The last detail: Seeking a pardon 14 years after release

Wrongfully jailed Chicago man, exonerated in 2000, still fighting for full pardon from governor

During the eight years Wilder "Ken" Berry was in prison for a kidnapping and a sexual assault he didn't commit, there were many nights after lockdown when he would look outside his cell window at the moon and wish he was anyplace else.

Now nearly 14 years after winning his freedom, Berry, 44, sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and walks out onto his front porch in Chicago's Rosemoor neighborhood to gaze up at the sky.

"When you're in prison, you realize you don't just miss the milestones in your life, but every little thing matters," said Berry, who was sentenced to 35 years.

Since his Dec. 23, 1999, release, Berry has more than regained his footing.

A single father, he has two children in whose lives he's deeply engaged. His 8-year-old son lives with him, and his 5-year-old daughter lives with her mom. He's a senior paralegal at Winston & Strawn, one of the city's biggest law firms, and has worked closely with lawyers on pro bono cases. In 2009, Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Berry to sit on the Illinois Department of Corrections Advisory Board.

The one major piece missing from Berry's life has been a pardon, which he's been trying to get since 2000. His most recent petition was submitted to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in 2010. The board considers clemency petitions and then makes recommendations to the governor.

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said that when the governor took office he inherited a backlog of more than 2,500 clemency petitions and has acted on the majority of them, plus some that have come along in recent years. She said Berry's petition is on Quinn's desk and remains under review.

"The governor has made it a priority to regularly review and act on clemency petitions," she said. "Each case varies in complexity, but once he's reached a decision, he acts promptly."

U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, who ruled in 1999 that Berry should be released from prison, told me that Berry's criminal defense attorney "blew his case and then lied about it." The attorney was later disbarred.

Gettleman said that although he couldn't comment on Berry's pardon petition, he believes Berry has led a "remarkable" life.

"He's gotten involved with prison reform work, and he's on the board of (the prison reform group) the John Howard Association (of Illinois)," Gettleman told me. "He's got boundless energy, and he's the real thing. Not only did we free a man who should never have been convicted, but we freed a man who has given back to the community in ways we never expected."

Cook County Judge Michael Toomin, who sentenced Berry to the 35 years, wrote Berry a letter last year saying that although he couldn't insert himself into the petition process, Berry's case was strong and compelling and he would say this to the governor if asked.

There are two types of pardons in Illinois: Ex-inmates seek one type when they're hoping to clear their record for employment purposes or because they want to show they've truly changed their lives.

The other type is a pardon based on innocence. And that's what Berry has sought since he first petitioned then-Gov. George Ryan and was denied without comment. Then in 2004, Berry petitioned Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Another denial came in 2006.

At the time, a Blagojevich spokeswoman said, "There are an abundance of facts and circumstances in this case that led Gov. Blagojevich to deny clemency."

After the pardon was denied, Berry sought another remedy — a court order to have his arrest records expunged. Cook County Chief Judge Paul Biebel granted it in September 2006.

But the expungement, or sealing of all records, is not the same as a pardon based on innocence, which would be a formal acknowledgment that he was not guilty, and would allow him to be compensated for the years he was wrongfully imprisoned. Berry said it also would be the final chapter to a story he'll one day have to share with his children.

He said that when his record was expunged Chicago police sent him the original police report from 1991 and the card with his fingerprints.

"I can't describe the feeling when I got that stuff in the mail," said Berry. "Right now if I go to the Chicago Police Department and do a fingerprints check, I should get a note saying, 'You have no rap sheet.'"

"I feel like almost everything I used to have has been restored," he said. "I even got my Illinois State Police-issued firearms owners identification card back."

On Halloween night 1991, Berry was a 22-year-old University of Chicago campus police officer when he said he met a young woman and they had sex. Sixteen days later Berry was arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping and aggravated criminal sexual assault.

On March 5, 1992, he was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

"I remember going from Cook County Jail to (Stateville prison near) Joliet and it reminds you of being chained and shackled like a slave," said Berry.

He got a job in the prison's law library and, to win his freedom, read everything he could about the law. He wrote letters to attorneys and reporters, among others, and worked on his appeal while assisting other prisoners with theirs. He also earned a bachelor's degree in social science through a Roosevelt University program.

A Tribune reporter researched Berry's case and interviewed witnesses who had seen Berry and the young woman together. Other evidence showed Berry had given her his real name and pager number and that he had left her alone in his car before they went to his home.

Winston & Strawn took over Berry's case in late 1996 and eventually helped him win his release. In 2000, he was retried and a jury acquitted him of all charges.

Berry said that for a while, he'd given up on the pardon, but the September death of his mother, Idella Berry, reinspired his mission.

"I've been able to publicly acknowledge how much my mother supported me through this entire ordeal," he said. "She raised all of her children to be fighters, and I just think she would want me to keep fighting."

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