what happened to him. And I wanted to get it right for him.

And, by the way, you're writing House of Cards; the worst thing that can happen is it's a bad show. It's TV. I felt the stakes were a little higher here. ...

If you think about every exoneree, every single one who's actually innocent, no one has believed them and no one has been interested in hearing what the real story was until they're exonerated. You know, they're just another man or woman in jail saying, "I'm innocent. I didn't do it. How am I going to prove it?" ... While we were doing this, writing the story, which I over reported by a factor of 10 because I was so nervous ... I wanted to get it right.

On what Miller hopes the book will accomplish

Miller: I've heard stories even worse than mine, but the interesting stories in there are about reality. You know, it's not a fantasy, it's nothing made-up; these are real people who suffered real pain, who [have] to find their way back to being a productive citizen. And they need support.

For people not to hear this story, I mean, they would be missing out on the triumphs of human beings and how they're able to struggle hard enough to regain their life back and, you know, clear their family's name. They're important stories that need to be told. ... People don't know ... what it takes to accomplish what exonerees do. They're like the phoenix: They're redone, resurrected.

Editor Jessica Deahl, producer Sam Gringlas and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 2007, after decades insisting he was innocent, Jerry Miller of Chicago was finally vindicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There aren't too many people happier today than Jerry Miller. Hugs abound.

(APPLAUSE, WHISTLING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: After 25 years in prison for a kidnapping, rape and robbery that he did not commit, Jerry Miller is now free, his conviction removed from the record based on DNA testing that proves his innocence.

SHAPIRO: Jerry Miller was the 200th American wrongly convicted to be cleared by DNA evidence. The local ABC station covered his official exoneration, including this apology from Assistant State Attorney Robert Milan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ROBERT MILAN: On behalf of the men and women of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, I would like to express my deepest regrets to Mr. Miller and wish him nothing but the best in his future life.

SHAPIRO: Jerry Miller's story is part of a new book called "Anatomy Of Innocence." It fleshes out personal stories of false convictions with a twist. In each chapter, a famous crime writer tells the story of a real-life exoneree. Miller was paired with John Mankiewicz, an executive producer of the Netflix show "House Of Cards." Miller told me he hoped his chapter of this book would tell the much more complex story behind that attention-grabbing exoneration day at the courthouse.

JERRY MILLER: As my aunt - my famous aunt - would say - she had a lot of sayings - you know, I felt that he would get down to nitty gritty.

SHAPIRO: Writer John Mankowitz told me at first he felt nervous about talking to Jerry.

JOHN MANKIEWICZ: I mean, I just couldn't imagine someone stealing 26 years of your life. And how would you react to that? It's such an overwhelming set of circumstances.

SHAPIRO: And it wasn't only the 26 years that Jerry Miller spent behind bars. After he served his time, before being exonerated, Miller was forced to register as a sex offender. He missed nieces' and nephews' birthday parties because he was not allowed to be around children. He had to wear an ankle bracelet and keep to a 9 p.m. curfew. Jerry Miller and John Mankiewicz joined me to talk about what it was like to work on this story together. The chapter describes a man free from bitterness, so I started off asking Jerry how he managed to stay hopeful during the long ordeal before he cleared his name.

MILLER: I had a life to live, so I had to choose how I wanted to live it. You know, what comes from a man who is negative and basically is mad at the world because he was wronged? You just have to, you know, accept what is happening and grow from it, you know. To just walk around angry - I mean, that's a waste of the rest of your life.

SHAPIRO: John, you've written for a lot of film and TV. How was this writing experience different?

MANKIEWICZ: I felt a big responsibility to tell the story right. And, in fact, I think we even talked about it. I really only cared about at a very small audience of one - that I cared about thinking - not liking it - but thinking this - that I'd got it - gotten right.

SHAPIRO: That audience of one being Jerry, the person whose story you're telling.

MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, because so many other people had been telling lies about him, you know, over a period of 26 years - you know, what happened to him. And I wanted to get it right for him. And, by the way, you're writing "House Of Cards?" What's the - worst thing that can happen is it's a bad show, you know. You know, it's TV. You know, the stakes - I felt the stakes were a little higher.

SHAPIRO: So, Jerry, you've heard how nervous John was to write your story - that he was basically doing this for an audience of one, that the stakes felt higher than with the hit TV show that he's an executive producer of. What's the verdict?

MILLER: I see why they have John to write their stories.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: You know, I mean, he's a good writer. I call - today, I call him the wordsmith. He convinced me that he was going to write a story. He was going to write a story about me, and he was going to tell the truth. And he was going to try to tell it as I would tell it through him.

MANKIEWICZ: Because, if you think about it, every exoneree - every single one who's actually innocent - no one has believed them. And no one has been interested in hearing what the real story was until they're exonerated. You know, there's just another man or woman in jail saying, I'm innocent. I didn't do it. How am I going to prove it? And there are people who give up - right? - even innocent people in jail.

MILLER: Yeah. I mean, just think - what if I gave up, you know? It was not a given that I would not give up, but, you know, hope comes and goes. It doesn't - it's not a - You have to maintain it, but it comes and goes. Believe me. Every day you wake up is not with purpose.

MANKIEWICZ: Well, and also while we were doing this - writing the story which I overreported, you know, by a factor of 10...

SHAPIRO: Really.

MANKIEWICZ: ...Because I was so nervous. Oh, I've talked to people (laughter). I haven't even told you who I've talked to.

MILLER: Yeah (laughter).

MANKIEWICZ: I wanted to get it right. And I had notebooks full of stuff and, you know, 15 computer files.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you were a little obsessive about this.

MANKIEWICZ: Well, I really - I really wanted to get it right.

SHAPIRO: Just take me to the day you were exonerated and how it felt in that moment when it was official.

MILLER: It was - you know, even now I kind of get a little shook because I actually knew what was getting ready to take place. I was getting ready to get my life back. And, you know, my family - we basically had a caravan. We rode out, and, you know, everybody was dressed sharp.

MANKIEWICZ: I mean, you can look at pictures from that day, and you've never seen a smile like this, Ari.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MANKIEWICZ: Jerry smiled so much - I think you told me it hurt.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: Yeah, it did.

MANKIEWICZ: Yeah.

MILLER: You know, it got even better because when they called me up before the judge, you know, I passed through people who was waiting to have their cases heard or whatever. They saw what was taking place, and everybody started clapping.

SHAPIRO: What do you want this book - this retelling of these stories of exoneration and innocence - what do you want it to accomplish?

MILLER: I mean, I've heard stories even worse than mine, but they're interesting stories about reality. You know, it's not fantasy. It's nothing made up. These are real people who suffer real pain, who has to find their way back to being a productive citizen, you know. And they need support for people not to hear the story. I mean, they would be missing out on the triumphs of human beings and how they're able to struggle hard enough to, you know, regain their life back and clear their family's name. They're important stories that need to be told.

MANKIEWICZ: I mean, in a way, it's, you know, life after innocence. It's a - part of it is, you know, a how-to book by example, you know? There are people who - I mean, you've told me you knew people who confessed just to get it over with. Yeah.

MILLER: Right. People don't - see, they don't they don't know the dynamic of it. They don't know what it takes to accomplish what exonerees do.

MANKIEWICZ: You see the stories in the paper. You see it and you feel like - wrongly accused man gets out of jail after 20, 25 years on DNA evidence. This book, for me, was an attempt to go deeper than that.

SHAPIRO: Jerry Miller and John Mankiewicz, thank you both for sharing this story with us.

MANKIEWICZ: Well, thank you.

MILLER: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

SHAPIRO: Jerry Miller reached a settlement with the city of Chicago after his exoneration. He now lives in Virginia, where he's studying computer programming. John Mankiewicz is an executive producer of "House Of Cards." The book is called "Anatomy Of Innocence: Testimonies Of The Wrongly Convicted."

(SOUNDBITE OF SARU SONG, "FOREVER CHANGED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.