A Chicago woman whose conviction in the death of her 4-year-old son was overturned walked out of prison Monday, eight years after she was locked up for what she always insisted was a tragic accident.
Nicole Harris walked into the reception area of Dwight Correctional Center and into the arms of her other son, now 13, who has long said that his mother did not strangle his little brother. The boy has said his brother died after an elastic band for a plastic bed sheet became wrapped around his neck, but he wasn't allowed to testify at his mother's trial.
"I just held him and I just did not let him go," the 31-year-old mother said in a telephone interview on her way back to Chicago, just minutes after her reunion with her son, then added with a chuckle: "I think he's sick of me already."
Harris's release came four months after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her conviction. The court ruled that the trial judge wrongfully prevented her older son, Diante Dancy, who was 6 at the time, from testifying that his brother's death was an accident. Defense attorneys say he was the only witness to 4-year-old Jaquari's death.
But prosecutors contend the older boy was asleep when his younger brother died, and they note that Harris confessed during a videotaped interrogation. Her attorneys say the confession was coerced, and the court in its ruling questioned its reliability.
The court decided last week to grant a motion filed by Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions to release her pending the state's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Steve Drizin, the center's legal director. Prosecutors are also reviewing the case to determine whether they will try Harris again.
The state attorney's office did not immediately return a call for comment Monday. However, prosecutors are likely studying Harris' videotaped confession and the circumstances surrounding it. Harris has long maintained she confessed only after detectives threatened her and refused to give her food or water during a 27-hour interrogation.
Although Harris says in the videotaped confession that police had treated her well, the appellate court said there were "reasons to question its reliability." The ruling also said Diante's testimony would have been so powerful that, had the jury been allowed to hear from the boy, the court was confident jurors would have returned a different verdict.
Harris' attorneys declined to allow her to talk about the case Monday. But she did talk about finally getting to leave prison with her son -- who didn't know his mother was actually leaving prison, her attorneys said. The teen thought he was there just to visit his mother.
Shortly before she was released at exactly noon Monday, Harris said she had no plans other than to return to Chicago.
"I just want to be wherever Diante is," she said