Criminal Justice

Illinois man says his commitment to legal studies in prison helped win his freedom

An Illinois man acquitted in a retrial on Tuesday after spending 20 years in prison says his devotion to legal studies in prison helped win his release.

Rodell Sanders, 49, was originally sentenced to 80 years in prison for murder, attempted murder and armed robbery in the December 1993 shootings of a couple in Chicago Heights who were forced out of their car and robbed. One of the victims died and the other survived.

A former gang leader, Sanders told reporters on Wednesday that he took up his legal studies because he didn’t want to die in prison, report the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune and WLS.

Sanders asked his family to raise $1,000 to buy him law books, and he devoted himself to his studies. “I studied 10, 11 and 12 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Sanders said. “I wouldn’t go on the yard. … I told my family stop coming down on visits so much, and I just committed myself to the law.”

Sanders used his knowledge to write a motion seeking a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. A judge granted a new trial, and an Illinois appeals court affirmed (PDF), citing the trial lawyer’s errors that prevented the jury from hearing about a witness who recanted his testimony.

At that point Sanders sought help from the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project.

Sanders’ first retrial ended in a hung jury and his second in acquittal. Sanders’ suit against the Chicago Heights Police Department is pending; Sanders claims police framed him because of his gang ties.

“I love law,” Sanders said. “I love the courtroom. I’d love to go on and be a paralegal or a lawyer or something like that.”

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