For 16 years, Eric Blackmon worked to free himself from the nightmare of what he had argued from day one was a wrongful arrest and conviction for murder.
But while many would have descended into bitterness and the sordid life which infests prison systems nationwide, Blackmon did just the opposite. He taught himself to be a lawyer, recruited everyone he could on the outside to help with his legwork, and then did something which is legally next to impossible: as an amateur attorney working from jail, he convinced the federal appellate court in Chicago to hear his case.
“It’s extraordinary,” says Karen Daniel, of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. “It’s because he had done all the research, all the investigation, all the writing up until that point to have his case in good shape, so that the Seventh Circuit could see the injustice that his case is filled with.”
Wednesday morning, it all paid off. Eight months after he was granted a new trial and freed on bond, Cook County prosecutors agreed to drop the case. And Judge William Gamboney uttered the words Blackmon had dreamed of hearing for two decades: “You are free to go!”
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“I just did everything that I could for myself, just hoped that somebody would eventually listen,” he said after court. “And eventually, they all did.”
Blackmon was convicted of the 2002 murder of a man named Tony Cox, who was gunned down on the Fourth of July in broad daylight in front of a restaurant near Roosevelt and Pulaski. The case was cold for two months. Then, out of the blue, Blackmon was arrested, after his picture was put in a photo spread and shown to witnesses.
“We still don’t know how his name got floated,” says defense lawyer Ron Safer. “He was at a barbecue with two dozen other people at the time this murder was committed---he had no connection to the victim, he had no connection to the people the police knew were involved in the murder.”
Working from jail, Blackmon took a correspondence course to get his paralegal license. And, his supporters say, relentlessly toiled at his case.
“Eric ran this marathon that was his legal case,” Daniel said. “He got himself up to the finish line, and then his lawyers came in and we ran over the finish line with him!”
Safer, who joined the case after it reached the appellate court, credited State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for taking a new view of cases like Blackmon’s.
“They are eating away at the corrosion of the system, and the corruption of the system, and they are correcting their mistakes,” he said. “It is one thing to make a mistake, it is another to acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on.”
Blackmon says he wants to complete his legal training and work as an attorney. For now, he is employed as a paralegal working with the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, where he said he wants to help disadvantaged youth navigate the legal system he knows all too well.
“I truly know what they are going through,” he said. “I can relate!”