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'The word "free" doesn't enter into my vocabulary'

Andre Davis was more than 20 years into a murder sentence when DNA evidence tied another man to the crime scene. But Andre's long wait to be released from prison was far from over.

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Part two of two. Read part one here.

Jane Raley, an attorney at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, was sitting at her desk on November 16, 2004, when she got the news she'd been waiting a year to hear—and that her client had been seeking for decades. The news came in the form of a phone call from Cellmark Diagnostics, a testing lab in North Carolina. When Raley heard what lab technicians had to say, she immediately broke down in tears.

Twenty-three years earlier, 19-year-old Andre Davis had been convicted of the brutal rape and suffocation of three-year-old Brianna Stickel in the small town of Rantoul, Illinois. By 2004, the Chicago-born convict had languished in prison for more than half his life. Since 1988, Andre had been in solitary confinement in Tamms Correctional Center, the notorious supermax prison.

Raley had agreed to take up Andre's case a year earlier, in 2003, after the victim's aunt, who was convinced of Andre's innocence, connected Andre with Raley—and after Andre offered to test his DNA against evidence discovered at the crime scene. The evidence had been used to convict him back when DNA testing didn't exist. The best the state could do at the time was show that blood found at the scene was Andre's blood type (O-positive, which is the most common) and was the blood of someone who, like Andre (along with 20 percent of the population), is a "nonsecretor"—someone whose blood type isn't present in their other bodily fluids.

In 2004, Raley sent the evidence—blood and semen from the bed where Brianna was murdered—off to Cellmark. She was worried that the materials had been too degraded to be reliably tested, after languishing for decades in the Champaign County Courthouse basement. And indeed, Cellmark told her that the blood was untestable. But the lab informed her that it was able to extract a complete DNA sample from the semen.

The semen definitively did not belong to Andre Davis.

"I believed him before," Raley says, referring to a letter Andre had sent her a year earlier, "but this was confirmation."

Andre pasted on his cell wall a calendar, and he began crossing off days. He visualized being reunited his mother, father, and sister, who had supported him throughout his years in prison, sharing his faith that he would one day be released.

"I thought I would be getting out within weeks," he says. He was wrong.

Every time Andre's sister, Simone, visited him in prison—from the time he was a teenager to the point when his wrinkles deepened and his hair began to gray—she found that her brother was unrelentingly positive. "He always expected he was going to be getting out soon," she says. "He held onto the fact that he could come home at any time."

An inmate exonerated by DNA waits, on average, two years before being released from prison, according to Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Convicting the Innocent. That figure, horrifying as it is, actually represents progress—"in the 1990s people didn't understand DNA the way they do today," he says.

Brianna Stickel was three years old when she was murdered in 1980. - COURTESY JUDI STICKEL
  • Courtesy Judi Stickel
  • Brianna Stickel was three years old when she was murdered in 1980.

In 2006, North Carolina became the first state to create an innocence commission, developed to consider cases in which the accused and their advocates claim wrongful conviction. If a claim is picked up, it is fast-tracked through the judicial system. To date, four people have been exonerated that way and swiftly released. At least five other states have followed suit. In March, Lake County state's attorney Mike Nerheim announced the first set of cases he plans to send to the independent innocence-review panel he appointed. Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez established in February 2012 an internal conviction-integrity unit, designed to reinvestigate innocence claims. But Champaign County has no such safety net, and a statewide innocence commission in Illinois has not been considered. And there was certainly nothing that Andre could do to pick up the pace from inside Tamms, which has been described as a torture chamber.

After he got the news, through Raley, that a DNA lab in North Carolina found another man's semen on the sheets of the bed where Brianna was found dead, Andre's first big legal hurdle was Steve Ziegler, a Champaign County assistant state's attorney. Ziegler and his peers were unmoved by the DNA findings. "They said, 'Big deal—so what?'" Raley recalls. The sheets were covered in semen, the state's attorney office responded, because they were in a young man's bedroom in a house where people partied—you might expect to find more than one man's semen on them.

Raley countered by seeking a second DNA test. In August 2005, almost a year after the first test, the bedding and other evidence were sent to another lab—again at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Edward Blake, widely regarded as among the best DNA experts in the world, tried to re-create the crime scene in his San Francisco Bay-area lab. He asked Raley for the crime-scene photos, discussed how Brianna was found, and went through the court transcripts. Using a filtered light source, Blake and his team selected the most promising stains out of the hundreds that could plausibly be tested. He was particularly interested in the stains that contained a mixture of blood and semen.

In the meantime, in October 2005, an intern with the Center on Wrongful Convictions finally tracked down the state's star witness from Andre's trial, Don Douroux, who was by then in his 60s. Don—a friend of Andre's who'd been the first person to discover Brianna's body at a mutual friend's house—was working as an electrician and living in San Antonio.

The intern explained to Don over the phone that DNA tests—which hadn't been available at the time of the 1980 prosecution—suggested someone other than Andre had committed the crime. Don was polite and spoke freely. "He expressed concern for Andre and seemed eager to help," according to the center's notes from the interview. This was despite the fact that Don had recalled to police the night of the crime—and later to a jury—that Andre had confessed the murder to him.

For the most part, Don's account to the intern aligned with his trial testimony: Don arrived home on August 8, 1980, and discovered Andre at his house. According to Don, Andre was drunk and said he killed a "woman" at the nearby home of Sonny Tucker, which Tucker shared with his younger brother, Maurice. So Don went over to the Tucker residence, where he found the toddler—who had lived next door to the Tuckers—dead in Maurice's bedroom.

But there was one big surprise in what Don told the center's intern. According to the intern's notes, "[Don] Douroux said he spoke to [Andre] Davis frequently up until the trial. In those conversations, Davis told Douroux he was innocent." (Don Douroux could not be reached for comment.)

Meanwhile, Raley had learned some interesting details about Jose Raquel, the emergency room physician who had testified at Andre's trial with scientific certainty that the defendant's penis "was red or recently traumatized," that "the only way you can make it this red is by forcing it against a tight opening," and that "the only way you can force it against a tight opening is if the penis is erect." Raquel also told the jury that "there was this brownish material as I pulled back the head of the foreskin or the skin around the head of the penis. This was unmistakably fecal material."

"The fact that feces had been found on the inside of his foreskin—that was the nail in the cross for him," Melvin Parker, a juror at Andre's trial, tells me.

Years after the testimony, Illinois's medical board charged Raquel with six counts of medical fraud. He had prescribed medical equipment to people who weren't his patients and billed for medical services he never rendered. In 1991, Raquel was placed on probation for four years and required to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education and pay a $7,500 fine. Soon after, the State of New York, where Raquel was also authorized to practice medicine, censured and reprimanded him, requiring him to perform 100 hours of community service. Though the charges didn't discredit Raquel's testimony against Andre, Raley felt it at least made his testimony questionable.

She wanted a second opinion. In November 2005, Arvydas Vanagunas, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern, signed an affidavit saying that there was "an extremely low probability that the substance taken from Andre Davis's penis on August 8, 1980," was feces. Raquel had placed what he claimed were feces into a culture, a medium used to test for organisms. Andre's specimen failed to grow E. coli, or any other bacteria that would grow on fecal material. "The complete absence of any species of bacteria consistent with feces strongly indicates that the substance found on Andre Davis is not feces," wrote Vanagunas. Instead, what Raquel had testified were feces found in the foreskin of Andre's uncircumcised penis "was, in all likelihood, smegma."

Raley also noticed that in the first trial, a different doctor had suggested that the penis of an African-American man is often pink—meaning there was perhaps no trauma.

In March of 2006, four months after Vanagunas's finding challenged Raquel's, Blake sent the results of the second round of DNA tests to Raley. Blake had been able to extract a full DNA profile from some of the blood and semen found at the crime scene. According to Blake's report, the blood on the mattress came from a female—and is a one-in-four-million match to Brianna's blood. Blood on toilet paper found at the scene belonged neither to Andre nor to Brianna. It belonged to someone of undetermined identity. "Unknown Male #1," Blake called him in his report.

There was more. Blake found that the semen on the bed provided to Cellmark belonged not to Andre but to two other men: Unknown Male #1—the same man whose blood was found on the toilet tissue—and Unknown Male #2, he called them in his report. And the semen of both men was present on top of the blood that almost certainly was Brianna's. As Raley puts it: "There is no other explanation for this layering other than it happened at the time she was murdered."

The state was again unimpressed by the findings. On October 15, 2007, three years after the results of the first DNA test came back, prosecutors retained DNA lab SERI to run their own tests.

In his report to Raley, Blake had recommended that the other men who lived or hung out at the house—Don Douroux and brothers Maurice and Sonny Tucker—and that Brianna's stepfather, Rand Spragg, also provide DNA samples; maybe two of them were the unknown males? Raley secured a court order requiring that the four men send back samples. Remarkably, all did so voluntarily. Those samples, along with the crime-scene evidence and Andre's DNA, were sent to SERI.

The scientific evidence was simply "exculpatory of Andre Davis and inculpatory of two other males in the sexual assault and murder of Brianna Stickel."—Edward Blake, widely regarded as among the best DNA experts in the world

The results weren't quite what the prosecutors expected. Seven months after receiving the evidence, SERI produced a report finding that the semen of Unknown Male #1 matched Maurice Tucker. It also turns out that Maurice, like Andre, is a nonsecretor. "I don't recall that he was a suspect at all," Eldon Quick, Rantoul's police chief at the time of the crime, tells me. Maurice was not in a lineup presented to a teenager who had spotted an African-American man leaving the scene of the crime. (Andre's photo was in the lineup, and the teenager failed to identify him as the man he saw.)

SERI testing also proved that Unknown Male #2 was neither Rand Spragg nor Sonny Tucker, and likely not Don Douroux, either.

Still, the SERI report did not sway the prosecution. Prosecutor Zeigler responded that one would expect to find Maurice Tucker's blood and semen on his own bed—and he argued that the layering couldn't be trusted. Finally, he said, Andre certainly could have been involved in the crime without having left his semen there.

Blake filed a report in response to Ziegler's. He countered that there couldn't be any other scientific explanation for the layering of the semen and blood. Whoever left semen on the bed did so after Brianna had, in all likelihood, bled on it. The reality was that much of the prosecution's scientific evidence against Andre had, in Blake's word, "crumbled." The scientific evidence was simply "exculpatory of Andre Davis and inculpatory of two other males in the sexual assault and murder of Brianna Stickel." Prosecutors were now ignoring evidence that discredited their own evidence and experts, Blake wrote.

Raley finally got a judge to rule on the DNA evidence—five years after she first submitted it. It was not the ruling she expected. In February 2011, Champaign County circuit judge Charles "Chase" Leonhard, a veteran former prosecutor and former Champaign police officer, ruled that Andre's innocence claims were "without merit." He agreed that the DNA pointed to Maurice Tucker and not Andre. But, as prosecutor Ziegler had attested, that didn't mean Andre definitely wasn't involved in the crime—he could have suffocated and even sexually assaulted Brianna, in addition to someone else committing the rape. "It is one thing when newly discovered evidence suggests that another person alone committed a crime," he wrote. "It is, however, quite another thing when a record instead merely suggests . . . that another person was also involved in a course of criminal conduct."

Leonhard continued: "Thus, the DNA evidence now of record—although surely implicating an occupant of the residence in which the crime occurred—does not coextensively exculpate defendant." Leonhard ruled against a new trial, saying the "DNA evidence . . . is indeed not so compelling as to warrant another trial."

That moment was, for Andre, the hardest in all of the 31 years he'd been behind bars. "I couldn't believe it," he says. It was one thing for prosecutors to dismiss DNA tests—they have an interest in protecting their own, Andre says. But for an impartial judge to see that the semen and blood left at the crime scene did not match Andre's—and for the judge to not believe Andre was therefore entitled to a new trial—that was almost too much to bear. "There was always a light at the end of the tunnel, and when you see the light get dimmer, that's tough," says Andre's mother, Emma Davis. "But he knew Jane was going to appeal the decision."

Raley says she never gives her clients false hope. If any evidence or developments would seem to immediately exonerate a client, she does not tell him he will soon get out of prison. "I always just say, 'This looks promising.'" Raley appealed Leonhard's decision to the Illinois 4th District Appellate Court. She argued that the judge was essentially inventing an alternate theory—that Andre had assisted in the rape and murder of Brianna, rather than carrying out the crime on his own. The evidence and testimony given to the jury, however, was predicated on the theory that Andre alone had raped and murdered the victim. As she put it in her appeal, "[Leonhard's] argument directly contradicts the position the prosecution took at Andre's trial—that the semen found on the bed was left by the rapist." If the old theory accusing Davis had been scientifically discredited, according to Raley, a jury should be determining the soundness of the alternate theory the judge came up with.

Prosecutors weren't backing down. One of the requirements for a retrial in Illinois is that a convict must act quickly in applying for DNA testing. Prosecutors stated that DNA technology was available and acceptable in the scientific community as early as 1996, and a database for sample comparisons was available as early as 1999. Yet Andre hadn't applied for DNA testing until 2004 and didn't seek a new trial until 2006. In addition, the prosecution claimed that even if DNA evidence didn't point to Andre, there was still enough "freestanding" evidence pointing to his guilt.

The Champaign County Circuit Court disagreed. In an opinion filed on March 5, 2012, a three-judge panel ruled unanimously in Andre's favor. "The DNA evidence entitles him to a new trial as the new evidence would probably change the result upon retrial," they wrote. They didn't stop there. "We find the trial court abused its discretion in finding the DNA evidence was not sufficiently conclusive to undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial." They went on to state: "The serological evidence was the central physical evidence in the case supporting the State's theory. It cannot be minimized. It is now shown to be not only misleading but false."

As for claims that Andre waited too long to apply for his freedom: "Defendant was imprisoned at a maximum-security prison, unrepresented by counsel, and indigent," they noted.

The state still had the option to retry the defendant. The prosecution was given 35 days to appeal the decision—and then, near the end of that period, the prosecution requested an additional 35 days to make up its mind.

"Passage of time has led to the loss of much of the physical evidence, and the death of some of the witnesses. Our review of the case led us to the conclusion that it would be impossible to retry this 30-year-old homicide case." —A statement released in May by Champaign County state’s attorney Julia Rietz

Finally, on May 30, 2012, the court dismissed the case based on the fact that prosecutors didn't wish to appeal. There was no admission on the prosecution's part that Andre was innocent—only that it was too difficult to retry him. "After 30 years, witnesses are either deceased, missing, or no longer credible to testify," said Champaign County state's attorney Julia Rietz. "Based on our review of the two trials and the evidence, we believe he is guilty of murder."

But the state could not imprison Andre any longer. He walked out of Tamms Correctional Center on Friday, July 6, 2012. He was given fare to take the bus to his home, which was his mother's house, but his father surprised him by picking him up.

More than 100 convicts were determined to have been wrongfully convicted in Illinois since 1989. Andre served the longest sentence of all of them: 31 years, ten months, and 29 days. He entered prison when he was 19 and was freed when he was 50.

Andre Davis embraces his father, Richard, upon being released from prison. - AP PHOTO/THE SOUTHERN/JOEL HAWKSLEY
  • AP Photo/The Southern/Joel Hawksley
  • Andre Davis embraces his father, Richard, upon being released from prison.

Brianna's aunt, Judi Stickel, says she calls Champaign County law enforcement officials every week to urge them to advance the investigation into Brianna's death, and that they no longer return her phone calls. Brianna's natural father, Michael Stickel, finds the case too difficult to discuss. Attempts to reach Brianna's mother and stepfather, Becky and Rand Spragg, were unsuccessful.

It would be "possible but difficult" to retry the case, says Quick, the Rantoul police chief at the time of Brianna's killing. That's not to say he's convinced of Andre's innocence—or that Maurice Tucker had anything to do with the crime.

The lawyers who prosecuted Andre decades ago declined to comment for this article, as did the current prosecutors. But in May, Champaign County state's attorney Rietz released a statement that said she does not anticipate trying anyone else for Brianna's murder. "Passage of time has led to the loss of much of the physical evidence, and the death of some of the witnesses. Our review of the case led us to the conclusion that it would be impossible to retry this 30-year-old homicide case."

Detective Gregory Willard of the Rantoul Police Department would say only that the case is "under investigation," a contention that confusingly contrasts with the Champaign County state's attorney's.

Maurice Tucker is thought to be living in the Minneapolis area, but numerous attempts to reach him failed. Tucker has not been arrested or charged with anything relating to the case. His brother, Sonny Tucker, declined to comment.

Harold Jensen, the judge at Andre's second trial, says he feels "no remorse" for his role in the case. It was the jurors who decided on Andre's guilt, he says. "You can't let it bother you. It doesn't bother me at all."

"The word 'free' doesn't enter into my vocabulary," Andre said to me earlier this year. When he left prison, he had no money, no friends, no marketable skills, no health insurance. "I felt relieved that day, but free? No."

He didn't have a driver's license or know how to use public transit. He was an aging bachelor living at his mother's house. "For the first month or two Andre was living with me," Emma recalled, "he would get up at four in the morning to do his prayers, and then do 1,000 push-ups. He would be dripping with sweat. Andre would go across the street and walk along the track every day. We went shopping—both of us like to look good."

Andre pointed out that every state has programs for convicts leaving prison—but none has special programs for the exonerated. If he wanted assistance, "I had to go and apply and wait in line with people that actually committed crimes," he said.

At a welcome-home party for Andre Davis, Judi Stickel holds the hand of the man convicted of murdering her three-year-old niece. Stickel had written him 20 years earlier, saying she was convinced of his innocence. - COURTESY JUDI STICKEL
  • Courtesy Judi Stickel
  • At a welcome-home party for Andre Davis, Judi Stickel holds the hand of the man convicted of murdering her three-year-old niece. Stickel had written him 20 years earlier, saying she was convinced of his innocence.

In November of last year, Andre completed a program in building maintenance at the Michael Barlow Center, which provides services to the formerly incarcerated. He took a course at Chicago State University to become a builder.

In December, Andre's relatives chipped in and rented him a one-bedroom apartment on the south side. When I met him there, on a cold Saturday morning in February, he greeted me at the door wearing a brown turtleneck sweater and black dress pants. His hair was close to shaved and he was still lean and muscular thanks to his exercise regimen in prison. His apartment was neat but sparsely furnished: a television, a couch, and an incessantly ringing cell phone. He proudly gave me a tour and offered me a bottle of water out of the old refrigerator. "For 30 years everything was going wrong in my life," he said. "Now everything is going right."

I asked him about anger and bitterness. "What do I have to be bitter about?" he replied. "It wouldn't do any good. I'm out of prison now. Every day a new door opens for me. I have the rest of my life to live."

He said he doesn't blame Don Douroux, whose testimony put him behind bars. "I don't want to have misplaced anger."

But Andre also frustrated easily. He was tense, growing agitated as his cell phone continued to ring and the taxis failed to come. (The area is so bad that Andre often waited hours for taxis to arrive, and he wouldn't let me stand outside alone for one.) He rubbed his hand over his head, looking worried. Prison was so regimented, he told me, that he is unused to the uncertainties and chaos of the outside world. He moved and spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully and thinking before he answered my questions.

The reason he's so unprepared, he said, is that he's due to speak that afternoon at a panel on wrongful convictions at the Nation of Islam convention at the downtown Hilton. Though Andre is a Muslim, he is not a member of the Nation. But he said he will speak anywhere and anytime about his experiences. A polite, bow-tied black Muslim picked us up and whisked us to the hotel. The Hilton was packed with hundreds of bow-tied men and veiled women, some handing out the Final Call, the Nation's newsletter. There we met Andre's mother, Emma. She talked about Andre's case with far more bitterness than Andre did.

Andre sat on the speakers' panel before taking the podium. He recalled his story matter-of-factly, with a hint of anger but nothing approaching rage. He was getting used to telling his tale. The next day, after we'd spoken more at his apartment, another Nation of Islam member picked me up to drive me to a taxi station. "Do me right," Andre whispered in my ear as he hugged me good-bye.

In the months after my visit with Andre, Emma told me, she saw more of her son's anger emerge. "He's disrespecting me in a way he never did in all those years in prison," she said. "My son is a changed man." After decades of mutual support, Emma said, she and Andre are not on speaking terms.

Andre Davis with the attorney, Jane Raley, who worked to free him - COURTESY JUDI STICKEL
  • Courtesy Judi Stickel
  • Andre Davis with the attorney, Jane Raley, who worked to free him

Andre recently received good news. Illinois is one of 27 states with laws granting compensation to the wrongfully convicted. But the exonerated must apply for compensation—starting with an "innocence certificate"—and the criteria are strict. In October 2011, a Cook County judge denied an innocence certificate to Eric Caine, who'd served 25 years for a double murder he was allegedly tortured into confessing to—and who was freed as a result of the confession deemed to have been obtained illegally. But, as the judge wrote in his decision, Caine "must prove his innocence independent of the fact that the State currently has no evidence against him for the crimes for which he was originally tried." (The judge's decision was later reversed.)

Prosecutors decided in May of this year not to contest Andre's appeal for an innocence certificate, though with a caveat. "By [not opposing the innocence petition], we are not admitting the allegations of the petition itself and are not stating a position in favor of a finding of actual innocence," according to the filing by Champaign County state's attorney Rietz. She told a reporter that the DNA evidence didn't prove anything. "There is a reasonable explanation for why [Tucker's DNA] was found on his mattress cover," she said. "That is simply because it was his bed." Finally, in early June 2013, Andre was granted his innocence certificate.

That week, Andre arrived at Jane Raley's office to pick up his check for $213,624 from the Illinois Court of Claims. Because he served more than 14 years, Andre was entitled to $199,000, the maximum allowable in Illinois, as well as compensation for his time since his release. The sum works out to less than $20 for every day Andre spent in maximum-security prison.

In July of this year, Andre filed a lawsuit against police and a medical center in Rantoul (as well as the town itself), alleging that the officers "coerced, manipulated and fabricated evidence to create a false case against Plaintiff" and that "a medical report . . . was fabricated by the defendant emergency room doctor during his examination of Plaintiff." It goes on to state: "Despite evidence implicating Brianna's next door neighbor, Maurice Tucker, . . . police officers failed to pursue Tucker at the time of the crime." And it alleges that police interrogated Don Douroux and intimidated him into concocting his story fingering Andre as the culprit. Claims made during the testimony of emergency room physician Raquel, the suit alleges, "were knowingly false." The lawsuit states that Andre suffered several mental anguish and psychological damage, emotional distress, and "degradation and permanent loss of psychological development."

"It's out of our hands whether anybody is charged in this case," Andre's lawyer, Flint Taylor, told me. "We'd like to see that, because it could have a deterrent effect. But that usually doesn't happen in exoneration cases, so we feel this [lawsuit] is the best way for Andre to get some justice."

Soon before he filed his lawsuit, Andre refused to speak further with me. Repeated attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Jane Raley remains in contact with Andre, and she said she still marvels at his strength. "He is loaded with support from his family, and he is just able to hang in there somehow. But I honestly don't know how he survived in there."

"I was thinking from one minute to the next that I was going to get out," Andre told me earlier this year. "My feeling of innocence was more powerful than anything—I believed in justice. No matter how much time I was doing, I always thought I was going to get out. I believe in a god. I didn't get why it was happening to me, but I believed things were gonna be made right."

This article was reported with assistance from the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, with additional support from the Puffin Foundation.

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