Just serving justice
Laura Caldwell teams up to free an innocent man.
Despite what might seem like a happy ending, Hollywood isn’t buying.
You’d think the story of Jovan Mosley, defense attorney Catharine O’Daniel and author Laura Caldwell would have the Oscar bait shop fully stocked. Mosley, a 19-year-old from Park Manor, was the quiet, intelligent kid who got fingered as part of a mob beating of a middle-aged man. But Mosley’s confession was coerced by the now-notorious cops of Area 2, home to alleged torturer Detective Jon Burge. After a chance meeting with Mosley, O’Daniel decided to take on his case. And after O’Daniel befriended Caldwell at one of the latter’s book readings, Caldwell—a civil litigator with no experience in criminal defense—plunged headfirst into the case, working as O’Daniel’s second. After a long trial and jury deliberation, Mosley was declared not guilty, six years after he was charged and thrown into a detaining cell.
Caldwell’s personal and legal insight, along with her novelist’s flair, make her account of Mosley’s story, Long Way Home (Free Press, $26), a riveting read, exactly the kind of tale that seems destined for the big screen. But, she says, when she and her agent got on the phone with Hollywood producers, they were baffled.
“The people in Hollywood were all dissatisfied,” says Caldwell, 42. “They kept asking, ‘Who’s the bad guy?’ but there really wasn’t just one. It could be the state’s attorney, the first judge, the cops, any of a series of failures in the system.”
In fact, if there is a “bad guy” in the story, it’s certainly the system. On August 6, 1999, 51-year-old Howard Thomas walked home from work. A group of teenagers—for unclear, contradictory reasons, according to testimony—punched, kicked and beat him with a baseball bat. No witnesses came forward until a reward was offered. Mosley had witnessed the fight but not participated, but he was swept up in the investigation. He went months without speaking to a public defender and then was held pending trial for five years in a supermax detention center.
“When Cathy told me the story about this kid, it really disturbed me,” says Caldwell, who as a distinguished scholar in residence at Loyola University, had been teaching law, rather than practicing it, for years. “I figured even if he did it, the legal system owes him a fair trial. But then I got to know him and knew he was innocent.”
After Mosley’s exoneration in 2005, he immediately enrolled in the City Colleges and is now working toward his bachelor’s degree at Loyola. Still, it’s difficult to see this story as a happy one. Told in short, sharp chapters, Long Way Home is as much about Mosley’s entrapment as it is a condemning canvassing of the myriad ways the legal system can trap its citizens, especially poor ones.
“There is a whole population of people who get fucked over,” Caldwell says. “Even though he’s come out of it okay and is a really kind, happy guy, he went through a lot, and it left its mark.”
Caldwell, too, has been changed by the experience. Now a self-described born-again lawyer, Caldwell works with her law students on more forced-confession cases. She’s also started a support group for the exonerated, Life After Innocence, which helps bring together the wrongly accused to talk about their lives now and discuss ways to get their records cleared. And, she says, it’s drastically changed her outlook.
“You would think I’d be depressed all the time, dealing with people who have been through this,” she says. “But they’ve all been through this surreal hell, and they come out not bitter at all; they just want to live their lives. It’s hard to think your problems are problems after that.”