Justice

What it's Like to Spend 22 Years in Prison for a Crime You Didn't Commit

The story of how Tyrone Hood, a 29-year-old, married man with three children who worked blue-collar odd jobs on Chicago’s South Side, found himself facing a 75-year sentence for the armed robbery and murder of a man he’d never met, is inauspicious from the get-go.

On May 8, 1993, Marshall Morgan, a promising young basketball player at the Illinois Institute of Technology went missing, and a little more than a week later, a car was found with Morgan’s body, mostly naked and pocked with three bullet holes. In the front seat, beer bottles lay strewn on the floor––some of which bore Hood’s fingerprints.

Detectives used the prints, along with testimony from Hood’s friends, as well as neighbors who claimed they saw the murder happen, to put Hood in the car at the time of Morgan’s killing, and to convict him accordingly. But throughout it all, Hood maintained his innocence. As the years passed, allegations surfaced that police had coerced confessions from Hood’s friends and also that officers had been paying at least one witness to cooperate. (One detective in the case, Kenneth Boudreau, was found to have 38 allegations of misconduct by the Chicago Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission in 2012, according to The New Yorker.)

But perhaps the lynchpin of Hood’s innocence was the dubious presence of Morgan’s estranged father, who, just months before reentering his son’s life, took out a life insurance policy for $44,000. It would later emerge that Morgan Sr. had murdered a fiancé in a nearly identical manner and collected on a $100,000 policy. In 2001, he was convicted of shooting yet another girlfriend and stuffing her­­––still alive––in the trunk of a car. Hood’s lawyers hold to the theory that after killing his son, Morgan Sr. grabbed bottles from a nearby dumpster and tossed them into the car to cover his tracks. That dumpster was nearby the school where he worked as a janitor, and also, coincidentally, a few blocks from Hood’s residence.

I first heard about this story through Nicholas Shcmidle’s excellent New Yorker piece detailing the case in the magazine last August. Then in January, with heaps of exonerating evidence, outgoing Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn commuted Hood’s sentence, along with granting 43 other clemency petitions. This month, Hood's conviction was dismissed by a Chicago criminal court. Recently, with the help of Eva Nagao of the Exoneration Project, I spoke to Hood about his experience transitioning from life on the outside, to the inside, and back out again. 

Editor’s note: this transcript has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

ATTN: What was it like transitioning from life as a free man to a life in prison with no foreseeable end?

Tyrone Hood: When I got convicted and went to the penitentiary, it didn’t register to me, it just didn’t register. I just couldn’t believe that I had been convicted. I took on information little by little as to, man, this is how I’ve gotta live, totally different? So I just had to live and learn a new way of living, which I didn’t like at all, I just didn’t like it. I always used to wonder how long it would take for me to get used to that lifestyle, and I never did, I never got used to it.

Was there a decision you made about how you would choose to live your life while in prison?

TH: I looked at how a lot of people how were living, other inmates, and how comfortably they were living. I couldn’t fix myself to live or be comfortable in that place, I just couldn’t. If it took me giving everything I had to get out, then that’s what I was gonna do. Now, state pay was $10 per month. I would take half of that and buy [toiletries], which I needed. And the other half, I would buy [pre-paid envelopes] and paper, and I would write organizations that I thought could help me. Even the court system––the clerk’s office––because I was still filing appeal petitions, so I had to have money for that.

I even got a job and half of that [$40 per month] I was making went right back into the system as postage, write-outs, copies of certain things. So I had a choice to either spend all of this money, the whole $10 at commissary, and just eat it and just forget about it and the process of my appeals, or even help attorneys that were working on my appeals. Even if I had to $2, I was determined to do that.

Were there many others doing the same thing?

TH: Well, some people, I later found out, they would give all their money and owe the state, they would go in the red filing lawsuits, frivolous law suits for nothing, wasting time and the money they give you. [I]t was just a handful that did what I did.

How many years had you been writing people, trying to find representation? And what did it feel like when you found out someone was willing?

TH: I felt really, really relieved. Really relieved.

2007-8 I think is when a non-profit law firm came to me and agreed to take the case. Other than that, I’d say for at least 10 years straight from the time I came out of that county jail to the penitentiary. That’s when and I made up my mind to start searching for organizations that could help me. So that’s 10 years, and then it took another seven years for that law firm to help me attain my freedom. So all in all, that little saving half of my state pay paid off.

Did it ever occur that you wouldn’t succeed? Did you ever give up hope?

TH: I always had this deep feeling that I’m not going to do this whole sentence, that I was gonna get out before then. Half of my thought on that was if I continue to be persistent in trying to get somebody to see all this evidence of my innocence, I’m bound to get out. I couldn’t imagine a world, or a city, or the United States, knowing this evidence against me doesn’t fit me and that I am innocent and they just ignoring my cry for help. I just couldn’t see it.

I can only imagine that that was a painful 10 years.

TH: Yeah the whole, 22 years.

The whole 22 years, and then 10 without very much hope.

TH: Yeah there were times when I just had to numb myself from certain things, and just keep moving on with time.

What did time feel like when you were locked up?

It’s slow, very, very slow. If you talk about an hour in freedom time, in prison time, that’s a day; a week is like a month. It just seems like time is at a standstill when a person’s in prison…they’re still listening to cassette tapes.

Obviously, it must have been especially painful because you were innocent.

TH: Yeah, you know I used to tell people; it might have been all right for me emotionally to deal with the penitentiary life if I was guilty. I used to see other people around, just so relaxed and doing things and going about their way living their life in prison, but I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t relax like them. There’d been times when I used to say ‘why me?’ I used to numb myself from thinking about certain things I had to go through in the penitentiary, the lifestyle. It could be as simple as how the officers were running their house. I don’t say penitentiary, I say house because it was never mine, that place was never my house. They don’t ask you ‘can you get up, can you leave the cell?’ They say ‘get up, get out the cell right now.’ Day in and day out I’m introduced to language such as that. In a way, that was torment. Every day on some level I’m being tormented.

It took almost 22 years for the state to realize it had made a mistake in locking you up. Did it drive you mad thinking about what was blocking them from realizing that?

TH: Yeah, I was to the point like, well what else do I have to do? I reached out to everybody I could reach out to, what else do I have to do? Well if this don’t work, ain’t nothing gonna work while I’m in here––but I wasn’t going to give up.

Your conviction was recently cleared from your record. Now that your prison persona is behind you, how has it been transitioning back into normalcy?

TH: It’s a challenge. [B]efore I got locked up I knew what I needed to do, but now, it’s like I gotta learn all this stuff over. And it is a challenge with the things I’m facing, [but] I know I have to succeed in getting these things done…because some of the technology has changed at least 96 percent, so I’ve gotta learn from scratch.

I do feel a little fear, as if, am I gonna be able to complete what needs to be done? But for every test that comes towards me, I know I gotta take my time with it.

What are some difficulties you’ve had so far?

TH: Setting up doctor’s appointments, going to these appointments, transportation, do I have enough information to give these people when I get there?

What about with getting a job?

TH: It’s the same thing. When I go out to look for a job, it’s always going to be in the back of my mind: what am I going to say when they ask me have you ever been locked up? But even, what’s my resume for the last 22 years—what’s that look like? The fear I have about that is not getting one, but then how am I gonna survive? I mean people have donated money to me; relatives give me money, right? That’s not gonna last. That’s gonna run out. And it’s shrinking real fast, and it’s like I gotta stop the bleeding and get out here and do something.

Number one, I gotta make sure I get out there and try to make a living for myself. But right now I’m just taking what’s in front of me that’s important: my health, I’m getting that taken care of. The next thing I’m thinking about is my driver’s license, getting that and getting a car. I get a car, I get a job. It has to go in that order.

Have you come to terms with the time you lost behind bars? You had a family before, too. Are you reconnecting with them?  

TH: Yeah, before I got locked up, yeah, I had a family. I’m taking baby steps, trying to do whatever I can. I’m having a good connection with one of my oldest sons, Tyrone, [and] I’m having a good connection with my daughter, Shante. And my middle son, I’m trying my best to reach out to him.

[J]ust going to the park with them, teaching them how to drive, a lot of stuff I used to think about. I would never get that, never get that back…I know I’m not going to get that time back. I just need help. Yeah [the state] should be helping me with medical organizations, or we gonna help you get this medical problem taken care of, we gonna help you get this driver’s license, we gonna help you get this job, stable place to stay, all that. [But] I gotta do that on my own. They messed up my life completely, but I have to at least try to see if I can patch it up.

I don’t even know how to go out to the store and buy clothes that match, my niece has to show me that. I don’t even know how to pump gas, or pay a bill, or use the cell phone, or the Internet. But at the same time, everything that I named, I know that when I’m learning I have to take my time. When I get frustrated with something I’ve just gotta walk away, give myself a breather, and then come back because these things I do need to learn on my own. At some point I’m going to need them to survive today’s life. I just know its important and take my time and stop worrying about how I’m going to pay for this, how I’m going to get this, how I’m going to do this, do that––I just don’t know. I’m just taking it one day at a time. Say, for instance, I have $20 in my pocket, I’m scared to spend that because if it’s gone, what am I going to do?

 

See more of Tyrone's story below: