Once labeled irredeemable, long-imprisoned Chicago man relishes second chance, hopes his case paves way for others during pandemic

©Chicago Tribune

Sherman Morisette sits in his studio apartment in the St. Leo Residence for Veterans on March 10, 2020. - E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Sherman Morisette served 35 years in prison for robbing a Chicago taxi driver at gunpoint on Christmas Eve in 1983.

It was his third stickup in seven years, all committed after he came home from the Vietnam War.

He never pulled the trigger, but prosecutors labeled the Chicago man, 34 at the time, a “habitual criminal” under a tough-on-crime sentencing law that mandates a natural life sentence after a third conviction.

Morisette was supposed to die in prison. Instead, in one of his final acts in office, then-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner commuted the sentence to life with the possibility of parole early last year.

Rauner, a Republican, did not pardon him outright. Instead, in a unique move, he left the decision to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. The panel approved Morisette’s release late last year.

“I thank God,” he told the Chicago Tribune that November afternoon, standing outside Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. “He made a way out of nowhere for me.”

His freedom came at a time when criminal justice reform was a hot national topic. Early this year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker identified it as a top priority due to what the Democrat described as “an overcrowded prison system” that is “too expensive, too punitive and too ineffective.”

Then COVID-19 struck, sidelining the conversation. But, in a refocused message highlighting the health crisis, prison reform advocates and civil rights groups are pushing to free elderly, sick or nonviolent offenders as the virus spreads in prisons.

The main outbreak has been in Stateville, where Morisette was incarcerated. At least 12 inmates housed there have died since March from the virus, with about 300 staff members and inmates falling ill, according to state officials.

But many in law-and-order professions urge caution, angered by the Illinois Department of Corrections’ early release of about 1,300 prisoners through various measures due to the coronavirus.

Pritzker has used his clemency power to free another 20 people since March. Four of them were imprisoned for life under the habitual criminal law that ensnared Morisette. Each served at least 25 years for armed robbery or, in one case, a cocaine conviction.

Citing the pandemic, the Illinois Prison Project is seeking the emergency release of another 44 men in a similar situation, all deemed habitual criminals serving life for an armed robbery-related crime.

Jennifer Soble, the Chicago-based nonprofit’s executive director, argues the one-size-fits-all penalty of the sentencing law does not accurately reflect the crime in each case. She said the men are old, long past the age of recidivism, and their crimes are far from the worst of the worst.

Soble hopes Morisette’s case will spark discussion about the fairness of the law and clear a path for the others. He first garnered the attention of advocates because of his efforts to better himself in prison.

Morisette is a certified paralegal who provided counsel to other inmates and worked to improve conditions inside prison for decades. He practiced Judaism, Islam and Buddhism and was a yoga enthusiast before his health deteriorated.

Blind in his left eye and in need of a double hip replacement surgery due to degenerative bone disease, the 70-year-old has returned to the city of his youth, moved into his own apartment and reconnected with a long-lost love whom he never forgot.

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Less than 5% of Illinois’ prison population consists of people serving a life sentence.

Most of the lifers were convicted of murder, but 20% are there for a lesser offense and were punished under tough sentencing measures such as the habitual criminal law.

First enacted in Illinois in 1883, it has withstood repeated constitutional challenges and legislative revisions.

State lawmakers repealed the law in 1963, but it was resurrected 15 years later under sweeping legislation pushed by then-Gov. Jim Thompson that rewrote many sentencing procedures. The legislation created a Class X offense category and abolished parole in new cases, shifting instead to determinate sentences and mandatory supervised-release periods.

In its current form, a person who is convicted in state or federal court of three Class X felonies during a 20-year period is eligible. Prosecutors have the discretion to use the law or instead seek the regular minimum and maximum years of punishment.

But a judge is required to impose a sentence of natural life if the prosecution files a petition to adjudicate the defendant a habitual criminal.

The law and others that followed during the nation’s tough-on-crime trend in the 1980s and 1990s spawned an Illinois prison population that saw a historic high of 49,400 in 2013. After various reform initiatives — and the governor’s recent order suspending jail transfers as a COVID-19 precaution — it was reduced to under 34,000, the lowest since 1993, according to the latest available state statistics.

Statistics show more than 75% of those serving life sentences in Illinois are minorities, placing the state in the top 10% in that category, according to the Sentencing Project in Washington. The majority are also now elderly, the most expensive group for the state to house.

Since March, the Illinois Department of Corrections has used its administrative authority for the population reduction of 1,300 inmates.

Pritzker issued an executive order giving the department more discretion to grant medical furloughs in some cases. He also used his executive clemency power to release another 20 prisoners since the pandemic began, sparking controversy.

But the governor has found himself in a bit of a Catch-22.

Lawyers for the reformers filed litigation arguing he has not done enough to reduce the prison population and risk of exposure to staff members and inmates to the virus.

On the other side, Illinois House Republicans criticized his administration for not being more transparent with the early releases and furloughs. Regarding the 20 clemency cases he has granted, seven were convicted murderers, sparking more backlash.

Less attention was paid to the four men he freed who were serving life sentences under the habitual criminal law. Three were armed robbers, while one was in for a cocaine-related conviction.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx objected to the release of one of the four men. In that lone objection, the man had a rape conviction in his past, records showed.

There are about 330 prisoners in Illinois serving life for an offense not related to murder. Experts estimate the majority of them were sentenced under the habitual criminal law, including about 100 from Cook County who had an armed robbery-related offense.

For nearly four decades, Sherman Morisette was one of them.

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Morisette has a difficult time explaining his past choices. His parents raised him to know better.

His mother was a homemaker caring for eight children while his father ran a television repair business and worked a second job at the post office to keep the family afloat. He was a gentleman, his son recalls, never one to curse and who loved to golf.

But the couple were no match for the economic devastation and gangs that would overtake their South Side neighborhood when Morisette was a teen in the late 1960s. Mass layoffs at the area steel mill led to the area’s further decline.

The family moved to a better neighborhood but, by then, Morisette had dropped out of high school and was getting into trouble. Worried about his future, the teen enlisted in the military and was sent to Vietnam days after Christmas 1969.

“I knew what I was getting into,” he said of his decision to enlist. “I wanted to get off the street and I wanted adventure, to travel, and that was the only way during that time to do that.”

He served two and a half years in the Army and said he was fired upon making supply runs near Saigon as an ammunition and supply sergeant. He was honorably discharged in 1972 and received the National Defense Service Medal, according to his military records.

Morisette was 22 when he returned to Chicago. He earned his GED, drove a tractor-trailer truck and became a licensed cosmetologist. He attended community college at night.

Though he was not physically injured in the war, he returned home with other wounds. He was angry, depressed and likely suffering post-traumatic stress. He smoked marijuana to dull the pain.

“I had problems, yes,” he said. “I brought some of that back. There was no welcoming for us. When I came back the job I had was no longer there. I was really struggling, trying to accomplish certain things, and it seemed like there were roadblocks.”

He committed his first armed robbery in 1976. His second stickup came three years later. No one was physically harmed, court records showed. Morisette served short stints in prison, but the punishment did not deter him.

Not long after getting his freedom back, he flagged down a cab on Chicago’s South Side on Christmas Eve 1983. Morisette pointed a pistol at his temple when the driver turned to collect his fare. When the cabbie replied that he did not have cash, Morisette ordered him out of the taxi.

He let the man grab his coat before driving off, leaving the victim in the street.

Three days later, police spotted the stolen taxi with Morisette behind the wheel. After a short chase, including on foot, officers arrested him. He alleges he was beat up and forced into a tainted lineup.

But, Morisette admits, he is guilty. And he would pay dearly for his mistakes. Morisette did not realize a life sentence was a possibility until shortly before his 1984 trial, in which he acted as his own attorney. He was convicted and sentenced to serve the rest of his life behind bars.

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Shortly after arriving in prison, Morisette said, he pledged to better himself.

For nearly 13,000 days, he was inmate A64004. He served time in three prisons, with Stateville his primary assignment, and worked as a barber, librarian and paralegal.

Morisette spent much of his earnings on books. The walls of his cell were decorated with paintings by death row artists, including a portrait of his grandfather, a U.S. Army master sergeant who died when Morisette was 4 years old.

He has studied art, history, humanities, law, philosophy, restorative justice and obtained an associate degree in 1989. He also became a certified paralegal.

He avoided trouble during the prison crisis of the mid-1990s when a huge influx of gang members, serving longer terms for drug crimes, strained the system.

He was there during the reforms that followed in response to the infamous Richard Speck tape, which first aired in 1996. The tape, shot in 1988 at Stateville, featured the mass murderer allegedly snorting cocaine, having sex and boasting about his easy life.

“Everything went downhill for us because of that, as far as access to exercise or single cells,” Morisette said of the infamous tape. “Everything was about punishment.”

Morisette ran 5 to 10 miles a day, five times a week, he said. He helped inmates with their appeals and filed about two dozen lawsuits, most of them aiming to improve conditions — from the quality of water to access to medical care.

As he aged, and his health declined, he gave up yoga and his paralegal work. But he continued to rise early in the morning to meditate. He lost hope during the most trying times, such as the deaths of his parents, brother and a grandmother.

He recalled sleepless nights, praying for hope, thinking to himself, “maybe this year.”

“You will lose hope,” Morisette said, “especially when your health starts declining. You imagine dying there.”

But staying connected to family provided him a ray of light.

He appealed his conviction, arguing he deserved a new trial because police had allegedly violated his constitutional rights. He also wrote to several governors, beginning in 1990, seeking clemency.

Morisette said he was about to give up when he decided to write to Rauner in mid-2018. He emphasized his military experience, rehabilitative efforts, age, failing health and remorse.

Months passed. Then, in January 2019, he learned his name was included in a newspaper article that listed each person to whom Rauner had granted clemency.

Though Rauner did not give him his freedom outright, he did commute Morisette’s sentence to life with the chance of parole, thus creating a mechanism for him to get a vote before the Prisoner Review Board.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” he said. “I didn’t believe it too much until I saw the executive order. ‘OK, this is real.’”

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The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression connected Morisette to Soble, his attorney, in April 2019. Her nonprofit incorporated that same month.

“Nobody was quite sure what it meant for Gov. Rauner to commute his sentence to parole-eligible because parole does not exist in Illinois,” Soble said.

In its inaugural year, the Illinois Prison Project witnessed triumph and heartbreak of the criminal justice reform movement. In September, it won the early release of an elderly inmate with dementia in for a 1993 cocaine conviction. But, one month later, client Joe Coleman died in prison of cancer a week after his 80th birthday.

A decorated Vietnam veteran whose medals include the Purple Heart, Coleman received a life sentence after his fourth armed robbery in 1982. He was the president of a prisoner-run group of lifers who raise money for facility improvements and local charities.

“When is enough enough?” asked Morisette, who was close friends with Coleman. “When they haven’t hurt anyone, there should be a cutoff point to integrate them back into society.”

For Morisette, Soble prepared a petition for the Prisoner Review Board that included the family, community and financial support he would receive through Veterans Affairs and Social Security.

On Nov. 21, the board voted 13 to 0 for Morisette’s release. The panel questioned the law’s fairness.

“I think all of those cases we ought to review,” board member Ken Tupy said. “The sentences are tremendously harsh and no one has been shot or killed and yet they’re being sentenced to a huge number of years.”

Foxx, the Cook County state’s attorney, did not object to Morisette’s release.

A day after the vote, Morisette stepped off the small prison bus clutching a plastic bag containing his glaucoma medicine and osteoarthritis pain pills. A Stateville correctional officer wished him good luck before driving back through the prison gates.

It was the first time he felt free in more than 35 years.

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Two of the four habitual criminal lifers to whom Pritzker granted clemency were Soble’s clients.

Citing the coronavirus, her nonprofit is seeking the immediate release of another 44 men convicted under the same law and serving life for an armed robbery-related offense. All but a few are minority members and from Cook County. Their median age is 61, and median time in custody since arrest is 26 years.

Though there are dozens of other lifers in the same situation, Soble said she is focused first on those who are at an increased risk to infection due to their age or medical condition and who have a place to live if freed.

“There seems to be little correlation between a life sentence and the facts of the underlining case,” Soble said. “Instead, these sentences are consistent with racist and regressive sentencing practices that defined the criminal justice system in the 1980s and 1990s, and were frequently imposed only after a defendant exercised his constitutional right to a trial.”

Her group recently filed paperwork with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board seeking release of each of the 44 men. The board makes confidential recommendations to the governor. He has three choices, including to do nothing or to commute their sentences to time served.

Or Pritzker could take a page out of Rauner’s playbook and grant the men the possibility of parole, sending it back to the board to vote on each case.

In one case, a 40-year-old Chicago man was sentenced to life for robbing a homeless man at knife point of $20 and a pack of cigarettes in 1994. Ora Riley, 63, remains in prison.

Foxx did not oppose his release, her office confirmed. But she objected in most of the cases, including when the inmate served less than 20 years in prison or in about 10 others whose robbery included an armed violence, vehicular hijacking, residential burglary or home invasion offense as well.

Some fear the pendulum in the prison reform movement may swing too far in the opposite direction, placing communities at risk. Law enforcement groups have been critical of mass clemency and related proposals.

They argue the emotional toll a particular crime has on its victims and community should not be forgotten. None of the inmates were first-time offenders and, they said, the system as it exists now with gubernatorial clemency includes a pathway for lifers to try to get out.

DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin noted that not all lifers are Sherman Morisette. Each case, Berlin said, should be reviewed on its own merits.

For example, 50% of the 330 lifers who did not commit murder were convicted of a sex-related crime, including some against children.

“The pain never goes away in some of these crimes,” Berlin said. “That has to be part of the equation when we talk about criminal justice and sentence reforms.”

The habitual criminal statute has been used with far less frequency in recent years due to stiffer sentencing laws that followed that raised many mandatory minimum sentences and imposed additional penalties for gun and drug offenses, among other measures.

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Sherman Morisette is one of the lucky ones. He made it back home.

Unlike many prisoners, he had financial resources and family waiting for him.

“I know I look like an old guy now,” he joked after arriving at the Chicago home of his oldest sister, Patricia.

Within minutes, relatives showed him how to use a cellphone and he snapped his first selfie. A former girlfriend, Shirley Burgess, with whom he had lost touch for decades but recently reconnected through daily phone calls, walked through the door before too long.

“I’m free at last,” he told her. “Free at last.”

In the months that followed, Morisette has obtained a state identification card, opened a bank account and moved into his own studio apartment at St. Leo Residence for Veterans in the South Side’s Gresham neighborhood. His main goal is to get hip replacement surgery so he can get around easier, maybe even ride a bike again.

He enjoys simple pleasures, like wearing his own clothes, having a conversation without a prison guard watching nearby, and sleeping in his own bed — not a prison-issued bed with a steel frame and thin mattress that made his back and hips ache.

Morisette said he is relieved not to be in Stateville during the pandemic. He is trying to put his past behind him. “I’m for the future,” he said. In Joe Coleman’s memory, he hopes to help others win their freedom.

One morning in February, he and Burgess stood arm and arm before a Cook County judge at City Hall. His sister Patricia was there to bear witness. The couple exchanged “I do’s,” more than five decades after they met as teenagers.

“I would have did it differently,” Morisette said of all those lost years. “I have denied myself so much of my life. Maybe there was something else that was in store for me. I try to look at it from a positive perspective. Maybe it all happened for a reason.”

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©2020 Chicago Tribune

Sherman Morisette marries Shirley Burgess, a long-ago girlfriend he reconnected with after spending 35 years in prison, at City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. - E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS
E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS