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Mom free after conviction in son’s death overturned

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Updated: March 27, 2013 6:14AM

DWIGHT, Ill. — In a whitewashed cinderblock waiting area Monday, Nicole Harris clung to her son, not wanting to let go.

When Harris released him, she noticed — with surprise — the rough scrape of his cheek. “Puberty,” she said.

There will surely be many more adjustment moments like this for Harris, a Chicago woman released Monday from Dwight Correctional Center after spending almost eight years behind bars for strangling her 4-year-old son — a criminal conviction a federal appeals court threw out last October.

It was Harris’ older son, Diante — the boy the appeals court ruled was wrongly barred from testifying that the death was a tragic accident — who embraced Harris first on Monday.

Now 14, Diante entered the prison carrying a brown teddy bear and a silver balloon.

“There aren’t any words — it was just overwhelming,” a beaming Harris said of the reunion with her son, who was 6 when she was last a free woman.

Harris had been locked up since May 2005, when she allegedly used the elastic from a bedsheet to strangle little Jaquari Dancy in a rage at their Northwest Side home. Convicted a year later based primarily on a confession she later recanted, she was sentenced to 30 years behind bars.

In October, a federal appellate court ruled that the then-6-year-old Diante was wrongly prevented from testifying that the death was a tragic accident.

Diante — who was in the top bunk when Jaquari died below him — would have testified that Jaquari wrapped the elastic around his own neck as part of a “Spider-Man game,” accidentally asphyxiating himself while their mother was at a nearby laundry.

Prosecutors have yet to decide whether they plan to retry the case, said Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

On Monday, after Harris embraced Diante and a host of other friends and relatives, she disappeared into a prison room marked “Shakedown,” leaving her prison gray sweats and white T-shirt in a waste basket, before emerging in a pair of designer jeans and an olive windbreaker.

“It’s too small,” Harris said self-consciously of her new clothes.

“No, you look wonderful,” someone replied.

At precisely noon, a prison employee announced to the gathering, “You’re free to go, folks.”

With that, Harris walked out — hand-in-hand with best friend Joyce Reed — into the fresh air, leaving behind the razorwire-topped fences gleaming in the sunlight.

Contributing: Kim Janssen

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