Credit: Shutterstock photo

Finally, after more than 20 years of incarceration, Anthony Dansberry has been released.  But he is not a free man.

On Monday, former Gov. Pat Quinn commuted Anthony’s sentence.  Just before hitting the lights on his way out of office.  Just ahead of the Bruce Rauner posse, a new Republican administration with, no doubt, an entirely new attitude about convicted felons.

Between Monday and today, the initial joy from the long-hoped-for news about Anthony’s status quickly dissolved into the anxious awareness that life after a felony conviction can be a slow march through purgatory.  Especially for the innocent.

The sad reality is that our system of justice, rehabilitation and reintegration into society — a system that is based on a cultural belief in second chances — is structured with obstacles along the way to reaching the goal.

For 50-year-old Anthony, convicted on questionable evidence of murder in the 1992 death of 77-year-old Edna Abel, it starts now — the reality that release from prison does not necessarily mean complete freedom.  And it is apparent at every turn.

Center on Wrongful Convictions
Center on Wrongful Convictions

There was the frustration of the waiting game.  One uncertain moment after another in transmitting the paperwork — the verification from the governor’s office, to the Prison Review Board, then on to the Department of Corrections in Springfield and then to the warden at Danville Correctional Center.  Running the bureaucratic gauntlet.  Checking and double-checking the determination and the signatures verifying the determination.  Would everything be in order?  Would there be an opportunity to correct, if something was not in order?  The man who had signed off on Anthony’s release no longer had the power to do that.

Then there is an additional verification process.  Anthony’s sentence was commuted.  He was not pardoned.  Commutation, though, carries with it “Mandatory Supervised Release.”  Parole.  That means a supervisory period of up to three years.  And that means clearance of the home where he will reside during that period.  Finding adequate and approved housing can be a challenge for the formerly incarcerated, particularly those convicted of violent crimes.  There have been cases where ex-offenders could not be released because they had nowhere to go.  Or, they will have to go to a halfway house because they have nowhere permanent to go.

Anthony is fortunate to have a middle-class home, the home of his Aunt Ollie Dear, with whom he lived as he was growing up.

Mandatory supervision means exactly what it suggests — continued reporting and monitoring of up to three years.  In Anthony’s case, it also could mean electronic monitoring.

Finally, this was a case of a murder conviction, one that will remain on the record.

That record is yet another obstacle to freedom for so many.  Unlike some other states, where ex-felons are barred from voting, Illinois does not go to such extremes regarding the formerly incarcerated.  But there are limits to full equality, even here.  People in Anthony’s position are disqualified from more than 50 categories of jobs.  For example, his felony conviction will bar Anthony from becoming a barber.

Future employers will not see the legal briefs filed by Anthony’s stellar pro bono legal team from the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions.  They will not see the questionable evidence analyzed in those briefs, the evidence that was used to convict Anthony of murder.  Future employers will not see the news clips outlining just how the criminal justice system failed Anthony, as well as the survivors of Edna Abel who likely will never see the conviction of the person responsible for her death. Or even the rest of us whose confidence in a fair and just system is shaken by such cases.

Again, Anthony is fortunate in this regard.  He has what many people with a record of criminal conviction do not have — an active and engaged support system.  There are friends of his family who likely will offer him employment opportunities.  Then there are the lawyers and staff at CWC, and the others who have been exonerated as a result of the work of CWC, some who were referred to the Center by Anthony.

“Those guys who have gotten out feel very welcomed at the center,” notes Margaret Soffin, one of the attorneys who worked on Anthony’s case.  “It’s like a home to them.  Some of them knew Anthony in Stateville,” before he transferred to Danville, she notes.

He will need that support, even for routine matters in putting his life back together.  A state identification card or driver’s license. Social Security registration. Medical coverage.

“I think after 23 years, the world is going to be a scary place for him,” notes Soffin.  “We just don’t know.”

As she and I spoke by telephone Wednesday morning, one of the uncertainties was resolved.  A call came in on Soffin’s other line.  As she moved across the room to check the caller ID, she reflected on all the calls that had been made in the days since Quinn granted Anthony’s petition.  Tracking the paperwork, waiting for answers, providing updates to Anthony’s family. Even late last week, before Quinn’s decision, Soffrin had talked with Anthony “to manage his expectations” during the process leading up to his commutation, since “anything could happen.”  Lawyers and staff at CWC are hands-on and, apparently, never let go in their advocacy roles.

As I held, Soffin read the caller ID aloud.  “Danville Correctional Center.”  This was the call.  The records supervisor.  I continued to hold, as she took the call and I took notes.

The moment.

“You have the order,” she said into the other phone.  “Oh my God!  So we can come down?  OK.  OK, yes.  I’m going to gather up the troops. Yep, two-and-a-half hours.  I have to gather up the people who are going,” she said before hanging up the other line and excusing herself from my call so she could “gather up” the family — Ollie Dear, Anthony’s aunt; Rick Dear, his cousin; and Susan Swanson, the investigator who brought the case to CWC and marshaled the evidence over the past 14 years.

Now, Anthony Dansberry has been released from prison. But he will not be free.  Not entirely.  Not from the record of his conviction and more than 20 years of incarceration.  Not from the burden of the formerly incarcerated and the presumption of guilt by a culture that only pretends to believe in second chances.

Justice for Anthony is a work in progress.  He constantly will be proving his case, proving himself, proving his worthiness of rejoining a society that turned on him.

With his release, Anthony has been let out of the system, but sadly, the system will not let go of him.

Photo: Jail cell/Shutterstock



Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson

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

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1 Comment

  1. I was tonys cellmate at Danville I have never met anyone nicer. At first I didn’t know what to think of him I thought he would be mean. But, one we got to talking that was all laid to rest. This man taught himself to read, write and do sign language during his time in prison. All I can say is he taught me way more than I could have taught him.

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