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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007 03:43 pm

With malice toward none

Keith Harris looks back at his years of incarceration without bitterness

Untitled Document In his family, Keith Harris is known as the favorite uncle who will take a few of the nieces and nephews for the day, go to the nursing home and hang out with the aged aunties, even bring their favorite pets to visit. In his neighborhood, he’s known as the guy who will do lawn care for anybody who needs help. After he mows and edges the grass, he’ll give the neighbor a ride to the store to pick up medicine or groceries.
At his job as a maintenance worker with the U.S. Postal Service, Keith is the employee who is never absent, never tardy, always smiling and upbeat. If a co-worker has an illness or a death in the family, Keith buys a greeting card, makes sure everybody signs it, and takes up a collection for that person.  In fact, Keith is so steadfastly cheerful, so relentlessly optimistic, so purely positive that his girlfriend, Helen Burrage, admits that he occasionally grates on her nerves. “He makes a positive situation out of everything. Sometimes I’ll get angry because I’m upset about something, and he takes it and makes it a positive!” she says.  What makes Keith’s attitude so remarkable is his undeniable right to feel just the opposite. If anyone ever had a good reason to feel angry at the whole world, it’s Keith Harris. In 1978, Keith and a friend were accused of robbing Freddie’s Shell station in Caseyville and pumping seven bullets into the cashier. No physical evidence linked them to the scene; their arrest was based solely on the cashier’s account. In fact, there was evidence that they didn’t commit the crime. The Freddie’s stickup turned out to be the second of a series of 11 armed robberies with a tally of 15 shootings and stabbings, including nine fatalities. Keith had an airtight alibi for all of the other robberies, but by the time the real robbers had been caught and confessed he was already in prison. He was a 119-pound teenager when he was sent to the Menard Correctional Center — the state’s largest maximum-security facility — he served 22 years and 100 days for a crime he did not commit.
Didn’t I tell you he had reason to be bitter? At the time he was sentenced, the judge had added 10 years to the statutory 40-year term. Doing research in the prison law library, Keith discovered that only juries, not judges, have the right to enhance sentences. He filed a writ of habeas corpus and won release in May 2001. Keith, though, wanted more than just liberty; he wanted to clear his name. His case had already come to the attention of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, then a fledgling group of University of Illinois at Springfield students. Working year-round and long past their graduation dates, they collected a mountain of evidence of Keith’s innocence and presented it to the Prisoner Review Board. In January 2003, as then-Gov. George Ryan was leaving office, Keith received a full pardon based on innocence. I first met Keith in 2002, as he was preparing to appear before the board [see “The Wrong Man,” Oct. 3, 2002]. I talked to him a few days after he was pardoned — in what seemed like a long-distance phone call from my desk to Cloud Nine — and I saw him again a few months later at a banquet, where he was one of several speakers.
At the banquet, I noticed something different about Keith. He was the same guy I had interviewed a few months earlier at his home in Belleville, but the exoneration had given him an almost celebritylike aura. People stood in awe when he was introduced. Here was a man who had been to hell and back and had not only survived but actually returned with a smile.
Five years later, Keith has made a lot of speeches, but he hasn’t bothered to become practiced or polished. He’s got an East St. Louis accent, his own quiet style, and no index cards to remind him what to say. “I learned real early: You’ve got to forgive,” he says. “If you don’t, and you hold onto the malice, your heart will harden and nobody will want to help you. But if you give it away, you’re free.”
He has a civil suit pending, but he’s not worried about its progress. He’s more concerned with taking care of his mother, his nieces and nephews, his neighbors and friends. “This is what I got out for — to help,” he says, “so that’s what I’ve been doing.” 

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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