Moments after Lee Harris was exonerated

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Tori Marlan | United States

Lee Harris stood before a Cook County criminal court judge on March 16, 2023, for what he thought would be a status update on his post-conviction petition. At 67, he’d been incarcerated for more than three decades for a 1989 murder. The petition argued that evidence had been manipulated and withheld.

In the gallery, behind tinted windows, sat Lee’s brother and sister-in-law; his only child, now 40; old friends from the Chicago housing project he once called home; and his former cellmate Robert Chattler, who’d hired the attorney at Lee’s side. Lee waved.

A quick succession of new information followed: the state no longer opposed post-conviction relief, the conviction vacated, a new trial ordered, charges reinstated. Then, nolle prosequi—Latin words that Lee didn’t understand but that ended his long ordeal. The charges were dropped.

When the lawyers began discussing the logistics of his release, Lee understood that he was finally free. His lawyer thanked the judge, who then turned to him  and said, “All right, Mr. Harris, go live your best life.”

I began practicing street photography in the early 90s. In my free time, I would wander around Chicago with my Canon AL-1 and Yashica TLR and work out of a makeshift darkroom in the tiny pantry of my apartment.

In the decades that followed, I built a career as a journalist, writing longform features and investigative articles for a variety of publications in the US and Canada.

In 2018, I wrote an article for The Marshall Project about an unlikely friendship that developed in cell 403 at Joliet Correctional Center.

Lee Harris, a Black man from the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project and self-described “hustler,” was serving a 90-year-sentence for the high-profile murder of a White woman in an affluent Chicago neighborhood. Robert Chattler was a scrawny Jewish kid from the suburbs who developed a cocaine habit, dropped out of college, and started committing burglaries so he could stay high.

Lee had already been in prison for a decade when Robert appeared in his cell with a startled look on his face. Robert, who’d thrown exactly one punch in his life, told me he wouldn’t have survived his year in the maximum-security prison without Lee’s guidance and friendship. In spite of their cultural differences—and incompatibilities—they bonded in deeply significant ways.

During their time as cellmates, Lee claimed that he’d been wrongfully convicted. After Robert was released, he began looking into the circumstances of the conviction and came to believe in Lee’s innocence. He spent the next two decades trying to prove it.

Among his efforts, he corresponded with the jailhouse informant who’d testified against Lee, had Lee’s entire case file (almost 15,000 pages of police records and court documents) transferred to searchable PDFs, and emptied his savings account to hire attorney Jennifer Blagg. Robert also reached out to me, as I previously had written about criminal-justice issues in Chicago.

A close examination of Lee's case revealed recanted witness testimony, abuses of power, and investigative short cuts. The story I wrote raised questions about the Chicago Police Department’s standard operating procedure, including the way police use and manipulate informants. It also explored the coercive interrogation techniques practiced by the main detective on the case, who went on to lead the Joint Terrorism Task Force’s “enhanced interrogations” of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay prison, with methods that violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The story stuck with me long after it was published. The criminal-justice system had helped Robert get his life together, but it had ruined Lee’s. I was moved by their enduring friendship, the depth of their connection, and the ways they had  helped each other.

Seven years after Jennifer took on Lee’s case—and 33 years after he was taken into custody—she was able to persuade the state of Illinois to exonerate him.

When she texted me in February 2023 to say that it was finally happening, I felt compelled to be there.

These photographs document the acknowledgment of a profound injustice. While the damage can never be fully repaired, the images bear witness to the joy and relief of long-anticipated freedom.

I aimed to capture the emotion of that momentous day: as it sank in for Lee that he was finally free, as he was released from state custody, and as he reunited with Robert and other loved ones.

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