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Man free after 20 years in prison for murder he didn’t commit

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Updated: July 24, 2014 12:38PM

Rodell Sanders spent two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, a jury determined this week.

Finally tasting freedom he fought hard for — spending years learning the law in prison and gathering evidence as his own attorney before reaching out to the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project — Sanders said Wednesday it felt good to be surrounded by his children, his grandchildren and his extended family after so long.

“It’s a beautiful feeling. At the same time, it’s somewhat frightening and scary to step out into the world again,” said Sanders, 49, of Chicago Heights.

Sanders has a federal lawsuit pending against the city of Chicago Heights, several of its police officers and an FBI agent whom his attorneys say conspired to frame him for a Dec. 14, 1993, murder.

His long legal journey began when he was arrested in January 1994 and charged in the case. A couple, Phillip Atkins and Stacy Armstrong, had been forced out of their car by a group of men, taken to an abandoned garage, robbed, shot and left for dead. But Armstrong survived.

Sanders was convicted of murder, attempted murder and armed robbery in 1995 and sentenced to 80 years, all the while maintaining his innocence and providing witnesses who had testified that he had been elsewhere at the time of the murder.

In prison, after neither hired lawyers nor court-appointed ones could help him, he spent years studying the law and every aspect of his case. In 2007, he filed a petition for a post-conviction hearing for a new trial — based on ineffective counsel — and won. The state appealed. The Illinois Appellate Court agreed with the state and required a second hearing.

That’s when Sanders reached out to the Exoneration Project. It took on his case, and U. of C. law students uncovered new evidence that a witness who was a police informant had recanted his statements before Sanders’ trial, actually admitting he had committed the crime. Sanders’ trial attorney never presented that evidence to the jury, the students found.

In 2011, a Cook County judge overturned Sanders’ conviction, ordering a new trial. The state appealed again. This time, the Appellate Court in 2012 affirmed a new trial was warranted.

“He’s unbelievable. He’s missed my marriage, the birth of my children. I’m just glad to have him home,” said Sanders’ daughter, Lynette Booth, who was 13 when her father went to prison.

His first new trial, in August 2013, resulted in a hung jury. But after a five-day second trial, Sanders was acquitted by a jury that returned its verdict Tuesday night after five hours of deliberations.

He walked out of Cook County Jail just before dawn Wednesday.

“This was the result of years of dedicated hard work and some expert lawyering that Rodell did,” said Russell Ainsworth, who handled the case with Gayle Horn, also with the Exoneration Project, with the help of an outside attorney, Steven Greenberg of Greenberg Ltd.

Filed in January 2013, Sanders’ federal lawsuit seeks punitive damages for violations of due process, conspiracy and failure to intervene. The case against him was built solely on the statements of the informant, and the victim who initially described someone who did not match Sanders’s description, according to the lawsuit. Prosecutors also paid the informant thousands of dollars and cut a deal on his own criminal case in exchange for his testimony against Sanders, the lawsuit charges.

For the first time on Wednesday, Sanders was able to hug a second daughter who was born after he went to prison. “I’m just glad I can touch him for the first time,” said Jaquita Jones, now 20 years old.

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