12/07/2012 10:05 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

The Trials of Anthony Porter: From Exonerated Death Row Inmate to Paroled Shoplifter

Standing outside the barbwire fence of the Danville Correctional Center last Friday, Anthony Porter waited for a ride home. Hours passed on the bleak morning that marked November's end. Dragging on a cigarette, he watched as other prisoners were welcomed back to the free world.

Finally alone, just another discarded ex-con, Porter wondered aloud where life would take him after three months behind bars. He was last seen trying to hop a bus to Chicago in search of his family, a prison source said.

Had it really been more than 12 years since Porter strode from prison into the arms of cheering supporters, an international celebrity and symbol of Illinois' broken system of capital punishment? He had come within two days of execution before private investigator Paul Ciolino and my Northwestern University students proved his innocence. On the day he was released, joy filled the air and the possibilities seemed endless.

Chicago magazine's Bryan Smith described the scene:

The image is indelible. Anthony Porter, a death row inmate who had come within 48 hours of being executed, had just walked out of Cook County jail a free man. A car was waiting to whisk him away, but before Porter could climb inside, he caught sight of [David Protess] beaming next to a group of exultant college students. Porter ran over, threw his arms around him, and lifted the professor up, up into the raw cold of a February 1999 afternoon, until the man's feet swung above the cracked concrete lot.

One by one, Porter repeated the act, hoisting each of the five students in turn. Shutters clicked. Cameras whirred. The moment flashed on screens across the United States and around the world, a giddy symbol of justice triumphant...

Gov. George Ryan caught the event on WGN-TV and, turning to his wife, said: "How the hell does that happen? How does an innocent man sit on death row for [16] years and gets no relief?" The following year, the governor declared a moratorium on executions, and in 2003 he granted mass pardons to death row inmates.

On March 9, 2011, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish capital punishment. The Chicago Tribune's front-page story about the milestone led this way: "If there was one moment when Illinois' death penalty began to die, it was...when a man named Anthony Porter walked out of jail a free man."

But soon after abolition became law, Porter was arrested for shoplifting four bars of Dove deodorant from a Walgreen's on the South Side. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who had lobbied hard to keep the death penalty, slammed Porter with the maximum charge: felony retail theft. And Judge Diane Cannon, best known for enforcing Alvarez's subpoena against Northwestern students in another wrongful conviction case, sentenced Porter to a year of hard time. He was paroled after three months for good behavior.

In the decade between his jubilant exoneration and last week's parole, life had been unkind to Porter. With limited skills, he was unable to find work. Volunteering at the Inner City Youth Foundation, he pushed a broom and counseled teens to stay out of trouble. He was a frequent speaker at abolitionist rallies and universities, but was plagued by throbbing headaches when recounting his ordeal as a condemned prisoner.

In 2005, a federal jury denied Porter's claim for $24 million in a lawsuit alleging Chicago police conspired to frame him in the murders that had wrongly landed him on death row. Penniless, he moved in with his adult children.

Five years later, tragedy struck when his youngest sons, Anthony Porter, Jr., 7, and Derriontae Ousley-Porter, 4, perished in a house fire. The blaze, near Selma, Ala., where the children were living with their mother, was caused by a gas leak that ignited.

Porter called me with the news. "I'm hurting terrible," he sobbed. "They was my babies... I'm a God-fearing man, but I've been questioning, 'What, dear God, did I do in my life to deserve more pain on top of pain?"

But more pain would come when two DuPage County lawyers loudly claimed that Porter was actually guilty of the murders for which he had been exonerated. Never mind that another man had confessed on videotape to the crimes, tearfully apologized to the female victim's family on the day he pled guilty, chose not to appeal his sentence and later told a reporter that he was amazed he'd gotten away with the murders for so many years. Never mind that every judge rejected the bizarre claims that this man was innocent and Porter was the perp. It was a good yarn, and the DuPage duo convinced a few dim-witted journalists to report it.

In the wake of the publicity, Porter found it difficult to mentor teens at the youth foundation when they mockingly questioned his innocence. He gradually retreated into a world of headaches and hopelessness. That's when he stuck $12 worth of deodorant in his waistband, a misguided attempt to contribute to his family. He returned to prison a guilty man.

Fortunately, post-exoneration crimes like Porter's are fairly rare. Of the 110 innocents freed in Illinois since 1989, only six prisoners have been re-incarcerated, the Center on Wrongful Convictions' Rob Warden and I determined. And only one involved a violent crime. In comparison, more than four of ten non-exonerated felons return to prison every three years.

What will become of Anthony Porter? The prospects are bleak for a 57-year-old African-American man with no employment history and a criminal record. I can't even say whether he found his family; their apartment on S. Princeton is boarded up and three normally reliable phones are no longer in service.

It is tragic to think that Porter's only bright and shining moment was the day he was no longer condemned to die, a day when the whole world seemed to care about his fate.