For the fortunate among us, Thursday is a day to give thanks for the love of family and friends, the necessities of food and shelter, and the right to individual freedom and personal security.
Those less fortunate, however, are not necessarily less grateful. The opposite can be true, even for people whose lives have been shattered by injustice -- the wrongfully convicted and their families. Instead of being consumed by bitterness, they often delight in the simple pleasures that many take for granted.
As Thanksgiving approached, I caught up with five of the subjects of my stories in the last year and asked them the same question: What, if anything, are you grateful for? Here is what they said, accompanied by snapshots of their ordeals.
Eric Caine. At age 21, Caine was beaten by police into falsely confessing to a double homicide and imprisoned for the next quarter of a century. His parents died while he was behind bars. Friends and family turned their backs on him. He was finally freed in 2011, but was penniless until a judge recently approved his certificate of innocence, enabling him to collect $8,000 for each year of unjust confinement. He currently is a manual laborer for a temporary employment agency.
"What am I grateful for? Is that a rhetorical question? [laughs] What I'm thankful for is God answered my prayers. In all those years, 25 years, I never prayed for myself. I never, ever prayed for myself. I always prayed: 'God, don't let nobody in my family be killed by violent means.' And they weren't. I'm thankful for that and grateful for those who did believe in me from the beginning: My mother, my grandmother, my father and my cousin... and for those who fight on behalf of other innocent prisoners. And I am thankful to be alive and free today."
For more about Caine's story, click here.
Joel Serrano. An infant when his father Armando was convicted of murder in 1994, Joel was raised by paternal family members. His and brother Danny's earliest memories involved visiting their father in prison, where he is serving 55 years based solely on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who later recanted his testimony. For Father's Day, Joel produced a moving video tribute to his father. The Serranos hope to reunite in the free world after Armando's innocence petition is heard early next year by a Cook County judge. Now 19, Joel is studying music at Columbia College.
"Life without my pops is difficult, especially when I know he was taken out of my life for something he didn't do. Although times do get hard and thinking about his situation does get stressful, I can't say I'm not grateful. I have a family that loves and cares for me, and have built an incredible foundation for my brother and me. I have an amazing father who I wouldn't trade the world for. He may not be in our lives as most normal dads would, but he is definitely there for us when we need him. It's amazing how someone who isn't physically with you on a daily basis knows me better then those that are constantly around me. Guess that's the father and son connection we share. No matter how hard life gets and knocks me down, I'll get right back up and continue with my head held high. That's what my dad teaches me and I'm grateful for that. Not a day goes by where I don't feel blessed, But I can't wait to share my first Thanksgiving with my dad at home."
For more about the Serrano case, click here.
Darrell Williams. A Chicago hoops star who transferred to Oklahoma State University after his older brother was murdered, Williams became the Cowboys' starting forward and an honors student -- until he was jailed for rape by instrumentation. The uncorroborated accusations were made by two young women with a history of emotional problems. After a series in the Huffington Post exposed the injustice, an Oklahoma judge freed Williams last month but allowed his conviction to stand. Returning to Chicago, he appealed the conviction and began work at the business of a HuffPost reader who was inspired by his story. Williams, 23, will finish college at Kentucky Wesleyan, where he will resume his basketball career in January.
"I'm thankful for God, thankful for my family -- my mother and my sister, my aunts, and my brother and all I learned from him. He taught me so much. And for my daughter, she motivates me every single day. [She was born the day Williams was indicted.] I'm also thankful to the Huffington Post for writing the truth. That changed everything. And I'm thankful for my community and all my supporters."
For more about Williams' story, click here.
Stanley Wrice. It apparently doesn't matter to Cook County special prosecutor Stuart Nudelman that Wrice's confession to a gang rape was obtained after he was tortured by Chicago cops under the command of Jon Burge. Nudelman is arrogantly ignoring the Illinois Supreme Court's unanimous rejection of his stance on Wrice's case -- that the torture was "harmless error." And, he is seemingly oblivious to the fact that three witnesses, including the actual perpetrators, have sworn that Wrice is innocent. Instead, Nudelman has used endless delays to deny justice to the 59-year-old Wrice, who has been behind bars for 30 years. On Monday, Nudelman's legal team stunningly claimed that Wrice had not proven that his confession resulted from the undisputed torture that preceded it. The case was continued until after Thanksgiving. But the all-white Nudelman team has never been slow to pick up their paychecks from the county: $1.51 million for defending police torture claims by all-black victims.
[Wrice] "I have been blessed to be of sound mind. There are people in here [the Pontiac Correctional Center] that were so lost and stayed lost. And I am thankful for starting to establish a good relationship with my daughters. That I am still playing [basketball] as well as the young prisoners. I thank God for my attorney Heidi [Lambros] who has stood by me all these years and helped my case move ahead. I am grateful that the [appellate and supreme courts] finally found in my favor and gave me relief, and for [the Chicago Innocence Project] who has helped me show the courts my innocence. And that I am still alive."
For more about Wrice's story, click here.
Jacques Rivera. It was hard enough spending two decades in prison for a murder he did not commit, but then Rivera discovered that the cops were told he was innocent almost from the start. The state's star witness, a 12-year-old boy, had repeatedly admitted that he'd made a mistake -- before Rivera's trial. When this evidence emerged in 2010, Cook County prosecutors continued to fight Rivera's release, and, after he was finally freed last year, they opposed compensation provided by state law. Their argument: Rivera had failed to prove his innocence. At age 47, Rivera finally prevailed after living with his mother to make ends meet. He has filed a federal civil rights suit against the authorities and currently works at Northwestern University unloading and delivering medical supplies.
"This will be my second Thanksgiving since my release. My first Thanksgiving I was grateful for my freedom and spending time with my family. This year I am still grateful for freedom and family but also, I am more so grateful to those who made it possible and who fight for the wrongfully convicted. So this year I would like to say thank you to Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions and the other agencies who fight for the innocent. Without you all, freedom for the innocent would not be possible. I'd like to wish everyone and their families a Happy Thanksgiving."
For more about Rivera's story, click here.
Echoing Rivera's wish: Happy Thanksgiving, faithful readers. What are you grateful for this year?