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The Taste of Freedom

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Illinois

The taste of freedom was like “breathing new life in my body,” said James Harden, 36, upon his release from the Menard Correctional Center on Friday, November 4. Harden was one of five men, called The Dixmoor Five, who were convicted of the rape and shooting death of a middle school classmate, 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews, twenty years ago in Dixmoor, IL. Included in the five was Harden’s half brother, Jonathan Barr. The convictions of Harden, Barr and Robert Taylor were set aside on November 3, 2011 and the State’s Attorney’s Office said that it would soon be filing papers to vacate the convictions of the other two men.

The men were exonerated after DNA testing of semen linked a convicted rapist, who lived in the victim’s neighborhood and had recently been released on parole, to the crime. Recently, another woman came forward with information that she was raped by the same perpetrator at the same location where Matthews’ body was found. Before any of the five men were tried, prosecutors knew that all five men were excluded as the source of the semen. Prosecutors tried the men anyway based on confessions from three of the five, who were 15 to 17 years old at the time. Barr and Harden consistently maintained their innocence. Attorney Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project said:

This is one of the most tragic miscarriages of justice that we’ve seen in this state and perhaps the nation. Even before they were convicted the state had DNA evidence proving that the confessions were false . . .

Since being released, Harden wants to make sure that not only his name, but that the name of his brother is removed completely from anything pertaining to the rape and murder of their former classmate. Harden hopes to personally proclaim his innocence to Cateresa’s mother. “I don’t want that lady thinking we had anything to do with her daughter’s death,” he said.

Now that Harden is a free man, he is uncertain what he will do in the days and weeks ahead. He has no driver’s license, never held a job or finished high school. Sadly, his father and mother died while he was in prison. However, he does have a grandfather living in the Chicago area.

A special thanks to The Innocence Project in New York, the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project, and The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth for your hard work and dedication to this case.

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