THE BLOG
09/02/2013 10:48 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2013

The Death of Innocents

Shortly after noon on Friday, a gray van from Brown's Funeral Home picked up the remains of a 53-year-old man in Dixon, IL and began the four-hour drive to his birthplace in Grand Rapids, MI. The driver headed south to I-88, then east to the Dan Ryan Expressway, crossing into Indiana before turning north to Michigan.

For the first time in 35 years, Anthony McKinney was no longer in the custody of the State. Since 1978, McKinney had been imprisoned at the Dixon Correctional Center despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. But death proved to be his only way out.

We did not think it was going to end this way, my journalism students and I, his lawyers and family members. We often talked about gathering at the gates of Dixon to watch McKinney stride to freedom into the welcoming arms of his brother Mike and sister Darlene.

It was easy to imagine the joyous scene outside the prison. The evidence demanded justice. McKinney's confession to the murder of security guard Donald Lundahl had clearly resulted from beatings at the hands of a brutal cop. Two government witnesses swore they had testified falsely, and documents showed they indeed were miles away when Lundahl was shot. McKinney's alibi had become airtight.

Most significant, an alternative suspect had confessed -- on videotape. The suspect, convicted killer Anthony Drake, admitted in 2004 that he was present for the murder.

"You told us that Tony McKinney didn't commit the crime of Donald Lundahl," journalism student Evan Benn said to Drake, camera rolling.

"No, Anthony McKinney didn't," Drake replied.

"How do you know that?" Benn asked.

"Because I was there. That's how I know that," Drake nodded.

Drake went on to name the shooter, calling the crime an armed robbery gone bad.

The evidence was so strong that McKinney's lawyers at the Center on Wrongful Convictions presented it to Cook County prosecutor Celeste Stack before filing an innocence petition, confident that Stack would recommend his release. But following the 2008 election, Stack had a new boss in State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, a career prosecutor committed to protecting the system against claims of wrongful convictions.

McKinney soon fell victim to a sideshow by Alvarez and her spokeswoman, Sally Daly, who launched a smear campaign against the students. His fight for freedom was also blocked by Judge Diane Cannon, an Alvarez crony whose entire career had been as a prosecutor until she was elected to the bench. Cannon ruled the State's way on every key motion, approving repeated delays while blasting lawyers who dared to challenge her former employer, the state's attorney's office.

In the end, the State ran out the clock. "Anita Alvarez has my brother's blood on her hands," an anguished Mike McKinney told me. "How can she get away with this? We can't let her get away with this."

Alvarez's flak would say only that McKinney's case was now closed.

Not so fast. For one thing, the matter can be referred to the Attorney General's Office for an investigation. For another, a petition for a posthumous pardon can land on the governor's desk.

And, there are questions about McKinney's death that must be addressed by the Illinois Department of Corrections. According to prison officials, McKinney was found alone in his cell with a mouth full of food and "no signs of foul play." Did he choke? Was it a heart attack? An autopsy by the coroner was inconclusive, but ruling out an unnatural death seems oddly premature. The family wants an independent autopsy, for starters.

But the larger issue is the plight of countless innocents like Anthony McKinney who face one delay after another in seeking new trials. Stall long enough and defense witnesses vanish or prisoners give up -- or die. The tragic truth is that the exoneration process in Illinois is fundamentally flawed and needs to be fixed. Time limits should be set on hearing cases, as they are for trials, and wrongful conviction claims should be expeditiously reviewed by merit-appointed magistrates. While it is not hard for a prisoner to bring an innocence claim to court under the present system, good luck getting action on it.

Take the case of Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, also behind bars at Dixon. Back in 2006, the duo presented compelling evidence of their innocence, including a sworn statement by the State's star witness admitting he had lied at the trial in exchange for favorable treatment in pending criminal cases. As soon as Judge Jorge Alonso approved a hearing on the evidence, he was replaced by Judge Maura Slattery Boyle, a family friend of ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley. Years later, the hearing has still not been concluded, with assistant state's attorney Stack fighting to keep the men locked up.

And take the case of Stanley Wrice, imprisoned for 31 years at Pontiac. Tortured by Comdr. Jon Burge's "Midnight Crew" in 1982, Wrice was finally granted a hearing this year when Judge Evelyn Clay acknowledged evidence of his innocence and official misconduct. The respected jurist even allowed Wrice's lawyers to compel Daley's testimony. She may have gone too far. On the eve of the hearing, Judge Clay inexplicably resigned from the case. A new judge will be appointed on Wednesday, restarting the arduous legal process.

Wrice will soon turn 60. Serrano and Montanez, locked up for 20 years, aren't getting any younger. Are the authorities using actuarial tables to decide how best to deal with injustice? Is their new strategy simply to outlive the wrongfully incarcerated? After all, it is no secret that prison can be hazardous to your health: More than three thousand prisoners die each year, most from natural causes.

Anthony McKinney was 18 at the time of his arrest. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but McKinney got life without parole. He lost all of his twenties, all of his thirties, all of his forties and part of his fifties, until he lived no more.

Capital punishment was abolished by Illinois lawmakers in 2011, but has the justice system replaced it with de facto executions?

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the McKinney case is that a once-vibrant teen suffered an agonizingly slow death. He should have come home in a shiny limo to the cheers of loving supporters. Instead, his lifeless body was lifted silently from a gray van onto a metal slab.