CHESTER, Ill. — After serving nearly two decades in prison for a murder they did not commit, brothers James Harden and Jonathan Barr shared their final hours behind bars together Friday.
A day after a
judge vacated the convictions of the Harvey brothers and co-defendant Robert Taylor for the 1991 murder of a
teen, Harden walked out of Menard Correctional Center shortly after 1 p.m. carrying a box of his prison belongings, flanked by his attorneys, a family friend and two former high school classmates. Barr likely will be released Saturday.
Co-defendant Robert Taylor was released from prison in Joliet on Thursday. Two other co-defendants, Shainnie Young and Robert
Veal, pleaded guilty to charges in 1992 and finished their lighter sentences years ago.
The brothers, in prison since they were teenagers, sat handcuffed next to each other on the bus back to the southern Illinois prison where they'd been serving their time Thursday night, and were placed in adjoining cells.
"We stayed up all night, just talking through a little vent," Harden said as he waited with his defense team in a processing area just outside the prison walls. "Mostly, we talked about our parents, how we wanted them to be here to see their babies come home."
Harden's mother and father, as well as both brothers' grandmother, all died during their 20 years in prison; their mother died after suffering a stroke in 1997 on her way to visit her sons in prison.
"She never gave up believing in her boys," said a family friend, who waited for Harden's release in the parking lot. She declined to give her name because she still lives in Harvey, among many friends of the family of the 1991 murder victim, Cateresa Matthews.
The woman said she attended Harden's trial and has traveled for countless hearings and prison visits in the years since, and considers the 36-year-old man her son. She stared as Harden walked into the processing area Friday, then buried her face into his shoulder, her arms trembling with sobs as she clutched him.
"I'll be all right, now," Harden said. "Don't you be crying."
"I just love you so much," she said softly, her eyes pressed shut.
"I love you too, Mom," he said.
Defense lawyers in April had called for prosecutors to re-examine the case after
evidence was linked to a convicted rapist who lived near Matthews' home.
At trial, the same DNA evidence had not matched any of the five teens charged, but prosecutors pointed to confessions and testimony by Veal and Sharp, who had pleaded guilty and received lighter sentences.
Harden, who was serving an 80-year sentence, said he had no anger toward the investigators in the case, nor toward Young or Veal.
"I'm not angry," he said. "Today is a happy day."
Harden, who was jailed before he could get a driver's license, said he might become a long-haul trucker.
"I've been locked up in one place for so long, I want to get out and travel," he said. "I'm going to move around."