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Wrongfully Imprisoned 29 Years, Stanley Wrice Wins Second Chance

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Rhythmically bouncing a faded orange basketball with his right hand, Stanley Wrice drives past a defender half his age, dribbles left and stops on a dime. Freezing a muscular youth in his tracks, Wrice pulls up and lofts the ball towards the rusted cylinder. Floating fifteen feet, the ball's arc is true. Nothing but net.

For a moment, Wrice is triumphant. For a moment, he is free. A small smile crosses his face. Then reality intrudes. Heavily armed prison guards return him to his cell at the Pontiac Correctional Center. He is, once again, caged and alone.

Nearly three decades have passed since he was sentenced, several thousand games in the prison yard like this morning's, yet Wrice is still 32 years away from his projected discharge date. At age 57, he does not expect to shoot hoops in the free world, to watch his beloved Bulls ever play at the Madhouse on Madison, and, closest to his heart, to hold three daughters and six grandchildren in his loving arms. Not without divine intervention.

Still, he believes that God moves in mysterious ways, and today, for the first time since he was tortured by Chicago cops into falsely confessing to a brutal sexual assault, Stanley Wrice has hope. Turning to his Bible, he awaits his lawyer's call.

***


Shortly before 9:00 this morning, Assistant Appellate Defender Heidi Linn Lambros walks briskly from her office to the Illinois Supreme Court, where the long-awaited opinion is about to be issued in the case of People v. Wrice. Lambros has zealously represented Wrice for nine years, believing wholeheartedly in his true innocence. Now the defining moment of his case has finally arrived.

She quickly flips to the back of the 30-page document for the decision. There would be plenty of time to read the entire opinion.

The words jump off the page: "... reversing the trial court's order [against Wrice] and remanding [the case] for second-stage postconviction proceedings."

It was unanimous. Stanley would get a full-blown hearing on his claim of innocence.

Lambros screamed with glee.

The justices had flatly rejected prosecutors' arguments that Wrice's conviction should stand even if he had been tortured by two of Jon Burge's cops. The confession was merely "harmless error," the prosecutors claimed. Without it, the testimony of witnesses was still good enough to prove Wrice's guilt.

But writing for the Court, Justice Mary Jane Theis declared: "The use of a physically coerced confession as substantive evidence of defendant's guilt can never be harmless error." Her opinion noted that Wrice's case involved "beatings perpetrated by two police officers who figured prominently in the systematic abuse and torture of prisoners at Area 2 police headquarters."

"We believe that this type of coercion... constitutes an egregious violation of the underlying principle of our criminal justice system -- 'that ours is an accusatory and not an inquisitive system.'"

The language was a ringing victory for all police torture victims, but what would happen next for Stanley Wrice? Lambros knew his case would soon be returned to Cook County Judge Evelyn B. Clay for the Court-ordered hearing that would determine his fate. But the witnesses now stacked up in his favor.

The three surviving eyewitnesses -- including two of the actual perpetrators -- had given statements to student-journalists at the Chicago Innocence Project swearing that Stanley was innocent. The witnesses also had been tortured, they informed the students. And, the only independent witness in the case had recanted, telling the students his testimony against Stanley had been coerced. (For further details, click here.)

That leaves Stanley's confession. But it almost certainly would be excluded from the hearing because of today's Court opinion -- and because the cops who got the confession are under federal investigation and would take the Fifth rather than testify.

If Judge Clay orders a new trial based on these developments, there would no longer be a basis for prosecutors to re-try Stanley. At long last, he would be free.

Catching her breath, Lambros calls Pontiac to share the good news with her client.

***

Prisoners mark time in different ways. Stanley Wrice measures the years by memorable Chicago sporting events.

He had been already locked up for three years when the Bears won their only Super Bowl in 1985.

During his second decade of incarceration, he saw the Bulls dominate the NBA, winning six titles.

As his third decade behind bars approached after the century turned, the Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1917 and the Blackhawks brought home their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Stanley Wrice intently watched it all on his prison TV, but without the camaraderie of other Chicago sports fans at Pontiac. His contact with inmates has been limited since June, 1988, when Wrice found himself in the middle of a brawl over a telephone. A gang-banger slashed Wrice's left ring finger with such force that it was severed from his hand. ("Least it wasn't my shooting hand," he would quip.) Now his human contact is mostly in the heavily supervised yard, at chow, and in "the Pontiac Choir," where he sings on Sundays -- as he had long ago at the Greater Mt. Everest Missionary Baptist Church led by his grandfather, Rev. William Salley.

Alone, Wrice watched Coach Mike Ditka carried on the shoulders of the Bears players. Alone, he saw Michael Jordan light up Magic Johnson in the Bulls first championship, and hit the game-winning shot that brought the Bulls their last championship. Alone, he saw the Cubs collapse five outs short of the World Series in 2003. (The last sporting event he attended was at Wrigley. Fergie Jenkins, Cubs Hall of Famer and Wrice's favorite player, was the starting pitcher.)

So he was predictably alone when he got THE NEWS from "Miss Lambros," as he respectfully calls her. An answered prayer, it was MUCH BIGGER than the Super Bowl and EVEN BETTER than Michael Jordan's heroics.

Dare he think about freedom? He can't help it. The fantasy will no longer elude him. Surrounded by family, he will savor a home-cooked cheeseburger. His baby girl, Gail, will be married on August 12, and he will accept the invitation to walk her down the aisle. And maybe, just maybe, Miss Lambros will work more magic and get him seats to catch the Bulls in their first championship season since Michael retired.

A long road lies ahead, but on this day, after more than 29 years of confinement and despair, anything seems possible. He is ready, once again, to fight for his freedom.

Game on.