Man imprisoned for nearly 25 years certified innocent

Defendant says he was coerced into confession, will seek compensation

By: Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune: August 6th, 2013

Tears streaming down his face, a man who wrongly spent nearly 25 years behind bars was granted a certificate of innocence Monday by a Cook County judge who called the ordeal an “injustice,” according to his attorneys.

James Kluppelberg, 48, now has a clear record and access to about $200,000 in compensation from the state for his decades in prison after the ruling by Judge Michael McHale. Prosecutors dropped charges against Kluppelberg last year but had opposed the certificate, arguing there wasn’t proof of actual innocence.

“It was like tons of weight being lifted off me,” Kluppelberg said in a telephone interview after the judge’s ruling. “My life was restored.”

Kluppelberg was convicted of setting a 1984 fire that killed a woman and her five children in their Back of the Yards home. Fire investigators originally labeled the cause undetermined and said it appeared to have been an accident.

But the case was reopened more than four years later when a man arrested on burglary charges told police that Kluppelberg had set the fire. The man’s girlfriend had left him for Kluppelberg a few weeks after the fire, Kluppelberg’s attorney told the Tribune after his conviction.

Kluppelberg was arrested and later confessed to the arson murders of Elva Lupercio, 28, and her five children, ages 3 to 10, who died in their home in the 4400 block of South Hermitage Avenue. The building was destroyed. Testing did not find any signs of accelerants.

A federal lawsuit filed by Kluppelberg in May alleged that he confessed only after being beaten so badly by Chicago police officers working under the disgraced former Cmdr. Jon Burge that he urinated blood. Doctors found signs of trauma to his back and kidneys, and a trial judge later threw out Kluppelberg’s confession but not the underlying charges.

It wasn’t until last year that prosecutors dismissed the case, saying they no longer could meet their burden of proof. A spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office declined to comment on Monday’s ruling.

Kluppelberg’s attorneys at Winston & Strawn and the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School had argued that the fire was not intentionally set, citing their expert, who found that it might have been accidental.

The man who first implicated Kluppelberg recanted and said in a sworn statement that he had lied to get leniency in his burglary case. And Kluppelberg’s attorneys alleged that authorities had concealed information about a woman who admitted setting a fire to a home on the same night about a block away. The woman, who was convicted of that arson, told officials she had been too drunk to remember whether she had set the fire blamed on Kluppelberg.

“We are ecstatic for James,” Roshna Bala Keen, one of Kluppelberg’s attorneys, said Monday. “The judge … said that a grave injustice had occurred and that James was the victim of a wrongful conviction.”

Another of his attorneys, Karl Leonard, said Kluppelberg will file a civil petition asking a judge to approve about $200,000 in compensation from the state for the years he spent in prison.

Kluppelberg, who left prison in 2012 with $14.17 in the pocket of his gray sweatpants, said he is now living in Indiana near his son and building a new life for himself.

“I’m trying to salvage what’s left of my life,” he said. “I’m just trying to live whatever time I have left as peacefully and joyfully as I can.”


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