Anthony Dansberry spent Christmas in prison. “Nothing special,” he would say in response to questions I had sent along with family members who made the trip down from Chicago to Danville Correctional Center to surprise him.  Two-hour drive. Four-hour visit. Two days later.  “Just the same old stuff,” Anthony told me through his cousin, Rick Dear.  “Just another day cleaning outside the prison; picking up trash and taking out the garbage.”

A plum job, to be sure.  With a title.  Lawn and Grounds Specialist.  Status for a model inmate.  “I get to be outside and look at the cars as they drive by.”  A breath of fresh air.  A flirtation with freedom.  Or, perhaps, a cruel tease.

Anthony Dansberry spent Christmas in prison.  “Same old stuff,” he said.  “I ate turkey bologna, mashed potatoes, green peas and apple pie. The only thing that was special or different was the apple pie.  They don’t give us that around here.  Only on holidays.”

In Chicago, Anthony’s family gathered around the table for Christmas dinner to celebrate the moment.  His Aunt Bernice, who has been hospitalized, suffering with bone cancer, was able to come home for the day.  The family blessing offered by Anthony’s Aunt Ollie expressed hope that Anthony, too, would come home one day soon.

Anthony Dansberry spent Christmas in prison.  “Nothing special,” he said.  Not just this Christmas.  But every Christmas for the past 22 years on a 75-year sentence, paying for a crime he did not commit.  The death of 77-year-old Edna Abel resulting from a 1991 mugging.  There was a questionable confession — with limited reading skills, Anthony believed he was signing a form for his release from interrogation.  There were forensics that didn’t add up, dots that didn’t connect.  (A palm print proved not to be Anthony’s.)  And there was conflicted eyewitness testimony: Of the six eyewitnesses, only one was able to make a positive ID. Two of them said he wasn’t the one. The only witness called to testify appeared to have changed elements of her story by the time of trial.

Lawyers from Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions argued all this before the Illinois Prison Review Board in 2010 and in the court of public opinion since then.  Hoping to persuade public officials that Anthony’s murder conviction was tragically flawed.  Hoping to add the public voice of support for their clemency petition awaiting decision by Gov. Pat Quinn — the only person now who might free the 50-year-old Anthony.  The last appeal.  The last hope for a man who has become something of a poster child for a broken criminal justice system.  One that can go terribly wrong even while trying to right a wrong.  One that blindly allows innocent people to languish in prison, while the guilty go free.

Anthony has been riding a roller-coaster-of-a-hope for the 14 years his case has been represented by CWC, led by co-director Jane Raley, attorney of record on the 2010 Prison Review Board brief; Margaret Soffrin, of counsel; investigator Susan Swanson, who brought the case to CWC in 2000; and former Northwestern law students Rami Fakhouri and Rachel Freyman, who worked on the brief.

Even this Christmas season was marked by the ups and the downs.

The upside.  Anthony, along with other DCC inmates, heard the local television report of Quinn’s Christmas Eve decision granting 179 clemency petitions.   Hope.   Even though names were not included in the TV report, it seemed to Anthony that the CWC work on his behalf finally had paid off.  Surely he was on the Christmas list.

The downside.  This past Saturday, Anthony heard from his Aunt Ollie, and cousin, Rick, that his name was not included.  But that was not the worst of it.  His attorney of record, his advocate, his champion, Jane Raley, had died.  On Christmas Day.  She had succumbed to cancer.

“His whole demeanor changed,” recalls Rick, 51, a film set builder and Studio Mechanics Union member. “He didn’t cry or shed a tear,” because, well, you don’t do that in prison.  But the impact was palpable.  “He looked as though he’d just been hit by a truck.”

True to form, though, according to those who know him best, Anthony put aside his own concern about clemency, about how his appeal would proceed. “It’s not about the release right now.”  He only expressed concern about Raley’s family.  “It’s not about me anymore because she sacrificed so much, she sacrificed being with her family to take time out for me and to be with me.”  Of all the lawyers on his case before CWC took it on, Raley had been “the only one I could trust, who didn’t lie or do anything for their own benefit,” he said.

“When some of the things didn’t go the way they were supposed to, she always kept trying and looking for something else.  She told me not to worry.  ‘We’re gonna do this’ or ‘I need to talk to this person,’” he recalled.  Or “‘I need to look into this thing.’”  Like Edna Abel’s purse that mysteriously had disappeared from evidence for awhile.  “‘I will get you an answer,’” Raley would tell Anthony.  “And she always answered my calls.”

In his Saturday conversation with family, Anthony wanted to know about funeral arrangements.  (Jan. 3.)  He wanted to reach out to Raley’s family.  Somehow.  To let members know how much he appreciated their sacrifice.  All the hours Raley had put into his case.  An innocent man racked with a sense of guilt over what proving his innocence had cost others.  All the quality time Raley had lost with her family.  Not just in working on legal representation.  But also the time she spent in guiding him through it all.  Giving him hope.  Encouragement.  No guarantees, she had advised.  But at least “a fighting chance” that one day he might be released.

On Sunday, the day after his family visit, Anthony told his cousin Rick by phone that he had not been able to sleep after they left.  He had begun to write a letter to Raley’s family.  He had sought help from a fellow inmate.  He needed that help.  The writing part.  That literacy problem again.  The one that had led him to sign a confession believing it was a release form.  Half his lifetime ago.

In the draft letter shared with me by Rick, Anthony expresses his deepest sympathy along with his appreciation for Raley’s “caring and loving spirit.”  He acknowledges that she went beyond “what other attorneys in situations would have done for their clients,” showing “patience” in going over his case with him repeatedly when he didn’t understand.  In the letter, which he writes was “as difficult for me to close as it was to open,” he expresses gratitude to Raley’s “loving family” who “shared her with me for as many years” as they did.

Somewhere between the words, though, is something even deeper than all of the very moving emotions.  There is the sense that Jane Raley still is counseling Anthony.  Assuring him.  Encouraging him not to give up.

Anthony has learned the power of the possibility.  Of hope.  Of believing in the unseen.  With little more than the inspiration of people he has come to trust.

He has not given up any of that.  Hope that the work and the sacrifices of people like Jane Raley still will pay off.  Hope that his appeal finally will be considered.  Hope that more petitions for clemency will be granted by Gov. Quinn before he leaves office on Jan. 12.

Hope that Anthony Dansberry has spent his last Christmas in prison.

Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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