SALT LAKE CITY — Harry Miller won't be 58 for another week, but on Monday, when a judge signed an order making him an innocent man, it felt like a gift.
"I got a birthday coming up," Miller said. "I feel like I could celebrate my birthday today. I'm grateful I'm alive."
Miller, who was convicted of aggravated robbery in 2003, was sentenced to five years to life in prison for a robbery that occurred at a Salt Lake City convenience store just days after Miller suffered a temporarily paralyzing stroke in Louisiana.
At trial, jurors never heard testimony from family members and in-home nurses who said that Miller didn't leave the state following the stroke, as he couldn't climb stairs following the stroke and struggled to walk a few blocks. Miller was charged in connection with a crime that occurred less than two weeks after the stroke.
He spent 3 ½ years in prison before he was released, and it would be another two years before the Utah Court of Appeals would reverse the conviction and call for a rehearing.
The state dismissed the charges and eventually, for the first time in state history, stipulated to Miller's factual innocence. Third District Judge Royal Hansen signed the innocence order Monday.
Miller is the second person to be exonerated under a 2009 state statute that allows for a determination of factual innocence when there is clear and convincing evidence the crime was not committed by the accused person — even if it is not DNA evidence. Under the statute, Miller will receive $124,000.
"I'm going back to Louisiana, buy me a house, try to enjoy my life," Miller said. "I'll start a new life. A better life."
He said he'll return to his home state, where his two daughters and their children live near New Orleans, in November.
"I'm going to live my life the way I want to live it — like an old man, enjoying my grandkids," Miller said. "That's something I really want to do."
The three-plus years Miller spent in prison was difficult, which he noted probably wasn't unique. "Prison ain't no good," he said. "Not for nobody."
But as time went on, he began to lose hope. His family was out of state and he worried the distance would leave him forgotten.
"I was thinking I'm probably never going to get out because I'm so far from home," Miller said.
In 2009, Miller told the Deseret News that he still felt "locked up" as he struggled to find work, gain the determination of innocence and be compensated for the time that he lost. Monday was a different story.
"I feel good," he said countless times. "I feel like I got a lot of weight off of my shoulders. My mind, too."
Miller had high praise for those with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, who saw the exoneration through. The center's president, Jensie Anderson, said there were "problems all along" in Miller's case.
"This case never should have gone to trial," she said. The major takeaway being the "fallibility" of eyewitness testimony, which is often convincing for jurors but weak as far as evidence goes. In Miller's case, the woman who was robbed at knifepoint identified Miller as the perpetrator three years after the incident. At the time she was robbed, she said the man was 18 to 21 years old and physically fit. Miller was 47.
"When a victim of a crime looks into a courtroom and says, 'That's the person who robbed me,' that kind of testimony has incredible strength," Anderson said. "We need to find ways to improve the system."
She said the most conservative estimate has the conviction rate of innocent people at 1 percent. Some experts put the number closer to 10 percent. Of the DNA exonerations thus far in the nation, 77 percent have involved eyewitness testimony.
"We don’t believe this was an eyewitness that did anything purposeful or malicious," Anderson clarified, but added that their identifications need to be evaluated early on. "It was on that identification that he was convicted."
Miller said he doesn't necessarily have any anger toward the state of Utah, but thinks its laws should be changed. He didn't specify as to how, but he pointed out the impact of the 2009 change that allowed for a determination of his innocence.
"They made one change in the law and they help out two people," Miller said. "Maybe they could change more."
For the time being, Miller is working part-time doing landscaping and grounds keeping work for Salt Lake County. He'll keep doing that until he can return to Louisiana.
"I got other things I have to do," he said. "When I leave here, I want to be nice and clean."
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