- Paula Jackson
Tonya Crowder is a good cook, and last Christmas was extra special. She expected to have her fiance, Roosevelt Myles, join her at home for the holiday for the first time. So she drew up a menu: greens, chicken and dressing, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, pie, caramel cake.
But Myles never got to eat it. In fact, he still hasn't had a chance to taste any of Crowder's cooking, even though it's been nearly seven years since they became engaged. Throughout their relationship—and for 20 years before that—he's been incarcerated, serving time for a murder he claims he didn't commit. He says Chicago Police Department detectives—including a notorious now-retired cop who racked up dozens of complaints and helped cover up the Laquan McDonald shooting—coerced witnesses into testifying against him.
The Illinois Appellate Court has already ruled that Myles deserves a new hearing. But that was back in 2000. Since then his case has languished on the desk of public defenders, and the judge and prosecutor have failed to move it along. Even in a painfully slow court system, that kind of delay is unheard of.
By fall 2018, though, 53-year-old Crowder had reason to believe that Myles might be home for Christmas. She'd helped Myles get pro bono representation from Jennifer Bonjean, a successful civil rights lawyer who'd filed a new petition on his behalf. A November date was set for Cook County judge Dennis J. Porter—the same judge who'd presided over Myles's original trial in 1992—to finally rule on whether to grant him his new hearing. Crowder had learned her fiance's case back to front, and she was confident they would soon start their life together at home.
"According to everything that I see, the only decision that [the judge] can make is either 'Come home,' or even if he does continue to start the hearing, they should release him because he was wrongfully sentenced," she says of her mind-set before last year's hearing. "So everything said come home to me."
Crowder and Myles's sister, Sharon Myles-Stephens, made the three-hour trek from Peoria, where they live, to Chicago's criminal courthouse for the ruling. But nothing happened. Porter pushed back his decision again, to December 17. When Crowder returned to Chicago in December, Porter delayed the case again. Feeling discouraged, Crowder no longer planned to make Christmas dinner. But Myles encouraged her to cook anyway. So she did, hoping maybe she could thaw the food for Myles in January.
Instead, on January 8, Judge Porter delayed the ruling a third time. The following month, Myles was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs; Crowder sat in the audience. But Myles says he knew something was wrong: Porter wouldn't look him in the eye. In a brief announcement, Porter said that he was denying Myles's petition for a hearing on his innocence claim. He also ruled that there would be no changes to Myles's sentence.
The decision was just one of the many rulings that make up Porter's regular workday as a judge, a job he's had for 31 years. But for Myles and Crowder the moment was earth-shattering. "You know what the worst part was?" Myles says of that day. "Coming back from the county jail on the highway, coming back here, sitting down thinking, and then reading that order by the judge and saying, 'I can't believe he did this.' And looking over to my left I see Tonya in the car passing us. I'm supposed to be in that car. So my heart just broke straight off with her."
Myles and Crowder talked on the phone every chance they had. She visited him once a week; they got into passionate debates but rarely fought. He did his best, from prison, to act like a father to her children. She knew his case better than anyone in his family. She had a wedding dress picked out. Still, the blow of having his petition denied almost broke them up. "Without us believing in the Lord and our strength and our love for one another, we probably would've been separated," Myles says.
Today, Crowder and Myles remain together, making their relationship work as well as they can. His fight to prove his innocence is far from over: last month, Bonjean filed a brief appealing Porter's decision. "I've never been more confident in a reversal," she told me in a phone interview. In the meantime, with all the credit that he's accrued for good behavior, Myles could finish his sentence early next year.
"I don't know what's at the end of the rainbow. It started off so sweet. It's just been a long process," Crowder says. "But at the end, it could be so sweet. And I don't want to miss my miracle. I don't want to quit before the miracle happens."
I've corresponded with Myles regularly on the phone and through a special prison e-mail service since last spring. It's not always easy to connect—the prison phone system limits calls to 30 minutes, and if I miss the call there's no way for me to call back. But over time, I've learned a lot about Myles's life and what it takes for him and Crowder to maintain a relationship despite the barriers posed by incarceration and the emotional toll of fighting a conviction. Over the summer, I was approved to visit Myles, and allowed to bring a recorder and notebook in to sit with him for as long as I wanted in a small windowless room in the prison. Afterward, I visited Crowder at her home in Peoria.
Myles has white hair and a white, well-trimmed beard—he says Crowder once accurately described him as a "gentle teddy bear." The 55-year-old speaks slowly and passionately and can at times get downright poetic in describing his experience. (Tonya, he says, "was my legs when I couldn't hold myself up. She was my voice when I couldn't be heard.")
Roosevelt Myles Jr. was born on the west side of Chicago, in West Garfield Park, in the 60s, when the neighborhood was awash with manufacturing jobs. His mother was a cook; his father worked as a butcher, bricklayer, and insurance salesman. He was close with his sister Sharon, barely a year older and the "smart one." He also spent time with his three half-siblings. In the summers, Myles visited his grandparents in the south or stayed in Chicago doing odd jobs in the neighborhood.
"He was funny and liked to make people laugh, and very protective of me," Sharon Myles-Stephens recalls of her brother. "In the neighborhood, he would go around helping all the old people."
Myles started working at 16, first as a maintenance custodian worker contracted with the army reserve, later as a tree surgeon for the Chicago Park District and in the computer room for Helene Curtis, then the maker of Suave shampoo. He graduated high school and spent some time at Malcolm X College and DeVry University, studying computer science and prelaw, but he couldn't afford to stay enrolled.
Soon Myles tried his luck selling marijuana and PCP. "That was the beginning of an era that I never want to go back to," he says. His time on the streets led to arrests on drug charges and a three-year prison stint. Still, he remained close to his family. "He kept me company because my husband was a road driver," recalls his sister Patricia Milsap. "He'd come spend time with me and my kids and have fun."
By his late 20s, Myles's life was "spiraling down," he says. "Every step I'd take forward, two would go backwards." He was in a serious relationship, but knew he wasn't settled enough for children yet. After getting out of prison, he moved to Peoria, where Myles-Stephens lived. One morning when he went to the store, he was ambushed by robbers, who took his ring, watch, and chain and shot him in the leg. When his mother found out, she insisted he return to Chicago, and he came back to live on the west side.
On the evening of November 16, 1992, at the age of 28, Myles left home to hang out at the Dragon's Den Motorcycle Club. "That was the last day I was in the world," he says.
Around 2 AM, 16-year-old Shaharian Brandon, a sophomore at Near North High School and an All-American athlete, and 15-year-old Octavius Morris left Morris's house near Washington and Cicero, not far from where Myles's parents lived, to get something to eat. According to what Morris later told police, a man crawled out from under her front porch, yelled "This is a stickup!," and pulled out a gun, as another man hid under the porch behind him. The man with the gun shot Brandon, hitting him twice in the upper chest and killing him. Morris ran away, hearing more shots ring out. Later, she returned to the scene.
Myles says he heard the shots when he was leaving his friend's house blocks away, where he'd been hanging out after leaving the club. He passed by the crime scene on his way to buy cigarettes, and two police officers stopped him and brought him over to their squad cars, where Morris was waiting. Morris said that Myles was not the shooter. The police released him.
On December 7, three detectives, including Anthony Wojcik, visited Morris at her house to interview her about the crime again. According to a police report completed two days later, Morris first repeated her original story, then began to cry and said that she did indeed know the shooter, and that it was Myles, but she had been too afraid to tell the truth. She said that she had been mistaken about seeing a second man under the porch.
That evening, Wojcik and another officer arrested Myles and drove him to the Area 5 Violent Crimes Unit, headquarters for detectives tasked with solving crimes on the city's west side. In 2012, Area 5 was closed as a cost consolidation measure, and in recent years, Reynaldo Guevara, one of the officers who worked out of Area 5 in the 90s, has been exposed as having framed at least 51 men for crimes they didn't commit. But at the time the station was in full operation, its reputation untainted. And back then, Myles wasn't especially wary of the police. Growing up, he'd participated in the youth "police explorer" program; he had a friend who was a detective. "The people I thought would protect me were against me that night," he says.
Myles says he was taken to an interview room in Area 5 on the second floor and handcuffed to a ring on the wall. Detective Wocjik interrogated Myles about Brandon's murder. Wojcik began beating him with a phonebook and flashlight, Myles says. For 36 hours he was kept in the same room, facing intermittent beatings from Wojcik and other officers as police attempted to get him to confess. He refused. The following day, police placed him in a lineup and invited Octavius Morris to identify the shooter; she picked Myles.
Finally, on December 9, Myles was transferred to Cook County Jail, where for the first time in the 48 hours since his arrest he was given food and access to a phone. The state's attorney's office charged him with attempted robbery and murder.
Over the next four years, while Myles awaited trial in the Cook County Jail, Morris once again changed her statement. In 1993, investigators for the public defender's office obtained a written statement from Morris that Myles was not the shooter, and that she had consistently told police—and her mother, who verified this account—that the shooter was light-skinned (Myles is dark-skinned). She said she had only named him because police kept coming to her house and bothering her about whether Myles was the shooter.
At first, Myles didn't understand why he was being fingered for the murder, and had a hard time getting information from his lawyer. As he learned about his case, it was hard to come to terms with the amount of prison time he faced if convicted. But once he explained the details of his case—including the flip-flopping witness—to his fellow jail inmates, they began to believe in his innocence, and he no longer had to worry about beatings from members of the gang that Brandon, the victim, had belonged to. Fellow inmates in the law library showed him how to do legal research on his case. He learned to type and started studying the law on his own.
But he couldn't control the behavior of the state's star witness. In 1996, when she took the stand at Myles's jury trial, Morris flipped once more. This time she again identified Myles as the shooter, and said she'd only changed her story because she was afraid of him.
There are other witnesses that might have effectively countered Morris's story, Myles says. Three men—Michael Hooker, Derrick Floyd, and Hubert Floyd—were with him at his friend's house when the shooting happened, and could have testified on his behalf. But Myles's public defender didn't put any of them on the stand, for reasons that are still unclear.
The jury found Morris's testimony convincing, and convicted Myles of attempted armed robbery and murder. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison, 50 for murder and 10 for the attempted armed robbery.
Stuck inside Stateville Correctional Center, Myles decided to turn his life around. In 1997, he became a Hebrew Israelite and quit smoking and drugs. He took advantage of every certification opportunity available to him from behind bars, including a paralegal certification course. In his 27 years of incarceration, he's become certified in roles from hazardous waste removal professional to apprentice baker, and he's completed a variety of courses, from Healthy Thinking to Keys to Personal and Professional Success.
The Illinois Appellate Court upheld Myles's conviction on appeal. But he still had an avenue to try to prove his innocence. In Illinois, inmates can file postconviction petitions, which allow them to argue that the conviction violated their constitutional rights. These are usually filed from prison, without an attorney. In 1999, Myles filed a postconviction petition alleging, among other things, that his lawyer had been ineffective when he failed to call the three alibi witnesses to the stand at trial. His trial judge, Dennis J. Porter, denied the petition, and Myles appealed.
Then, on December 29, 2000, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Porter and ruled that Myles's petition had merit. "We conclude that petitioner has presented the gist of a meritorious claim of a constitutional violation," the opinion read, "and that he is entitled to an evidentiary hearing." The ruling meant that Myles would now be appointed a lawyer to help him file another petition and present evidence that his conviction should be overturned.
This was a huge victory for Myles, and seemed to suggest he could soon see his name cleared. Instead, however, as Melissa Segura chronicled for BuzzFeed News in 2017, two decades would pass without an evidentiary hearing. After the successful appellate decision, Myles was assigned to a public defender who was supposed to file his next petition, but as the years went by she didn't do anything for his case. In an interview with Segura, the public defender, Marienne Branch, admitted that personal issues kept her from devoting time to her client's case, and said that the public defender postconviction unit was full of burned-out lawyers who didn't take assignments seriously.
In 2011—11 years after the appellate court decision—another public defender took over the case. This lawyer, Jeffrey Walker, promised Myles that he was working hard on the case, but, overworked, he had little time for it. With the help of an investigator, he did successfully get Michael Hooker, one of the men who'd been with Myles at the time of the murder, to sign an affidavit saying he'd seen Myles exit their friend's house right after the shots were fired elsewhere. The delay had already hurt the case, though: Walker learned that Ronnie Bracey, the friend whose house Myles had been at, was now dead. The two other witnesses, Hubert and Derrick Floyd, could not be found. Then, in 2017, Walker died, and the case was transferred to yet another public defender.
In the meantime, Myles did his own work on the case from prison. He wrote letters to agencies and elected officials, from the Cook County Board president to the mayor to the governor to the Department of Justice, and to organizations providing legal representation for the wrongfully convicted (none responded). He filed Freedom of Information Act request after Freedom of Information Act request for details on the police officers involved in his case, his name filling up the record request logs.
After two and a half years in Stateville, Myles was transferred to Menard Correctional Center, far downstate on the banks of the Mississippi. In 2006, his supervisor at his tailor job became warden, and Myles, who got along well with the prison staff, asked if he could be transferred to a prison near Peoria to be closer to family. His sister Sharon had lived there since college, and his parents had recently moved there too, after retiring. Within two weeks, he was transferred to his current home in the medium-security Illinois River Correctional Center, near the tiny town of Canton, just a 30-minute drive from Peoria.
At Illinois River, Myles works in a bakery, making bread and sweets for prisons across the state. For a long time, this meant 12-hour days, five days a week, starting at 4 AM. At Illinois River, he's tight with the prison staff, who support his fight to prove his innocence. When we met this summer to talk in the small room, several staff members stopped by to tap on the glass and wave hello or goodbye.
Meanwhile, in 2012, Peoria native Tonya Crowder needed knee surgery. Her nurse at the doctor's office was Sharon Myles-Stephens, Roosevelt's sister. Myles-Stephens and Crowder would talk when she came in, and Crowder was candid about her past. "She was very humble about where she'd been and very strong about where she was going," Myles-Stephens recalls. She sensed that Crowder might be a good match for Myles, so she asked for Crowder's number on behalf of her brother, telling her he was a "good guy who had been put in a bad position."
"So I was like, 'Where's he at? That you're doing all the talking?' And she was like, 'Well, he's incarcerated.' And I was like, 'Oh Lord, not that,'" says Crowder. But then Myles-Stephens explained that her brother had been insisting on his innocence since he'd first arrived in prison. "I was like, 'Well, I guess it's just a letter.' And I gave her my address."
Myles wrote to Crowder soon after, in August 2012. Myles says he was just looking for a new friend to correspond with. He'd had romantic relationships with women from within prison before, but says his partners weren't honest with him and those relationships didn't feel sustainable.
When Crowder got his first letter, she was still hesitant about talking to this man she didn't know, and she was busy—she'd just had knee replacement surgery. So she ignored the letter. Myles didn't want to write again if Crowder wasn't interested, but Myles-Stephens told him to try one more time. He reluctantly sent another. Three weeks later, Crowder responded. They began exchanging letters back and forth, getting to know one another. In late fall, Myles started calling Crowder from prison. Finally, in early December, Crowder wrote him a one-line letter stating that she would visit him that Friday.
"He got the letter like on Thursday," Crowder says. "And he said he was running around like a girl getting ready for date, trying to get a haircut and a shave."
The visit went well—they had a lot to talk about. At the end, Myles walked her to the door of the visiting room, and she gave him a brief kiss. Then she surprised him by giving him a second kiss before leaving. Myles was impressed. "He was like, 'When you doubled up on me, I was hooked,'" Crowder says, laughing. "I was like OK, whatever."
"I thought about the conversation that we had about life and things that we have been through," Myles says. "I said, 'Wow, we can share each other's thoughts for the rest of our lives.'"
After that, Crowder made weekly visits to see Myles. They just clicked. They'd dealt with similar health problems; they'd both overcome struggles with addiction; they seemed to just get each other. They also had interests in common, like sports and cooking.
"Sometimes I'd write to her about something, and the next day I'd get a letter in the mail and she wrote about the same thing," Myles says. "So our thoughts cross in the air, and it's scary, but it's good."
Myles loves that Crowder is smart, outspoken, and stubborn—he calls her a "mule." The two like to get into passionate debates, but they don't argue. Crowder appreciates that Myles doesn't ask her for money and is family oriented. Unlike other men she's known, he isn't out to get something from her. He knows she's a single mom, and he supports himself. At first, Crowder scheduled her visits with Myles when her three kids—Jenise, Justice, and JaRon—were at school. But soon he asked to meet them, and Tonya brought them in for a visit. While she was heating up food from the vending machines in the visiting room, Myles spoke to each child, asking if they would be OK with him marrying their mom. They all gave him their approval.
Because of his incarceration, Myles never got the chance to have his own children—"They took that from me," he says. So he's thrown himself into being a parent to Crowder's kids as best as he can. He calls them regularly. He's especially close with Justice, Crowder's middle daughter, who is now 23. The two of them both have big foreheads, and so they jokingly greet each other by bumping foreheads.
"We connected automatically," Justice says. "Everybody there really thinks that I'm his daughter. He treats me like nothing but his daughter. I can talk to him about anything. My biological father wasn't ever really there, but when I met [Myles], he wanted to be there for me no matter what."
Jenise was hesitant at first, but now she and Myles are close; they talk at least twice a week on the phone. "He's very down-to-earth. Very honest," she says. "You can't ask for more. He's a joy to be around."
On January 25, 2013—not even two months after they'd first met in person—Myles proposed to Crowder during a visit. He got permission from a correctional officer to get down on his knees to ask for her hand, but he was too embarrassed. ("I should've done it. I regret that right now," he says.) She said yes. Myles ordered a temporary ring for Crowder in the mail, from a catalog available to inmates offering jewelry at inflated prices. Later she picked out her own ring, and Myles paid her back.
"I've never been married because I haven't found anybody on this earth throughout my lifetime that was marriage material," Crowder says. "And I know that I am a good one. And I just never had a good man. I believe Roosevelt could be that guy."
These days, Myles calls Crowder anytime he can get to the prison phone, and Crowder usually visits on Friday afternoons for four hours. During that time, which is confined to the brightly painted visiting room, where Myles has to stay seated at an assigned table, they chat, play cards, and share a meal from the prison vending machine. Over the summer, a few weeks after interviewing Myles and Crowder in person separately, I joined them for a visit. It was a hot, blistering day, but the air-conditioning in most of the building wasn't working; perhaps because Myles is a favorite, staff assigned us a table under a fan. Myles recounted his recent experience talking to investigators from the wrongful conviction TV show Reasonable Doubt. We ate microwave pizzas, and Crowder and Myles taught me to play rummy as they jokingly made fun of one another. When Myles talked about being a lifelong Bulls fan, Crowder shook her head and called him a "scrub for life."
When they first got together, Myles encouraged Crowder to learn the details of his case on her own. "He said, 'Don't believe anything I say.' He said, 'I can show you everything I'm talking about,'" she recalls. "You don't have to have knowledge of the law. Just have common sense." Once she knew the story, Crowder and her kids became warriors on Myles's behalf. They made flyers and T-shirts with information about Myles's case. With access to electronic communication and faster mail service, Crowder helped Myles reach out to potential advocates and lawyers. Crowder also befriended Myles's family. She learned that her kids had actually known Myles-Stephens's kids—Myles's nephews—growing up. "Everybody just jelled," Crowder says. After the engagement, her family was always invited to birthday parties and holidays with the Myles family.
"In the beginning, you know, he said that [his release] could be ten years, five years, or in a day. And he felt like at that point that he had a chance at something happening that year. And so I guess in my mind that's all I heard," Crowder says. "I never imagined I would still be sitting in the same place six years later."
Crowder still acts as a voice for Myles outside the prison—she was the one who reached out to me to let me know about his case. But as time went on, the initial flurry of activity slowed. "When you keep trying and trying and trying and trying and nobody seems to listen or support, it gets discouraging," she says.
The years of waiting have led Myles to be consistently vigilant, always trying to move things forward. But that impulse can sometimes cause tension with Crowder, since he has a tendency to constantly nag and remind her, whether it's about something she's working on for his case or something personal, like her results from a doctor's visit. "That's the way he's had to live," she says. "But I let him know sometimes that just is not necessary in our relationship."
In August 2016, Myles was having a regular phone conversation with his mom, Martha, joking about how his dad, Roosevelt Sr., had brought her pancakes and sausage on a stick to eat. Two days later, Myles heard from his sister that Martha was in the hospital. He talked to her briefly on the phone and could tell something was off. Martha passed away from a sepsis infection the night before Crowder was to visit Myles. "All the way down the highway, I prayed," Crowder says. "What am I gonna say to him?"
That day, Myles saw Crowder sitting in the small room where he and I did our interview, rather than the regular visiting room. That small room is reserved for press visits or visits when there's a death in the family. "He caught a glimpse of me. And I looked over and he was like, 'Hey, baby.' And he stopped and his face just went blank. And he was like, 'My mom?' And I nodded my head yes," Crowder recalls. "And he just like fell out against the wall. Because that was the prayer he prayed the hardest, was to be able to see his parents and help them. And so that was the hardest thing I ever had to do in this relationship."
Myles was granted permission to view his mother's body, which helped him get some closure. Crowder read a poem at the funeral on Myles's behalf. A few months after Martha died, Roosevelt Sr., who had been married to his wife for 55 years, fell ill with a kidney infection, which landed him in the hospital, then a nursing home, where he caught pneumonia. Crowder spent time with him in the hospital and was able to get him to eat her cooking—a big feat, because Roosevelt Sr. usually only wanted to eat his wife's cooking. He died in March 2017, just half a year after his wife's death.
The loss of both parents crushed Myles. He thinks that if he had been out of prison his mother would've opened up to him about how sick she was, and that he could've convinced her to go to the hospital sooner. He also thinks he may have been able to get the nursing home and hospital to take better care of his dad. "I'm not going to say I could have prevented what the Lord has planned for you," he says. "But some way, somehow I'd be more accepting to her death knowing that I did all I can. And right now I can't say that, because I'm here."
In 2017 Myles and Crowder got some good news. Myles had read about Jennifer Bonjean, a lawyer who among many other victories successfully helped three men overturn their convictions after they were framed by notorious CPD detective Reynaldo Guevara. Myles wrote to her twice, but didn't hear back. So he asked Crowder to give her a call and pass along his files. Bonjean was appalled by the delay in Myles's case. She agreed to take him on as a pro bono client starting in July 2017. After so many years of negligent representation, he finally had a lawyer willing to fight for him.
In June 2018, Bonjean filed a new postconviction petition on Myles's behalf, attaching the affidavit of witness Michael Hooker. Bonjean also argued that the original trial attorney was negligent because he should have presented evidence that pointed to another man, Octavius Morris's ex-boyfriend, as the perpetrator, since he had previously threatened victim Shaharian Brandon. Furthermore, Bonjean presented a litany of evidence, much of it having emerged in the 20-plus years since Myles's original trial, that Detective Anthony Wojcik had engaged in a "pattern and practice" of abusing and framing suspects, which increases the likelihood that Wojcik might have coerced Morris to testify against Myles. In the Invisible Institute's Civilian Police Data Project, which allows users to access information from complaints against Chicago police officers, Wojcik has 44 complaints of misconduct, more than 92 percent of the other officers included in the database. Even before Myles's trial, in 1994, the Office of Professional Standards, at the time responsible for investigating police misconduct, sustained a complaint against Wojcik for breaking into his ex-girlfriend's apartment and beating the man she was with. This is especially noteworthy, because OPS very rarely found police officers guilty of misconduct.
Wojcik was also a key player in the Laquan McDonald cover-up. In October, Mayor Lori Lightfoot released reports from Inspector General Joseph Ferguson's 2017 investigation, which found that Wojcik destroyed and rewrote police reports from the shooting and "authored and approved" false statements. If Wojcik hadn't retired in 2016, the inspector general would have recommended he be fired. As it is, the report recommends Wojcik be stripped of his retirement badge and star and that he be removed from the Illinois Retired Officer Concealed Carry Program. (A lawyer for Wojcik did not respond to phone messages and e-mails seeking comment on Myles's case.)
Shortly after his petition was filed, Myles's legal team managed to track down Octavius Morris. In response to attempts to get in touch with her, Morris called Bonjean unexpectedly and said that Myles was not the shooter and that she had only testified against him because of pressure from Wojcik. That September, Morris signed a sworn affidavit reiterating that information: "Not a day goes by that I don't think about how [Myles] is in prison for a crime he did not do. The police and prosecutors were not interested in finding out the truth about who killed my friend. This event has nearly ruined my life."
Despite Myles's alibi witnesses, the evidence of Wojcik's misconduct, and the revelation from Morris, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office has continued to fight for Myles's conviction, even with progressive Kim Foxx at its head. (Originally, the Cook County State's Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit agreed to review his case, but when nearly six months went by without progress, Bonjean moved forward with the regular petition process.)
The state filed a response to Myles's petition, claiming that Morris's affidavit was not actually new information since she had already denied that Myles was the shooter in the past, and that not all of the evidence of Wojcik's misconduct was relevant to Myles's case. The state's attorney's office declined to comment on its position in the case for this article, given that an appeal is still pending. ("I'd love to know how the state's attorney defends objecting to a hearing when they must have known how crooked Wojcik is," Bonjean said in an e-mail.)
Then Dennis J. Porter made the February 13 decision that devastated Myles and his family. In his order granting the state's motion to dismiss Myles's petition, Porter said that Wojcik's misconduct in other cases was not necessarily relevant in this case, and that the new evidence from Morris could have been discovered sooner. He added that Michael Hooker's affidavit wouldn't have helped prove Myles's innocence anyway, because Hooker only saw Myles exit Bracey's house right after the shooting, not during it. And above all, Porter ruled that Myles had missed a deadline when filing his 1999 postconviction petition, as a result of which the petition would be invalid even if he supported its arguments.
Bonjean believes that Porter's decision contains glaring errors. Among other arguments, Bonjean's appeal alleges that Porter got a date wrong in claiming that Myles's petition was too late. And at this point in the legal procedure, the petition argues, Porter was not entitled to make factual judgments about whether Myles could have still committed the murder if Hooker's affidavit was true; instead, those judgments must be made after the defendant is allowed to present evidence at a hearing. If Porter had allowed Myles to win a hearing, the appeal says, he would have presented evidence that he could not have had enough time to commit the murder and run back to Bracey's house because his knee was still injured from the Peoria shooting.
Bonjean, who once clashed with Porter on another case, believes he has a personal interest in claiming that Myles is guilty, in order to avoid questions about how he allowed Myles's case to be delayed in his courtroom for so long. "The judge had an incentive, arguably, to deny him so he could say, 'Listen, no harm, no foul,'" Bonjean says. Porter did not return phone messages I left in his courtroom. (Illinois judges are forbidden, by Illinois Supreme Court rule, from commenting on pending cases.)
- Roosevelt Myles and Tonya Crowder
When I interviewed Crowder in her kitchen in Peoria this summer, shortly after my visit with Myles, she admitted she'd been feeling "angry, lonely, frustrated, resentful"—feelings that she had also shared with Myles—about how long it was taking to get to share a relationship unimpeded by his incarceration. She's still dreaming of "the big house and the picket fence, to have a life someplace else, nice, quiet, simple," where they can "travel and love on the grandkids."
That dream had seemed close. Now, she was "back to having my blinders on, walking one day at a time, and not trying to suppress my feelings about the situation." She did perk up a bit, though, when talking about the color scheme she's picked out for her wedding—silver, peach, and green, chosen by her daughter, Justice. Her "something borrowed" for the wedding will be her dress, which was previously her sister's. "I'm just ready to wear it if I'm gonna wear it," she says. "Let's do this, man."
The wait has been tough for Myles-Stephens too. While she agreed to speak with me for this story, she admitted that it was hard to feel motivated to talk to a reporter after previous attention on Myles's case has had little bearing on what happened in the courts. She's "exhausted," she told me. "I'm tired of getting my hopes up and thinking this is gonna be it and this is gonna be it," she says. "I'll just be glad when he gets out."
As he waits for a ruling on his appeal, Myles might have an opportunity to get out of prison before the appellate court even makes a decision. When he was sentenced, people convicted of murder could shave an extra day off their sentence for every day served with good behavior. (That law has since changed.) That puts Myles's discharge date in 2022. But J.B. Pritzker recently signed a law giving inmates who have certain kinds of work experience more sentencing credit. Once in effect January 1, the law applied to Myles's case will mean that he has finished his sentence and could soon be released. He'll get to witness JaRon's high school graduation and meet Jenise's new baby. But getting out will still require Myles to report to the parole board for a time, and he'll still have the conviction on his record. So his fight for his exoneration will continue even after he leaves prison.
For now, Myles and his family are doing their best to be a family. In June, Crowder finally unfroze her Christmas cooking for a Father's Day visit from Jenise, Justice, and Jenise's husband and children, who now live in Louisiana. They feasted and held a baby shower for Jenise, who would soon give birth to her third child. Then on Monday after Father's Day, they had a "two-table" visit with Myles, meaning they got permission to use two tables in the visiting room for the whole family. It wasn't the Christmas dinner they'd originally hoped for but, Myles says, "it was special." vUpdate: Because of an error in IDOC records, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated Roosevelt Myles's age.