By Memorie Knox
CHICAGO (FinalCall.com) – After spending half of their lives in prison for a crime that DNA evidence confirmed they didn’t commit, Omar Saunders, 32, Calvin Ollins, 29, and his cousin Larry Ollins, 31, were released on Dec. 5 and embraced each other and the world for the first time in 15 years.
The three young Black men were serving life sentences for the 1986 rape and murder of Lori Roscetti, a 23-year-old White medical student, whose lifeless and bloody body was found near a Chicago public housing complex. The men say they are convinced that neither the young woman’s life, nor half of their own lives, were taken in vain, and offered their condolences to her family in hopes that the real killers will be found.
A fourth man, Marcellius Bradford, who was also convicted in the case, served 6-1/2 years and was released. He was given a reduced sentence in exchange for testifying against Larry Ollins. The charges against all four men have been officially erased, although Mr. Bradford remains in jail on charges not related to the murder/rape.
According to police, two of the young men admitted that the four of them attacked the young woman as she drove home from a study session. Their motive, police say, was to get bus fare for then 14-year-old Calvin Ollins. The men later recanted their confessions, saying they were coerced.
A joyous reunion of freedom began when Mr. Saunders and Larry Ollins were released from Statesville Prison in Joliet, Ill., and continued when their lawyer drove them 10 minutes away to nearby Joliet Prison to pick up Calvin Ollins. The men had a group hug, followed by smiles and tears of pain and patience.
The men were taken to the Naperville, Ill., office of Kathleen Zellner, the lawyer who spent 800 hours and $200,000 to investigate their case. Atty. Zellner alleges that there was blatant misconduct and misuse of power by officials in the case, and will file a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the men for wrongful prosecution.
While law enforcement has pledged to continue to search for the killers, Atty. Zellner said she would sue detectives, prosecutors and those who worked on the case in the crime lab. She will also seek clemency for the men from the Governor.
Cook County States Attorney Dick Devine, who has publicly apologized for the obvious mistakes made by the department, revisited the case, now known as the Roscetti 3. Chicago’s current mayor, Richard M. Daley, was Cook County States Attorney at the time the men were prosecuted.
In their lawyer’s office, stylishly dressed in matching v-neck sweaters, slacks and shoes, Omar, Calvin and Larry talked with the media, enjoyed a freedom feast, opened gifts and reunited with family, friends and even school teachers.
They used cell phones for the first time, gazed out of the window in awe of how the world had changed and couldn’t wait to dive into the World Wide Web. Waking up the next day in a “real bed,” they said, hadn’t yet become a reality.
Pointing to a large scar on his bald head, Mr. Saunders, who says he was stabbed more than 14 times in the head and hand by other inmates, expressed how tragic their case was. Mr. Sanders said he saw Calte afor the first time in his life 15 years ago, while standing in the courtroom.
“Prisons aren’t designed to make anybody better and the injury to my body is proof that it’s hell. If you know you’re innocent, there’s a certain integrity that you have to walk with,” Calvin said.
From day one, all of my concentration was on the battle to get us out of here. I never gave up hope and I knew that if I took a step, God would take fifty more,” he said.
While incarcerated, Mr. Saunders said he used his time for personal development, reading books on politics and history, and became intrigued with collegiate dictionaries. Their case and the negative media coverage that surrounded it, affected all of their families and friends, he explained. Now the healing process must begin with those who supported them, and with those who didn’t, he said.
“The way this woman was brutalized and murdered, you wouldn’t want to be associated with anyone who was accused of doing a crime like that,” Mr. Saunders said. “Years ago, I had a dream that foretold this situation. In that dream, I talked to everyone I knew, and I looked them in the eyes, but the part of the eye that gives them vision and focus was gone–only the white part remained. It was telling me that I could see what they couldn’t see.
“God foresaw what happened to Ms. Roscetti, us being framed and freed. They got four Black teenagers and created a story that was so brutal that Blacks and whites looked at us with anger. Poor whites, Blacks and Latinos are now filling the prison complex. There’s something going on in this country’s criminal justice system, and maybe this case will shed some light on it,” Mr. Saunders said.
The people who framed them didn’t care about the life of the woman who was murdered, said Larry Ollins.
“The orchestration of our trial led me to a full understanding of what secured our conviction. While in prison, I reflected on the struggle of our ancestors in slavery and in civil rights. My experience was like a resurrection. With God’s power and our endurance, I knew we could be freed,” Larry Ollins said.
The plans for their future are uncertain, except for joining the international movement for the wrongfully convicted, said Calvin Ollins, who half-jokingly told reporters that he’d been incarcerated throughout Michael Jordan’s entire career.
“As I listened to and read about spirituality, I began to develop more insight on how important it is to function at your best ability, despite certain things beyond your control,” said Calvin. “I was led to bow down and recognize that there’s a higher power.”
“Anytime you take a child and force him out into the wilderness, he will either conform himself to the image of the beast or recognize the Supreme Being that can deliver him from what happens on this earth. God wanted me to go through this and I thank Him for the guidance. His grace kept me and I’ve been blessed. My cousin Larry, Omar and I had no choice and were forced to gravitate towards one another and come together to figure out how to get through this wind. I value every moment. When life is taken away from you, you value it more,” Calvin said.
The men now join the growing list of those released after wrongful convictions in Chicago-area courts. Since 1987, 13 men have been freed from Illinois death row due to wrongful convictions, which led Gov. George Ryan to impose a moratorium on executions and a commission to examine the state’s capital punishment system.
Most of the men released due to wrongful convictions were Black and Latino and many of them have received millions of dollars in compensatory awards from lawsuits.