I Served 26 Years for Murder Even Though the Killer Confessed
Illustration by Cornelia Li
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
In 1983, Alton Logan was convicted of killing off-duty Cook County corrections officer Lloyd Wickliffe in a Chicago McDonald's, and sentenced to life in prison. What Logan didn't know was that another man had confessed to the crime.
Andrew Wilson confided his guilt to his attorneys, Dale Coventry and Jamie Kunz, who didn't come forward with the information for more than two decades. The lawyers said they were bound by a sacrosanct rule of legal conduct: attorney-client confidentiality. But according to the lawyers, Wilson agreed they could disclose the confession after his death.
More than two decades later, that day came.
In this excerpt adapted from his new book, Justice Failed: How "Legal Ethics" Kept Me in Prison for 26 Years, Logan and his co-author, journalist Berl Falbaum, describe Logan's ordeal, how he put his life back together after a wrongful conviction, and his hope that no one else will suffer such an injustice.
From the first day I stepped into my cell, anger took control of me. I was 28 years old. I was going behind bars for the rest of my life. No one in prison gave a damn if I was innocent or not.
I talked back to guards and broke rules, not realizing I was only hurting myself. That meant I spent a lot of time in segregation—called "seg" by prisoners. Alone in a cell, I passed the time smoking, reading, and pacing.
I fought the system for about five years. The message I wanted to send was, "You can't break me." I must admit, though, it ain't easy sitting behind bars alone, especially when you know you're innocent.
Eventually, I realized that if I didn't change my attitude, not only would I continue to do time in seg, but if my case went back to court, officials wouldn't give me any sympathy.
So I worked to turn my prison life around. I got a GED. I earned an associate of applied science certificate and a certificate for building maintenance. I took courses in carpentry, electrical installation, typing, and welding.
I also spent a lot of time just trying to survive. Prison, after all, is a place where fights break out constantly, guards are beaten to within an inch of their lives, and prisoners are killed. I kept a homemade metal shank with me always, even tucking it under my pillow while I slept.
Periodically, of course, my anger would return. Like when prison officials refused to let me attend my grandmother's funeral.
Or when my mother was dying of breast cancer, and the authorities offered me a choice: Visit her—for all of 15 minutes—before she died, or attend her funeral. I was furious. My aunt urged me to see her one last time. She was right, of course.
I was shackled like a dog when guards brought me to the hospital. My hands were cuffed, and the cuffs were attached to a chain around my waist. My legs were bound. That is how I saw my dying mother. She urged me to keep my hopes up, and, after 15 minutes, I returned to prison. She died two weeks later.
Before she died, my mother told me over and over again that one day, truth would prevail. I shared her faith that someone, sooner or later, would come forward and say something to free me.
Finally, in November 2007, I got that break.
Andrew Wilson, who was serving a life sentence for the killing of two police officers, died in prison. Soon after, one of Wilson's attorneys, Jamie Kunz, met with my lawyer, Harold Winston, to discuss my case. Kuntz told Winston about the signed affidavit containing Wilson's confession. The document had been hidden away for years in a fireproof strong box at the home of another attorney of Wilson's, Dale Coventry. At one point, he stored it under his own bed.
When Winston called me with the news, I wasn't initially all that confident the affidavit would help me. Yes, it sounded good. But I had been through too much.
I was also upset from the jump. If these lawyers had evidence that I was innocent, how could they not have said anything? While I slept on a prison bunk for 26 years, Coventry was sleeping above a box that might have spared me years in hell.
As word of the confession got out, my case started attracting local media interest. Then 60 Minutes aired a segment. The public was outraged. Many people demanded Kunz and Coventry's disbarment, others recommended they be fined, and some suggested that they be imprisoned for 26 years. Years after my release, Kunz said he never expected such a hostile reaction.
One April morning, I boarded a prison bus to the Cook County Jail, and from there was taken to the courtroom for a hearing on the new evidence in my case. If all went well, by the end of the day, I was going home.
I was elated—and shed many tears—when the judge vacated my convictions and ordered a new trial. I was to be released on bond.
Before entering the free world again, I changed into clothes my family brought me. But the pants, which belonged to my brother Tony, were about three sizes too big, and I didn't have a belt. As we left court, my aunt held up the pants from the back so they didn't fall around my ankles.
I got into a car for the first time in 26 years and went to my aunt's house, where we celebrated with about 50 people. I walked around all night with a bottle of champagne. Life outside was easy to take. But the final decision in my case had yet to be made.
Five months later, I got the resolution I had sought for more than two decades. At a hearing in September 2008, the state dismissed the charges against me. "Your long personal nightmare is over," said Cook County circuit court judge James Schreier. "Hopefully, you will live a long life as a free man."
Finally, my wrong had been righted. Of course, I was still pissed, especially when I thought of the things police and prosecutors did to have me convicted. Six days after my arrest, police had matched a shell found at the McDonald's to a shotgun confiscated while seeking Wilson for the murder of the two cops. But the police hid this from my lawyers. My life would have been very different if the cops and "officers of the court" had done their jobs honestly. Even after we got ballistics tests matching the gun to the shell casing, Cook County chief criminal court judge James Bailey refused to admit the evidence.
But there was no use reliving the past.
Under state law, I was able to petition the court for a certificate of innocence—an official recognition of my exoneration. Most important, I could receive compensation. Because compensation is capped at $199,150, I was eligible for an average of $7,659.61 per year for the time I was imprisoned.
On April 17, 2009, I was formally declared innocent. A few months later, we filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Chicago and several detectives, including the notorious former police commander Jon Burge, who I argued had conspired to build a false case against me irrespective of my guilt or innocence. (For decades, Burge used torture on dozens of mostly African American suspects, usually to extract false confessions. Even though he had committed the crime for which he was convicted, Andrew Wilson sued him for torture, eventually winning a settlement from behind bars. Burge was fired and convicted of perjury for lying about torturing suspects.)
I believed the government owed me something, even if it would never make up for the years I lost. Just before the December trial date—about 30 years after I was arrested—we settled out of court for $10.25 million. After paying lawyers' fees, loans, and other family obligations, I was left with about half.
The city paid the money, but no one in power apologized.
Some people have implied that I shouldn't complain because I received a good settlement. But there is only one thing I wanted: the life that was taken from me.
My mother was gone and so was my grandmother. I lost the best years of my life, years in which people build careers and raise families. I had neither.
I had a 26-year hole in my work record. My resume included the skills I acquired in prison, as well as my certificate of innocence and newspaper stories about what happened to me. But no one would give me a job. I basically retired in my mid-fifties.
My schedule was something like this: Get up in the morning, walk the streets, and visit old friends—the ones who were left. I was suffering from depression, and drinking a lot.
Slowly, I worked my way out of it. I lived with my aunt for six months before moving in with a woman named Terry, who I met at a Labor Day family reunion about a year before going to prison. After I was convicted, we exchanged letters. She attended my court hearings and was very supportive, visiting me frequently. We married in 2013.
One constant in my life has been my faith in God. I believed my prison sentence was His way of teaching me something.
In 2010, I participated in a performance of The Seven Last Words of Christ by Franz Joseph Haydn at the University of Chicago. I was among nine people who read passages, including then president Obama, who prerecorded his in Washington. I read about abandonment, including "by some in our justice system who talk righteously about civil liberties but then, knowingly, allow the most inhumane injustices to occur."
I had firsthand experience with that. Now I pray that the innocent who are imprisoned will hear the steel doors of their cells unlock and will walk out with their heads held high. Even if it takes 26 years.