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James Soto at the NPEP graduation ceremony in 2023
James Soto at the NPEP graduation ceremony in 2023 (Photo by Jim Daley)

This article was first published by the Chicago Reader. It appears as it was published and has not been edited by PJP.

On Dec. 14, James Soto and his cousin David Ayala were released from Stateville Correctional Center after a 42-year-long fight to prove their innocence. At the time of his release, Soto was the longest-serving wrongfully convicted prisoner in Illinois history. Earlier that week, a Cook County judge vacated Soto’s sentence, stating that neither he nor Ayala received adequate counsel during the initial trial. Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx declined to retry Soto for lack of evidence.

Soto was convicted in 1981 after prosecutors said he committed a double murder of a young couple on Ayala’s orders. Soto was convicted despite there being no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence tying him to the crime.

I know Jimmy Soto personally. We were both students in the first cohort of Northwestern University’s Northwestern Prison Education Program at Stateville (NPEP). In November, we both graduated with bachelor’s degrees from the program.

Jimmy is kind and generous, highly educated, and truly cares about other people. He is humble and a man of integrity and principle. Those qualities would be difficult to find in one man, let alone someone who spent the last 42 years behind bars after being wrongfully convicted. I interviewed him shortly before his release.

“I had never been to trial for anything before,” Soto said. “I was young, only 19 years old. I had no idea what was going on. A lawyer has to have a college degree, he has to go through years of training and studying. Then he has to pass the bar exam in order to be a lawyer, yet the courts expect you to know just as much if not more than your lawyer. You have to hold him accountable. You are responsible, legally, for what your lawyer does. The courts don’t hold your lawyer responsible for errors and inadequacies, they hold you responsible. How is any kid off the streets supposed to know more than their lawyer? The system is set up for you to fail.”

The problem lies in procedure. Understanding procedure is the door to the corridors of power, where the people with the capacity to determine a criminal defendant’s fate reside. If you cannot gain entry, you have no chance of justice.

“I was telling everyone I could that I was innocent,” Soto said. “No one would listen.” Procedural barriers all too often stop innocent inmates from getting out of prison.

“The system values finality over accuracy,” Soto said. “People like to say that the system is broken. But the truth of the matter is, the system runs just like it’s supposed to. It’s the way that those at the top keep those at the bottom from moving up, ways that are all dressed up in the stiff and sterile legal language.”

Illinois has one of the highest rates of wrongful convictions in the nation. According to the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), at least 3,454 people nationally have been exonerated after a wrongful conviction since 1989. The NRE’s 2022 annual report showed that for the fifth year in a row, Illinois had the most exonerations (accounting for more than half of the total exonerations in that calendar year). A disproportionate number of the wrongfully convicted are Black or Brown people.

While these facts should be shocking and abhorrent to every person, the sad fact is, in Illinois, it’s all too common. The danger of this being commonplace is that miscarriages of justice that destroy so many lives are effectively an accepted part of the criminal justice system.

“This cannot become the norm,” Soto lamented. “It cannot become an acceptable part of the process for innocent men and women to languish in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, only to be set free decades later, after their life has passed them by, their children have grown up without a mother or a father, and loved ones die. It’s unacceptable that Illinois is the worst in the nation when it comes to police misconduct and wrongful convictions.”

I asked Soto why he thought that this problem continues to plague the people of Illinois specifically.

“Honestly, it comes down to a lack of political will — that’s the major impediment,” he said. “We hear a lot about criminal justice reform, but nothing ever gets done. These politicians play three-card monte with their words. They offer lip service to the idea of change because they know it’s what most people want, but then they make political calculations and all too often those calculations don’t add up to change. They won’t change the procedures to help because they have a fear of guilty defendants convicted of violent offenses exploiting procedural loopholes to get out of prison. It all comes back to how this may affect them in their bid for reelection. It’s political gutlessness.”

Soto told me when he came to prison he was young and angry, but he saw something right away that changed his trajectory. “On my third day in prison, we went to the movie hall to watch a film. I saw a guy get stabbed up. He laid in the aisle and bled to death. The CO didn’t notice until the movie was over. I saw right away what a highly aggressive and violent place prison can be, and I had to learn how to navigate that.”

Soto decided right away that he wanted to get an education. He took a vocational class in small engine repair and was certified through Joliet Junior College. Using Pell grants, he earned 42 credit hours from Lewis University and became a certified paralegal. “I’ve always held education in high esteem,” he said. “It was instilled in me as a child that in order to have a level playing field I needed a good education because as a Mexican, American people would look down on you if you were stupid. Education was something that no one could take away from me.”

He also decided that even though he was wrongfully convicted, he wanted to help people. He was accepted into the Jaycees, a leadership training service organization, in 1988, then became a chapter vice president. He taught business, accounting, and entrepreneurial classes. He volunteered to tutor Spanish-speaking prisoners. He began working at the prison law library and helping others with their cases. As a legal advocate, Soto helped get 14 new trials for other prisoners.

Soto’s tireless legal work has led to 20 exonerations and more than 100 resentencings. He has worked on almost 1,000 cases and helped hundreds of fellow prisoners. He got results that their own legal counsels couldn’t get them. Here is a man who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison, yet was still trying to help other people.

“I feel like I was in a unique situation to help,” Soto said. “I know what it’s like to be wrongfully convicted and stuck in this hellhole with no help, and no one listening to you. I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way. It also helped me grow and learn as a legal advocate; here I was in prison winning cases, helping to get guys home. I knew I had what it took to get myself home. It was a good feeling. These things helped me grow in ways that are hard to define. I’ve become less critical. I learned that power wasn’t always equated with money. There is power in knowledge and words. I learned that and have tried to teach it to others.”

When he heard about NPEP’s program, Soto knew he had to get in, and recalled his junior year as a teenager at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South. “We had a college recruitment day,” he said. “There was this senior from Notre Dame with an orange jacket and these gold pamphlets. I really wanted to go to college.”

He was accepted into NPEP’s first cohort, becoming one of 20 men selected out of hundreds.

“Professor Jennifer Lackey’s vision of higher education for men and women in prison was amazing,” Soto said, referring to the Northwestern law professor who is the founding director of NPEP. “I was being taught the same courses that are taught on campus. In prison, they take away so much. This program gives you back a sense of being a person. I have forged lasting relationships with individuals I never would have otherwise met. This is the vision of community that Jennifer Lackey tried to build for us.”

Soto recently took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), becoming the first incarcerated person in Illinois history to do so. I asked him how he did.

“I don’t like to brag, but it was good. You know I was nervous, but I did well,” he said. “I want to go to law school. You don’t need a law license to help somebody; I’ve done it my whole time in prison, but I want to pass the bar. There are other innocent men and women in prison; we know some of them. Even those who aren’t innocent need help, [such as] people who have death-by-incarceration sentences who no longer need to be in prison. When you keep somebody in prison for years and years who is changed and is rehabilitated, and not a danger to society any longer, you’re just wasting taxpayer money and robbing society of someone who will be a productive, strong addition to society. How can we expect other people to do better if we as a society won’t do better?”

What, I asked, can be done to fix the criminal legal system?

“You have to tweak some things a little bit, like the appellate procedures so guys are allowed to put forth innocence claims, and even the post-conviction process,” he said. “You have to make things easier for prisoners’ pleas of innocence to be heard. But, it goes farther than that. You have to encourage the election of progressive prosecutors like Kim Foxx, and more conviction integrity units. You have to establish innocence commissions to get into wrongful convictions. In a state like Illinois with the corruption and manufacturing of evidence, more leeway should be given to a prisoner claiming innocence, not less. I’d also like to point out that clemency and parole are only as good as the officials in charge. We need to make sure we have the right people in those positions.”

I asked Jimmy Soto what was next for him.

“Spending time with my family and friends, getting my certificate of innocence, and going to law school,” he said.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer and 2022 graduate of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. He is incarcerated in Illinois.