The Innocence Project

While serving 20 years in prison for a wrongful conviction, Angel Gonzalez painted: a lighthouse, a stream, a mountain, a blue truck, a snow-covered cabin in the woods.

“Every time I painted something I felt like I was escaping away from the world, from prison,” Gonzalez told Fusion, hours after exiting Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois. “Feeling freedom. To share with the world, a little bit, I guess, how you feel when you’re inside there. You’re so far away from reality that you sometimes you feel like you’re on a whole different planet.”

Gonzalez, a Mexican national from Waukegan, spoke on the phone Tuesday night after his release. “We got out and I eat chicken sandwich,” he said, laughing. Before his first home-cooked meal in decades, Gonzalez and Vanessa Potkin, his lawyer from The Innocence Project, made a clandestine pitstop at the restaurant Potbelly for a snack. “Busted,” said Potkin.

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This week, DNA evidence proved Gonzalez’s innocence in the rape and kidnapping of a woman in 1994. Test results showed bodily fluids of two unknown men—and not that of Gonzalez—on the victim and her clothing. The Innocence Project, which took up the case in 2012 after years of letters from Gonzalez, said that a coerced confession, along with a questionable traffic stop and a deeply-flawed identification process known as the “show-up,” led to Gonzalez’s 55-year sentence.

Gonzalez, however, had not served a three-year criminal damage to state property sentence he received in 1996 for destroying a sink while in solitary confinement.

“After 20-something years they were taking me back for a sink and a toilet?” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, why don’t you just give three years away? That’s all you have to do. Why are you sending me back?’ I couldn’t understand. I was frustrated.”

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Finally, 27 hours after his exoneration, the lesser charges were dropped by a Livingston County judge. Gonzalez, with a goatee and shaved head, walked outside for a press conference and photo-op.

This reversal is the fifth case in five years to be cleared because of DNA evidence in Lake County, which has been marred by a resistance to forensic evidence and a spate of wrongful convictions. It also arrives at a time of distrust in the police after the deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

“Oh man, it was kind of horrible,” Gonzalez said of his exoneration. “The judge was not very nice for whatever reason so I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ She made me feel like I was on trial all over again. She dropped the charges but at the same time she was so mean. It was kind of scary, I’m not going to lie, to look at her face, how mad she was.”

Potkin said the courtroom on Monday afternoon was packed with Gonzalez’s family and friends, yet the judge never acknowledged the huge injustice at hand. “He was treated like a criminal,” she said. He had shackles on, his family couldn’t touch him, and he wasn’t allowed to turn around and speak to them. “He was treated with no humanity.”

The celebration after the charges were tossed was muted. Gonzalez was ordered back to prison. His visa had expired, though the immigration hold—and threat of deportation—was lifted Tuesday.

State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, who did not preside over the case in 1994, was deeply apologetic for Gonzalez’s ordeal. He said the victim was “devastated” by the reversal.

The evidence against Gonzalez was always questionable, said Potkin.

On July 10, 1994 the 35-year-old victim answered her door, was kidnapped by two men, and raped in nearby bushes, according to court documents. Gonzalez was at his girlfriend’s sister’s apartment at the same complex when the crime occurred. Four witnesses confirmed his alibi at trial.

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The victim said her attackers had a “late model, dark colored, four-door sedan with tinted windows.” Using this vague description, police stopped Gonzalez later that night. The victim was brought to the traffic stop where—from the backseat of a car—she identified Gonzalez, illuminated only by the headlights of the squad car, handcuffed and standing next to a police officer. She would later say in court that “he was wearing the same clothes.”

“Once that identification was made, there’s testimony in the records, the officers believed he was guilty and nothing was going to change their mind,” Potkin said. “So they went in to questioning him with their mind set.”

After 13 hours in police custody and four hours of interrogation, Gonzalez, who only spoke broken English, confessed that he assaulted a woman but that he did not ejaculate. He wrote a short statement about the crime in Spanish. When the statement didn’t match the details of the crime, officers wrote a statement for him in English, which he signed after translation, according to The Innocence Project. Police used this confession to dismiss DNA evidence that didn’t match Gonzalez. Another DNA test was dismissed again less than ten years later. After all, he said he didn’t ejaculate.

The National Registry of Exonerations reports that there have been 1,564 exonerations since 1989. More than 300 of these people, including Gonzalez, were exonerated using DNA evidence. Gonzalez, who had 20 years taken away from him, will now live with his parents and three siblings, all legal residents, in the Chicago suburbs. On his first night back with his family, he gave his nephew Carlos a painting.

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“They would remind me of freedom,” he said. “Remind me that one day I was going to be free. I don’t know how but I know one day I’m going to be free. I’m not the monster they say who I am.”