Illinois man freed after 2 decades in prison

CHICAGO – A suburban Chicago man who insisted during two decades in prison that police framed him for a slaying he did not commit walked out of jail Wednesday morning, hours after a jury in his retrial found him not guilty.

Rodell Sanders, 49, said after Tuesday's verdict that although he will continue to pursue a lawsuit against the Chicago Heights Police Department, detectives and others, he would first focus on trying to become acclimated to freedom. He wants to get reacquainted with daughters and grandchildren, some of whom he had not met until Wednesday.

"It's somewhat frightening and scary to just step out in the world again," said Sanders, explaining that for years he was so focused on his appeal that he would ask family members not to frequently visit him in prison so he could spend as much as 12 hours a day studying the law books he purchased after his 1995 conviction. "I have to readjust to society."

Sanders, who acted as his own attorney for part of the appeal process, said the story is far from over even though he is out of prison. "I was framed for a murder I did not commit," he said. "This is not the last chapter. The last chapter is when they will be held accountable for their actions in federal court for violating my civil rights."

Sanders was a gang member in 1993 when a man named Philip Atkins and a woman named Stacy Armstrong were ordered out of a car and taken to an abandoned garage, where they were shot and robbed. Atkins died and Armstrong survived.

At a news conference Wednesday in which Sanders stood with his daughters, grandchildren and others. One of his attorneys, Russell Ainsworth, said that police knew he wasn't the gunman but manipulated the evidence because of his gang ties. A call to a detective who led the investigation was not immediately returned and the Chicago Heights Police Department declined to comment.

The Cook County State's Attorney's office also declined to comment about the verdict. Sanders' attorneys said evidence was presented that there was no physical evidence linking Sanders to the crime and that the one witness in the case had recanted his statements that Sanders was the gunman. Jurors were also shown photographs that Sanders' lawyers contended were manipulated by police to make Sanders look more like the man the surviving witness had described as the gunman.

Sanders was found not guilty this week, 19 years after he was first convicted. That conviction was subsequently overturned in 2011 by a judge — a ruling an appeals court later confirmed. A new trial was held last year which ended with a hung jury. Sanders stood trial again this month, leading to the not guilty verdict.