Bill Moyers talks with Jerry Miller, the 200th person exonerated by post conviction DNA testing about clearing his name.
BILL MOYERS: You probably know America’s the World leader in putting people behind bars. We send them up the river at least five times the rate of other industrialized nations. At the end of 2005, there was a record 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails. Now, there is one less. And that’s especially good news because Jerry Miller shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place. He was 22 when police arrested him. It was a case of mistaken identity. But Jerry Miller spent 25 years locked up before DNA proved his innocence. He became the 200th person exonerated through DNA evidence thanks to the organization known as Innocence Project. Some of those narrowly escaped the death penalty, but that’s another story. Right now, it’s time to celebrate one man’s liberation.
Local news teams in Chicago were there to witness a quarter-century of travesty come to a jubilant end. It was cheers of joy for Jerry Miller’s family.
After 25 years in prison for a horrible crime he did not commit, Jerry Miller was now a free man. A recent DNA test proved he had nothing to do with the brutal rape and kidnapping he’d been convicted of back in 1982. Two eyewitnesses had been wrong – the DNA test pointed to a different man – one who’s currently in prison for another crime.
Confronted with Miller’s innocence, local officials apologized for a life stolen.
BOB MILAN:(1st Assistant Cook County Attorney) On behalf of Dick Devine, and the men and women of the Cook County States Attorney’s Office, I would like to express my deepest regrets to Mr. Miller, and wish him nothing but the best in his future life.
JERRY MILLER: When I left…
BILL MOYERS: Jerry Miller is walking free today thanks in part to his own tenacity. While behind bars, he wrote scores of letter to the Innocence Project – an advocacy group in New York that uses DNA evidence to help exonerate innocent prisoners. Miller’s letters got their attention, and they got the DNA test that changed his life.
BILL MOYERS: When you were arrested in 1981, you clearly established with your father that you had been watching television with him that night, when the crime was actually perpetrated?
JERRY MILLER: Basically, my family, my mother was present. Two brothers and an uncle. We was all in the house.
BILL MOYERS: What did your father and mother think and do when you were arrested? They knew you’d been home with them.
JERRY MILLER: Well, they, you know, like anyone else, they was totally shocked. I was shocked. But what ended up happening was I was basically just taken from my home to almost seventeen miles away.
BILL MOYERS: The police came to your house.
JERRY MILLER: Yeah. They came from out of their district to my home and took me about seventeen miles away. So when they saw me leaving in the police car, they was assuming that it was in, you know, in this area. So, they were calling police stations in this area. I was around the area, but they couldn’t find me. It took about two days before they found me.
BILL MOYERS: What was going through your head?
JERRY MILLER: Man, I knew something was happening. I didn’t really understand what it was and they never told me.
BILL MOYERS: The police didn’t and they were aware of that?
JERRY MILLER: They never told me. It was almost a secret. As soon as I was taken to the police station, I was photographed. And asked, you know, to get in the line up. And I had refused you know, from the first, from the start. But eventually, I said, “Well what do I have to fear?” you know. And I was worn down. And I got in a line up and it cost me.
BILL MOYERS: Did you have a lawyer?
JERRY MILLER: No.
BILL MOYERS: You were how old?
JERRY MILLER: I was 22.
BILL MOYERS: And you’d been in the military.
JERRY MILLER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: No criminal record.
JERRY MILLER: No.
BILL MOYERS: And you were in a line up. And you were innocent. And you knew you were innocent.
JERRY MILLER: Right. So therefore, I had no fear. And like I said, I was worn down. I was ready to go. You know, I was ready to go home. And you see what happened.
BILL MOYERS: Can you recall what was in your head in court when they said ‘guilty’?
JERRY MILLER: Man, I was defeated. I was literally defeated. You know, every turn, you know, was against me. Every move we made went against me. Every move my lawyer made they went against me. I remember the judge. I still see him. I can see his face. His name was Thomas Maloney. And you know, he’s – matter of fact, I beat him out of the penitentiary.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
JERRY MILLER: He’s in the penitentiary.
BILL MOYERS: For what?
JERRY MILLER: Taking bribes.
BILL MOYERS: The judge who presided for your case?
JERRY MILLER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And he’s still there?
JERRY MILLER: My understanding is he’s there. I know he’s been there, you know.
BILL MOYERS: It’s like a bad movie
JERRY MILLER: It’s a bad movie.
BILL MOYERS: When did it settle in on you, I’ve lost my freedom? I’m innocent but I’m going up for 45 years. When did that happen?
JERRY MILLER: Well, when I went before him, he said that I was convicted overwhelmingly. The evidence was overwhelming. And I knew that was a lie, you know, because I was innocent. So, how could everything be overwhelming, you know, to convict me? So that was his statement.
BILL MOYERS: And there wasn’t anything you could do.
JERRY MILLER: No, nothing I could do except accept the time that they gave me. You know, I mean, it was – it was a defeat. You know, I had lost.
BILL MOYERS: It was a long time ago, but let’s go back to the first week, the first day, the first hour you arrive in prison.
JERRY MILLER: I knew I was going to a place I had never been before. You know, so I had to, you know, deal with it, you know. I was going into the unknown, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the system. You were innocent and it just – the wheels just kept rolling on and on.
JERRY MILLER: Well, the system – if you just start with my case from day one from me being taken from my home that night, and just trace it all the way to the conviction, you would be – you would be upset. Very upset with the system. You know, I was angry, you know. Depressed. You know, I felt like giving up in the beginning. But as time went on, I realized that that was a waste of time. You know, you can – who am I gonna be angry with? A system that is really abstract. You know, I’m living in it, but you know, it has no faces. And then, you have the victim and the witnesses. If they walked in here right now, I wouldn’t even – I wouldn’t even know it’s them.
BILL MOYERS: Were you saying to people, “I’m innocent. I didn’t do it.”
JERRY MILLER: For a whole year i n the country jail, that’s all I did. I’d be like – everyone I saw, I was ready to tell, tell them my story. “Man, look, this is what happened. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.” And it was just a constant conversation that I had. But you know, it really doesn’t matter, you know, whether you say you’re innocent or not, you know. If they get you, they got you.
BILL MOYERS: You must look back and think the moment I was picked up –
JERRY MILLER: It was over. Yeah. And that’s what people tell me. When I tell them the story I’m telling you, they say, the moment you was put in that police car, it was – the dye was set.
BILL MOYERS: What was your thought as to why your luck was so bad? Why, despite the fact that you had a clean record, you were home with your parents, that at every turn, the trap kept closing. Why was that happening?
JERRY MILLER: Man, look, let me tell you something. I sat in my room. And I’d just try to just look at my life in retrospect. What did I do to deserve this? But I couldn’t come up with anything, you know. There was nothing in life that I had done to deserve what had happened.
BILL MOYERS: There must have been a moment early on where you thought, this can’t go on forever. Someone somewhere has got to hear me.
JERRY MILLER: Right. Right. But when I realized that, you know, it was gonna be a tough time, I just, you know, got myself together and tried to figure out what I had to do. I had to maintain myself. I had to grow. I had to mature, you know, so I read.
BILL MOYERS: You read?
JERRY MILLER: And I kept reading. Well, I talked to my mother. And she had told me that I sounded depressed on the phone. This was early when I had been arrested. And she said, look, read. You know, read. Anything you can hands on, just read. A newspaper, whatever. Just read. And when I got off the phone, that’s what I did. I went and got a newspaper and I started reading. Cause she had told me and kept telling me, and everything she said was true. Everything she had told me in life and how it was gonna happen was true. And so I decided I better just listen.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean, everything she told you –
JERRY MILLER: Well, you know how mothers are.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah I do –
JERRY MILLER: If she says don’t do that and you do it anyway, and then you suffer the consequences, and she says to you what did I tell you? Didn’t I tell you to listen to me? And then after a while, I realized that I better listen to her this time.And that’s what I did. And I read.I read things that I liked.
BILL MOYERS: What — what did you like?
JERRY MILLER: I liked to read about sports in the newspapers it started like that. Then, you know, just novels. You know, action. But after a while, I started reading books that mattered, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
JERRY MILLER: Such as spiritual books. You know, I never could really understand the Bible. I had to grow as a person really to understand the Bible. You know, because when you’re in a cell and you’re reading it, you know, you have to be – if you have a Bible in your hand, you have to know what you’re doing.
BILL MOYERS: I think I would have been insane with anger.
JERRY MILLER: Well, I wasn’t insane with anger, but I was angry. You know, I’m human. I went through the same emotions you would have went through or anybody else in this situation. But after a while, you have to realize, you know, this is a tough situation. You don’t have time to waste time. You have to prepare yourself for, you know, you have to do the right things at the right time.
BILL MOYERS: But you were living in a nightmare.
JERRY MILLER: Yeah. But you know, a lot of people is living in nightmares. I’m not the only one that made it or that will make it, you know. I’m fortunate because I made it intact, mind, body and soul. You know, you can’t even tell I been locked up. Not for 25 years.
BILL MOYERS: Did some of the people you were with not make it?
JERRY MILLER: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: What happened to them?
JERRY MILLER: You know, the penitentiary was a violent place. You know, you have to be blessed. You have to be lucky. There’s a lot of things you have to be to make it out of the penitentiary.
BILL MOYERS: How did you protect yourself from that undirected violence?
JERRY MILLER: Just being myself. You know, you just – you have to live. You’re put in that situation, you have to – you have to adjust, you know. It’s like anyone else. It’s like animals in nature. You know, when society encroaches in their area, they adjust or they perish. You know, you put a man in a situation like this, you are either gonna sink or swim, you know.
BILL MOYERS: And what was your strategy every day?
JERRY MILLER: Well, you have to learn the rules. You know, the rules are the first thing. And just learn how to, you know, stay positive. That’s the most important thing because if you – give up, started giving up is depressing, you know, negativity.
BILL MOYERS: Was there a time when you –
JERRY MILLER: Oh, yes. You know, one thing I say about hope, you know, you lose it. You lose it every day. At least I did. But I’d get it back. I gained it back every day. That’s the blessing.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a problem, isn’t it, to regain hope after you have lost it. Particularly when you’re still in the same situation you were yesterday and the day before and the day before. And you’re likely to be there for the days to come. I mean, how do you regain hope?
JERRY MILLER: You find things that – like a sense of accomplishment. You know if you, let’s say I pick up a book and I don’t really understand, you know, what its saying. So I’d pick it up again the next day and the next day. I had to read a book, well, a chapter in a book, I think it was eleven times just before I understood what he really was saying. So that’s just gives you a sense of accomplishment. The littlest things you can do and have a sense of accomplishment helped me.
BILL MOYERS: Did you have any outside contacts?
JERRY MILLER: Yeah. I had people that would write. Talk to on the phone – my family stayed in contact.
BILL MOYERS: Your father? Mother?
JERRY MILLER: Yeah. My father died. And he was the main one, you know. He was my – he was the one that pushed it. He kept, you know, trying to free me himself. But he couldn’t do it, because he died.
BILL MOYERS: He died in what year?
JERRY MILLER: ’93.
BILL MOYERS: That must have been a crushing moment when you heard. Had he been to see you, visit you?
JERRY MILLER: Yeah. He would always come. Bring my sisters and brothers. You know, nieces, nephews.
BILL MOYERS: Did you give up hope when he died?
JERRY MILLER: For a little while, I lost hope, you know. But like I say, I’d get it back. You know, it took a little while to get it back, but I got it back.
BILL MOYERS: You said in that first letter you wrote to the Innocence Project that your dad had been your chief activist. What did he do?
JERRY MILLER: Well, you know, he’s my father. I’m his son. You know, you know, a father longs to have a son. And I was his first son. So, he tried to do everything possible. Like the lawyer. You know, like you asked me did I have a public defender. Well, no. He made sure I had a paid lawyer. You know, but I didn’t want them to put up the house and spend all their savings, you know, on a lawyer.
BILL MOYERS: Was he prepared to do that?
JERRY MILLER: He was prepared to do that. But it would have hurt my whole entire family.
BILL MOYERS: When you got out on parole last year, what were the conditions of parole because you had not been exonerated.
JERRY MILLER: I was, you know, I had done all the time and was let out and was classified as a sex offender. I had to go to police station. Identify myself and be put on the Internet. Man, do you know how much – my pride took a big blow. It took a very big blow. I don’t care how strong you are. That is a hell of a situation. And I was able to like one day, kind of down, the next day I’d be up. Just dealing with that really tested me.
BILL MOYERS What about you was most tested?
JERRY MILLER: Well, the most battles in a situation like that takes place right here. Right there. The majority of the battles take place in your mind. You just have to, you know, be strong and be disciplined.
BILL MOYERS: What was the greatest assault on your mind?
JERRY MILLER: Well, to be told – to be lied on is a tough thing. To be lied on like I was lied on. To be basically put before the world as someone who I wasn’t. And carrying that weight for 25, 26 years. You know, it was hard. It was real hard. But you know, I made it. You know, I’m intact, you know. So, that’s why I thank God for the day of my exoneration. I thank God for the results of the test. Because I feared that somehow, that would be tampered with. You know, because I had lost trust in the system. So, you know, I was like, man, if they are able to, you know, tamper with this or if they – if it don’t go my way, how do I tell my family when I been telling them I was innocent all these years?
BILL MOYERS: So you’ve spent virtually your entire adult life in prison. For a crime you did not commit. And yet, I don’t sense any vengefulness. I don’t sense any bitterness. I don’t sense any anger.
JERRY MILLER: But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I didn’t have that. I had that in the beginning. Because I didn’t know better, you know. To hold those kind of feelings, you know, it can tear you apart. You know, to be angry for 26 years, can you imagine that? To be bitter for 26 years. What can you accomplish bitter and angry for 26 years? Nothing. You know, and being a negative individual draws no one to them, you know. You have to be who you are. And I’m not a negative individual. If I had been, then I probably would, you know, would have not had the blessings that I received.
BILL MOYERS: The blessings?
JERRY MILLER: I was not meant to be – I was not meant to be in this situation.
BILL MOYERS: I know. But you talk about blessings, but you look back and you spent 25 years.
JERRY MILLER: Yeah. But a blessing to deal with it. I can’t help that it happened. You know things happen in life that’s uncontrollable. But to make it out of it, that’s the blessing, you know. To survive it.
BILL MOYERS: Did you take faith into prison with you? Faith in God?
JERRY MILLER: Look, I – yes, faith in God. In this situation, you’ve got to know there’s a God. How can you deny? Because when it happened, you know, like I told you in the beginning how everything was against me. Well when that DNA test came back proving my innocence, from that point, everything went for me. Everything. And that’s why I’m sitting here with you right now.
BILL MOYERS: You knew all these years in your head that you were innocent.
JERRY MILLER: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: So what’s the difference it makes to be officially exonerated?
JERRY MILLER: It makes a lot of difference because you know, that means that I’m no different than you. I’m an American. I deserve all the rights of being an American, you know. And I deserve the chances that everyone else has. You know, I have a lot of time to make up for. So I have to get it done real quick.
BILL MOYERS: All these years later when you look back, was there one image that kept coming to mind?
JERRY MILLER: You know what? The day I received the news about the DNA test proving that it wasn’t me – it was March 28th. And I was – I called my brother and told him, “Man, I just got the news. I won.” And he said, “Man, do you know what today is?” He said “This is the day Daddy died.” We called him ‘My daddy.’ He said “This is the day my daddy died.” So on that day my father died, I received the news. So I guess he received the news, too.
BILL MOYERS: Jerry Miller, thank you very much. And good luck to you.
JERRY MILLER: All right. Thanks.
This transcript was entered on May 20, 2015.