James Tillman spent more than 18 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.
Tillman told his story — from his rape conviction to his exoneration last June — to a group of about 25 students and faculty at the Law School during a panel discussion Tuesday. He and his lawyer Karen Goodrow described the racial bias during his trial, his years in prison and his path to finding a lawyer who could clear his name.
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“My life was being taken from her word against mine,” Tillman said. “I was given 45 years, basically a life sentence, with no concrete evidence.”
On Jan. 22, 1988, a young 26-year-old white woman was beaten, raped and robbed in a Hartford parking lot. Two years later Tillman faced charges for a crime against a woman he had never seen.
From the very beginning of the trial, Tillman said he sensed the jury’s bias against him, accepting his accuser’s eyewitness testimony as fact. He said the jury included no blacks and did not represent a cross-section of society. When he later appealed his conviction on those grounds, he was denied.
Despite the unfairness of his trial, Tillman said he remained committed to establishing his innocence, ignoring recommendations for a plea bargain that would allow him to serve only five years.
“I could not see myself with a charge on me like that [for] something I didn’t do,” Tillman said.
After early DNA testing technology failed to yield results vindicating him, Tillman said he lost hope until he received a promising phone call from the Connecticut Innocence Project, an organization of public defenders.
Goodrow, a Connecticut Innocence Project lawyer who was later appointed director of the organization, began investigating the case with DNA expert Brian Carlow. Although the search for evidence that might exonerate Tillman was plagued by missing information at hospitals, labs and offices, Goodrow said she remained determined. Then, one day, they found what they had been searching for.
“Brian and I went to the legal aid, assuming another dead end, and they had a box labeled Tillman,” she said. “We opened it to find another box with a manila envelope enclosed. When we saw black fabric sticking out, we knew we had found it.”
Testing at a forensic lab proved Tillman’s innocence. Goodrow and Carlow — whom Tillman described as his “dream team” — used the new evidence to argue for Tillman’s release.
Goodrow said she told the judge bluntly to release Tillman that day.
“Everyone was getting caught up in the law,” Goodrow said. “Sometimes you need to use common sense.”
Despite Connecticut’s lack of legal compensation, the legislature passed a special act giving Tillman $5 million for his nearly two decades behind bars.
Audience members said Tillman’s account of his struggle was powerful and moving.
“It is amazing to hear from someone like him — to see his positive and upbeat attitude toward people in general,” Brett Fieldston LAW ’09 said.
Tomas Lopez LAW ’10 said it was beneficial because it was a real-world situation, not a textbook hypothetical.
“We learn about theory and abstract ideas, but it is important to get a reminder that what we want to do involves realities,” Lopez said.
The real perpetrator of the crime has not yet been found, but the DNA evidence remains on file.