The road back from a wrongful conviction

As she marks her 32nd birthday Sunday, Nicole Harris is navigating job interviews and graduate school applications. She's discovering just how delicate the relationship between a mother and her teenage son can be. She is constantly on the hunt for a good book.

Yet still there are moments she yearns for the quiet of her prison cell.

Nine years ago, Harris was a young mother of two who'd overcome tremendous obstacles to earn a college degree. Her boys, Jaquari and Diante, were just 4 and 5, but she was already thinking about where she might someday send them to college.

Then Jaquari died. And she was convicted of killing him.

Harris spent almost eight years behind bars before an appeals court, raising serious questions about her conviction, reversed it. And on a bright winter day nearly a year ago, she was set free.

Harris emerged from prison still mourning her son but determined not to give in to bitterness. Soft-spoken, with deep brown eyes and side-swept bangs, Harris is quick to smile. Her penchant for hugs is a testament to her optimism and to the person she was before her life unraveled.

"When it first happened, of course I was angry," she said. "As years went on, I began to understand that there are evil people in this world, and sometimes we suffer at the hands of them. Injustice happens. But it's a matter of how you respond to it, and anger would have done more hurt and harm to me than good."

Instead, she chose hope. Hope that she can make up for lost time with the son she watched grow up under the florescent lights of the prison's communal visiting room. That employers will recognize her innocence. That she can overcome the hurdles that can overwhelm any exoneree, specifically female exonerees.

A bright future

Jaquari died on a Saturday in May.

Harris and her longtime boyfriend, Sta'Von Dancy, had just moved with their sons back to Chicago after spending four years downstate while Harris attended Southern Illinois University. With Harris' psychology degree in hand, the family settled into an apartment on the Northwest Side with bunk beds for the boys. The future had never looked so bright.

That fateful spring day in 2005, Harris and Dancy had left the boys home alone with strict instructions to stay inside while they went to the laundromat across the street. Harris said later that she regretted leaving them but that she didn't know anyone nearby to baby-sit.

They started a load and came back to find the boys outside. Harris struck them with a belt, then sent them to their room. Having worked a double shift the night before, Dancy fell asleep. Harris went back to retrieve the dry clothes.

When she returned, Dancy was carrying Jaquari in his arms. He had discovered the boy with an elastic cord wrapped tightly around his neck. The cord had come loose from his fitted bedsheet.

Diante had been in the room with his younger brother. He told authorities that he saw Jaquari wrap the cord around his neck while playing, something his father had testified that he'd seen Jaquari do before, according to court records. But Diante was barred from testifying at trial in part because he believed Spider-Man, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy were real.

Harris' interrogation spanned 27 hours. Police believed that she killed her son because he wouldn't stop crying, then returned to finish the laundry. Harris said police threatened her, told her she failed a polygraph (something police disputed in court documents) and promised she could go home if she cooperated.

Aching to see Diante, Harris confessed.

She was 23. She said afterward that she believed a judge would surely realize her confession was false and let her go. But only five months later — an extraordinarily speedy outcome for a murder case, which often take years to go to trial — she was convicted and later sentenced to 30 years.

It was Diante who eventually helped free her. A federal appeals court found that his testimony was too powerful to have been excluded and threw out her conviction.

The opinion, written by 7th U.S. Circuit Court Appellate Judge David Hamilton, outlined a number of questions about Harris' confession, which the three-judge panel later called "essentially the only evidence against her."