Wrongfully convicted killers go free

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by Maggie Crane

KMOV.com

Posted on November 4, 2011 at 10:01 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 4 at 10:21 PM

(KMOV) -- They were just 14 and 17 years old when they were sentenced to a maximum security prison for a crime authorities now say they did not commit.

Nearly 20 years later, DNA evidence cleared the two men.  The youngest is expected to remain at Menard Psychiatric Center until Monday, but his brother was freed Friday.  He and his attorney from the Exoneration Project stopped to talk to me on their way home to Chicago.

James Harden, his brother Jonathan Barr, and three others were convicted of killing Cateresa Matthews as teenagers in 1991.  She was 14 when she disappeared while walking home from school in Dixmoor, Illinois.  Her body was found two weeks later.  She'd been sexually assaulted and shot.

Three of the boys confessed to the crime, but none of defendants' DNA was found at the crime scene.  It was the catalyst to overturn their convictions.

"I made it!" Harden says.  "I made it.  I survived."

James Harden is a free man.  At 36 years old, he spent the last 20 years serving an 80-year sentence for a crime authorities now say he did not commit.

"There's a lot of red flags about James's case," Tara Thompson, Harden's attorney and staff attorney at the Exoneration Project, says.  "There's a group of kids who didn't hang out, who were accused of being friends and being together when this crime happened, and at the time of the trials, they knew that there was DNA evidence in this case that didn't match any of the defendants, and those things just didn't really fit together.  It's kids -- talking to police and giving statements without their parents present, without a lawyer present, and in this case those confessions were coerced."        

Paperwork has kept Harden's brother Jonathan Barr in prison, but he is expected to be released on Monday.

"We were there to comfort each other," Harden says of the prison time he spent with his brother.  "I always told him 'it's going to be alright, keep your head up. We will be out one day,' and praise God -- it came."

There are many programs to help parolees get back on their feet outside of prison walls.  But not so for an innocent man.  Harden has no education, no job, and no family.  His parents died before they could see their sons set free.

"I'm not quite sure for what yet, but I definitely want to get some education under my belt," Harden says.  "I definitely want to do a little traveling.  I've been sitting for a long time, so I definitely want to get out and see some things."

When I asked him about lost time and years behind barbed wire and steel bars, he looked distant, looked past me.  He said the roughest times came after learning that his parents and grandmother had died -- his support system for nearly two decades.  But he's quick to point out the support he found in Thompson and the Exoneration Project.  Along with the Innocence Project and the Center of Wrongful Convictions of Youth, Thompson and her team worked to investigate and overturn the five convictions.

"You ain't got to be stuck, you ain't got to be institutionalized," Harden says of his future.  "There is life after the walls."

But there is still no justice for Cateresa Matthews.  A new DNA test is believed to reveal the real killer -- a convicted rapist, picked up in April on a seperate case.  Charges are still pending against him for Cateresa's rape and murder.

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