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Righting a wrong: after spending 20 years in prison on a wrongful conviction, Algie Crivens III wants to do more than clear his name.

Algie Crivens III was 18 and fresh out of high school in 1991 when he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a murder he id not commit. He spent the next eight-and-a-half years consumed with educating himself while his appeals crawled through the courts.

Crivens is nothing if not energetic; he tends to speak in paragraphs, not sentences. While in prison, he channeled this energy into earning an associate's degree in social science and a bachelor's in sociology. He also took courses in paralegal studies and culinary arts. His fellow prisoners used to ask how he could spend so much time reading. But, to him, reading was a way to escape the boredom of prison life.

Meanwhile, Crivens was appealing his case up through the state courts and then to a federal trial court, spending nearly $30,000 in legal fees. To cover the costs, his family refinanced their home and took out loans, but struggled to come up with more. So he put his paralegal training to use and wrote his own petition to the federal appellate court.

Despite the odds, he succeeded. The court ruled that Cook County prosecutors had concealed the fact that the only witness to identify Crivens as the murderer may have lied. Crivens was then given a new trial and found not guilty. He was released in 2000, and a pardon by then-Gov. George Ryan later entitled him to collect $128,000 in restitution. He now works at the Illinois Department of Employment Security, evaluating applicants for unemployment insurance, and also volunteers for state Pep. Connie Howard, a South Side Democrat, who is working on legislation on ex-offender issues.

But he was not about to forget what had happened. After paying back his family and setting himself up in a house, he brought a civil rights suit against his prosecutors in 2003.

Crivens has read enough case law to know that winning such a suit is a long shot. In fact, he's so versed in legal matters that, in a conversation, he effortlessly discusses complicated court proceedings and dissects the psychology of judges and prosecutors. His confidence shows as he stresses his words by tucking in his chin and peering at the listener over his glasses.

In March 2004, the state trial court ruled against Crivens, but he remains determined; his appeal is now pending.

Crivens recently talked with The Chicago Reporter about his experiences.

What was prison life like?

I ran across a wide range of people. Some people were friendly. Some people were closed-off because of their circumstances. They couldn't understand why I was doing all this reading.

Chess was my thing. A lot of my activities and conversations happened over a chess game, teaching people how to play chess, teaching people how to think beyond the circumstances, to fight your way through. Even a pawn can become a queen on a chess board, the most powerful piece. The conversations that you had with individuals--some of them helped to carry me forward even today.

How did your prison record affect your life outside?

I had paralegal experience; I had culinary arts experience; I had an associate's degree; I had a bachelor's degree--but I couldn't get a job at McDonald's because I was still labeled a murderer, an ex-offender, a felon. You come out and think that, because you've been exonerated by a judge, everything should be fine, and that your life should be able to move forward. But it wasn't like that. It was like, 'Here we go--we've got to fight again.'

But it wasn't as demeaning as most people made it appear to be. I was happy to be working, and I was happy to be free. I thought about it many times, that I should be doing something way more than this. But you have to start somewhere--you know, I was willing to swallow my pride, to do what I had to do in order to start making a living for myself.

When I got out, it was right around my class reunion time, and I was able to go to that. And that was really special to see some of those individuals. And they embraced me.

Are there days when you just want to get far away from all of it?

I try to, but there's no escaping your mind. If you watch TV, there might be something that might remind you. Or you look at the clock and say, 'Oh, at this time of day, I may have been locked up in a cell.' These are psychological things that you have to overcome.

I always want to get out of the house, even if I just go walk around, or get up and go outside for a moment just to look--just to make sure that it is reality that I am free. I'm getting past a lot of it, and sometimes I'm able to laugh and joke about it, to lighten the blow.

You have to break out of that narrow little box that they had you in, because this is a great big world, and, if you still think like you [used to] think, you're going to be left behind.

What change would you make to the prison system?

If we're going to make people useful and productive citizens to contribute to society once they're released from incarceration, we have to work on reform. There has to be certain steps like mandatory education while you're incarcerated--something besides just warehousing. Every time that an individual returns through that revolving door and goes back in the penitentiary, it costs us even more money.

Tell me about your case against the prosecutors.

The lawsuit is centered around the willful and knowing withholding of evidence that was pertinent to the case by the prosecutors. The prosecutors try to claim [immunity], and we're challenging whether or not this immunity infringes upon my constitutional rights to redress a wrong. The prosecutor's office thinks that there is no redressing this. They think that, whatever they have done, they can be protected by prosecutorial immunity.

I see this case more deeply than probably what it is. This case may go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. [Prosecutorial immunity] has never been challenged constitutionally. Sometimes you have to challenge things just to see. Sometimes you are going to go broke; sometimes you are going to be crying at night. But, in the end, you have to do what's right. Prosecutorial immunity is good because it protects a lot of people from frivolous lawsuits, but, for lawsuits that are legitimate, prosecutors have to be held accountable. I'm going to keep fighting, even if I have to pay my lawyer in dimes and nickels.

We dealt with police brutality, you know, so that people are held accountable for their actions. So why not the prosecutor who uses his pen or moves paperwork? We have to make society aware that, when a wrong is done, it will be redressed. I'm sorry that the citizens of Illinois, or of Cook County, have to pay the price for a few prosecutors who have done wrong, but it must stop.

Are you still angry at the state's attorney?

I have sat at a table with the state's attorney. I haven't discussed the case per se with him. I try to stay professional and deal with the situation at hand, but it kind of--it tugs at your soul. It's difficult, but I don't look at it as though I should be mad at him. There's many others in the state of Illinois [who] suffered under the hands of prosecutorial misconduct; it's not just me.

Did they ever solve the murder?

No, they have not tried anyone; they have not pursued any investigation. Their whole case rested on the myth that I did it, and, after I was proven not to do it, it would seem logical that you would look for the individual who did it, but that's not how it works in the world.
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Article Details
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Author:Ibara, Liliana
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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