Living With Conviction: The James Tillman Story
As James Tillman sat next to Goodwin College President Mark Scheinberg at orientation, emotion got the best of him.
As tears welled in his eyes, he reflected on the opportunity ahead. Before prison, he had never taken education seriously. Now, two decades after he was wrongfully identified as the assailant in a brutal rape attack, Tillman was a college student.
The time between — 18 years behind bars — had chastened, but not broken, his spirit. One might expect Tillman to be filled with anger following his unjust imprisonment. On the contrary, he has emerged a man of great faith, now eager to inspire others, including his fellow students.
“Sometimes you have to go through something in your life to help bring about changes in other people’s lives,” said Tillman, interviewed in a study lounge buzzing with students who, no matter their challenges, cannot imagine the injustice Tillman endured.
False Accusation, Imprisonment
Life would change one night in 1988, when police took 26-year-old James Tillman into custody. It wasn’t Tillman’s first brush with the law, but everything else had been relatively minor. This was different. The crime was heinous — nothing Tillman would have ever gotten mixed up in. But how could he convince the authorities he was innocent? They had already made up their minds — Tillman was their only suspect.
Days before, a woman had been raped and robbed leaving a bar in downtown Hartford. The only witness was the victim. Police asked her to flip through a series of mug shots and see if she recognized her attacker. She pointed to Tillman’s picture.
On that evidence, a jury convicted Tillman and sentenced him to 45 years in prison. Years later, when the actual rapist was found, a judge remarked that the only thing Tillman was guilty of was an uncanny resemblance to the perpetrator. So the victim’s mistake might be understandable. The justice system’s mistake was not, which is why the Connecticut Legislature passed special legislation to provide compensation to Tillman after his release.
As the years went by, Tillman never wavered in maintaining his innocence. He admits that his hope faded as one appeal after another was thrown out of court.
“It was hard, but I had to believe that one day, I would be free. But as the years went by, I started to wonder,” he said.
Anger and Faith
Tillman admits that anger almost got the best of him during his first years of incarceration. Embittered by the betrayal of the justice system, he felt consumed by the fundamental unfairness of his situation. The very assumption that he could have committed such a crime was offensive to him. An all-white jury convicted him based on a flawed victim identification, and no one wanted to hear his side of the story.
Then, there was the stark reality of prison culture. Prison takes individuals whose problems with self control make them incompatible with society and mashes them together. The resulting environment is less than humane — a no-man’s land where status, suspicion, and retribution rule everyday life. “You had to be on guard constantly,” he remembers. “These are dangerous people, unpredictable.”
But as weeks, months, and years ground by, forgiveness and faith began to take root. Tillman studied the Bible, and gave himself — and his bitterness — to Christ. He was particularly inspired by the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob who was sold into servitude by his brothers. Once in Egypt, Joseph was falsely imprisoned before being released as an advisor to the pharaoh, ultimately guiding his new country through famine and reconciling with his family.
Tillman also took comfort in the book of Job, who in the Bible was tormented but nonetheless held his faith in God. Tillman drew inspiration from that story and began to serve a different purpose within the walls of the prison.
Other inmates took notice of Tillman’s progression into faith. To them, Tillman represented the possibility of reform and hope. Tillman possessed the fearlessness and self assurance of a man who knew he was saved. This inner light helped diffuse some tense situations without violence.
Tillman remembers when a fellow inmate — a huge and violent man — approached him and said “I’ve been watching you.” The words sounded menacing, and Tillman braced himself for a fight. But Tillman had read the situation wrong. “I’ve been watching how you carry yourself in here,” the man added, confiding that he respected Tillman’s faith and composure and wanted to emulate him.
Another inmate took a shine to Tillman for culinary reasons. Tillman had stocked his cell with a variety of soups purchased from the prison canteen. One day, a younger inmate approached and asked for a can. “Sure,” Tillman told him, “I’ll give you some soup if you can quote me some scripture.” “Jesus wept,” the inmate responded. That was all he could manage, but it earned him a can of soup. The next day, and the next, and the next, the inmate returned with longer verses. After a week, he offered to return the favor. “James, can I get you some food?” he asked.
Taking Up The Cause
Consisting of just two attorneys, Karen Goodrow and Brian Carlow, the Connecticut Innocence Project was a tiny operation with big ambitions when it took up Tillman’s cause in 2006. This small but tenacious division of the Public Defenders office fought tirelessly to have DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case. They won, and the result exonerated Tillman and wound up implicating another man. On June 6, 2006, Tillman walked out of prison a free man.
Tillman’s case has become a rallying cry for activists seeking to test DNA evidence in possible wrongful convictions. Since 1989, more than 250 people in 34 states have been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.
Since their success in the Tillman case, the Connecticut Innocence Project has more than tripled in size and won millions in new funding to expand its work. So perhaps that is one silver lining to Tillman’s ordeal — outrage over the injustice he suffered may lead to justice for others who were wrongfully accused.
Freedom and Education
It took Tillman some time to get used to his newfound freedom. While the bars were gone, he was still adjusting after spending a significant portion of his life as a prisoner. He now had money and his family, and soon after his release, Tillman married the love of his life.
Yet he still had moments of anger. He recalls one instance as he drove through Hartford and nearly got run off the road by another driver, who flipped the bird at Tillman and his wife. For a few seconds, Tillman felt consumed by a rush of rage, ready to run down his adversary. But his wife calmed him and reminded him he didn’t have to be defensive anymore — in fact, she pretty much said that kind of anger was unacceptable, and he needed to get his head straight. So he did.
Today, Tillman works as a motivational speaker, and with the Capitol Region Education Council, an organization that runs several magnet schools within the Hartford area. He serves on the board of directors for Family in Crisis and preaches the bible through the Hopewell Baptist Church in Hartford, where he also sings in the choir.
And now, one of Tillman’s proudest titles is “student” after enrolling at Goodwin College.
Touched by Tillman’s story, Goodwin’s President Mark Scheinberg and the Board of Trustees offered Tillman a scholarship to attend school. Tillman seized the opportunity and is working towards a degree in human services, as wellas mentoring students in Goodwin’s MOVE Program — an initiative designed to support the success of young minority men and others overcoming obstacles to higher education.
He still gets chills from that moment when he was sitting next to Scheinberg in the Goodwin College auditorium, how the emotion took hold of him. “Coming from a jail cell and a 45 year sentence and to come to a college… I broke down,” Tillman said.
“I love this college. It’s beautiful,” Tillman said. And he’s not shy about spreading the Goodwin gospel. “If I wasn’t speaking to young kids about Goodwin and the importance of education, I’d be doing them an injustice.”
His next big endeavor is writing a book, teaming with author Jeff Kimball to tell his story. The two are busy working at the project, which they hope will spread the message of inspiration and faith that Tillman personifies. “I know God was with me,” Tillman said. “I would do it all again if that’s what it took to get to Christ.”
-By Matt Engelhardt, Goodwin College