The moment Stanley Wrice had imagined for 31 years arrived at last Wednesday morning when he squeezed through a metal detector at Pontiac Correctional Center, put down a cardboard box that contained all he owns and held his grown daughter in a long embrace as his attorneys fought back tears.
Wrice, now 59, was released after a Cook County judge threw out his rape conviction a day earlier, finding that two of disgraced former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge’s detectives had obtained Wrice’s confession through torture.
Moments after emerging into the bitter cold after three decades behind bars, Wrice said it was “just an overwhelming feeling of joy, happiness. Finally, it’s over with.”
He couldn’t sleep at all Monday night, Wrice said, instead talking with fellow inmates, some of whom requested a song that he sometimes sang in the prison choir called “I’m Waiting.”
“I told them, ‘I’m not waiting no more,’” Wrice said. “That’s an old song now.”
In his first few hours as a free man, Wrice said he was surprised by the cell phones everyone uses and a little disappointed by modern cars. “The cars – they look like little toys,” he said. “Where’s the ‘69 Malibus and Chevelles? I haven’t seen one yet.”
Wrice later had the first “real cheeseburger” he’d eaten in three decades. A worker at Hackney’s, the Printer’s Row restaurant where he picked it up, wrote “Congrats!” in blue pen on his takeout box.
Wrice said he wasn’t angry “right now” at what his attorneys said were three decades he wrongly spent behind bars, but he acknowledged his pain over the soul-crushing loss of missing his children grow up.
“I missed all of her life,” he said after finishing a piece of pie at his attorney’s home as his daughter, Gail Lewis, sat nearby. “I can remember a letter she wrote me when she said she was playing softball...and how, every time one of her teammates hit a home run, their father was there to comfort her. But when she hit one, nobody was there for her.”
“That hurt me more than anything I’ve been through in the penitentiary, that I couldn’t be there for my kids,” he said. “Thirty-one years, three months, three days ... and some more days. Just couldn’t be there. But I’m here now.”
His case is scheduled to return to court Thursday when Wrice and his attorneys hope a special prosecutor will drop the charges.
“It would be vindictive at this point” to continue prosecuting, said his attorney, Heidi Lambros, who spent 11 years on the case and has a tattoo on her forearm of a line from a 2012 Illinois Supreme Court decision ordering a new hearing for Wrice.
Wrice was arrested in September 1982. Chicago police alleged he and some friends were driving when they saw a woman, picked her up and took her to Wrice’s home, where she was repeatedly raped and then burned with a hot clothes iron and other material they had set on fire.
Wrice had alleged that one detective struck him with a flashlight and another hit him with a length of rubber hose.
He was convicted of rape, deviate sexual assault, armed violence and unlawful restraint and sentenced to 100 years in prison.
Now that he’s free, Wrice will go to work as an outreach coordinator for the Chicago Innocence Project, helping others who were wrongfully convicted adjust to life outside of prison. He said he hopes to also return to Pontiac and work in prison ministry.
His attorneys said that once his criminal case is behind him, they will pursue a certificate of innocence. A lawsuit would likely follow.
“How much money would be enough to give a man half of his life back, which is what he lost?” said David Protess, president of the innocence project. “I hope the amount is astronomical. And I only wish that it didn’t come from taxpayers but rather out of the pockets of Jon Burge and the two detectives who tortured him and so many other innocent black men in prison.”
At his attorney’s home, Wrice said his grandfather taught him to sing the song “I’m Waiting” but that he had composed a second verse all his own while behind bars.
“Sometime my burden is so heavy Lord, sometime my pathway seemed so dark,” Wrice sang. “Sometime the hills in my life they be so hard to climb. But I got my hand in God’s hands and I’m trusting in his words. That’s why I’m saying, Oh Lord, I’m still waiting.”firstname.lastname@example.org