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By Megan Dooley
All he wants is a quiet place to lay his head. A bed of his own in a modest home in a comfortable neighborhood, surrounded by friendly neighbors. In Oak Park.
It's not so much to ask, especially for a man who has spent the last quarter-century paying someone else's debt to society.
Eric Caine, incarcerated at the age of 20, left prison last winter a middle-aged man. After 25 years in the confines of a maximum security facility, he finally managed to win the freedom he deserved all along.
In 1986, Caine was charged as an accessory in a home invasion and double murder. Among the police who questioned him at the time was Jon Burge, a now-convicted felon who allegedly tortured hundreds of criminal suspects into false confessions in his former role as a Chicago Police Department detective.
After years of letter-writing campaigns, someone finally took interest in Caine's case. "My cries for help were falling on deaf ears all those years," he said.
Then an attorney from the University of Chicago Law School's Exoneration Project, which provides legal assistance to wrongfully convicted prisoners, found out about Caine.
"It blew their mind," he said. "They didn't even know I existed."
Three different independent investigations, including one by the Internal Affairs Division of the Chicago Police Department and one by the State's Attorney General's Office, eventually helped prove Caine's claim that he had been tortured into a confession at the hands of Burge and his cohorts, and was in fact innocent of the crime for which he was incarcerated.
His wrongful imprisonment finally ended when Caine walked free on March 17 of this year. But the nightmare continued outside the prison walls.
"Since I've been out of prison, I've been struggling," Caine said. "I've been paranoid. So much so that I see shadows in shadows in the dark. I can barely sleep, and when I do, I wake up sweating."
But all that anxiety seemed to melt away the first time Caine set foot in Oak Park. He was on his way to have breakfast at a pancake house on the West Side of Chicago when he passed over into the village of Oak Park. He'd heard of the place before, but in his 20 years living in Chicago, pre-prison, had never visited the suburb.
"It was like Alice in Wonderland. Like I came through a carwash," he said. "I felt so serene. So at peace, and I didn't even know what the place was."
He asked his friend, who told him they were in Oak Park. "It's so different," Cane said. "It's like a whole different world. Even the air. I can't even explain it."
Caine remembers a woman jogging, a man biking, lots of activity, and many smiling faces. "I said, 'I'm going to live here,'" he recalled. "I felt safe. I felt good here."
He may have made up his mind, but there were still plenty of roadblocks and a long road between his decision and a dream home in Oak Park. Until recently, he was crashing on his aunt's couch in Chicago and working a part-time job at a dog-walking company. Money, naturally, is an issue.
"They don't pay much but it helps me out," he said. "It's not enough for me to pay rent or anything of that nature, but it gives me something to do," Caine said.
He is entitled to restitution from the state for his wrongful imprisonment, but a complex process to prove he was, in fact, innocent of the crime and not released from prison under other circumstances, is delaying that payoff. The ruling on whether or not his certificate of innocence is granted will be held in early September.
"To make a long story short, yes, I will be entitled to $199,000 because that's the cap," he said.
That money will come from the state. Caine and his attorneys also have plans for a civil suit against the City of Chicago, which could eventually mean a lot more money. But that will take much longer. For now, he is counting on restitution from the state to survive.
But he still needs full-time work to support himself.
In the meantime, he's dedicating his time in part to help others like himself. Last week, he started working as a volunteer for the Chicago Innocence Project. Founded by Oak Parker David Protess, the non-profit organization is similar to the Innocence Project Protess initiated at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where he worked as an investigative journalism professor and oversaw projects aimed at releasing innocent inmates from prison. In total, 11 innocent men have been freed from prison under Protess' direction, five from Death Row.
Caine has also found support from the Oak Park-River Forest Area Walk-In Ministry, which acts as a referral agency to people in need of assistance.
"When we learned about Eric's situation and that he wanted to be in Oak Park, we said I bet we could find some people who could find him housing," said Cristy Harris, executive director of the Walk-In Ministry, which shares office space with the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry in First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake.
The first thing they did was call over to West Suburban PADS, a homeless shelter agency that also operates a transitional housing program. They were happy to help and found Caine short-term transitional housing in Oak Park, where he's now staying while they help him find a permanent home.
"Our primary function at the Walk-In Ministry is as a referral agency. So we gather a lot of information about all of the services that are out there," Harris said.
They haven't scouted out a home for Caine just yet, but Harris said it shouldn't take long.
When he does finally move permanently to Oak Park, Caine said he'll be signing on for more volunteer work, this time at the food pantry, to give back to the people who have offered him so much.
"What we've done for Eric is really what we do for anybody who has needs in this community. We encourage anybody who just can't quite figure out how to get to where they want to be, how to make things better in their lives, to come and see us here. We have very dedicated, committed volunteers," Harris said.
"That's what I like the most," Caine said, "I don't like to live with problems, I like finding answers to problems. I'm a practical person. That's why I'm not dwelling on my ordeal, even though it was just that, an ordeal," he said. "Put it this way. I've learned what the scripture really meant by being baptized by fire. I was scorched."
Indeed, his prison time was bleak, and did not exactly pave the way for a successful life after imprisonment. After getting his GED in prison, he was not allowed to pursue any higher degrees, and no counseling was available to him, to help through the darkest days. Caine said at his lowest point, he once tried to end his own life. But whatever kept him holding on continues to sustain him in his post-prison life.
"I have six principles I'm living my life by," he said. "Love God first. Love people. Love life. No drama. No B.S. And no negative people. Those are the six principles in my life."
Harris said she and others are taken with his upbeat attitude, and his feeling that harboring resentment will do him little good.
"I really believe that he feels that way," Harris said, "because every time I've seen him he's had a smile on his face. He's got a very gentle manner, he's very well spoken. He's amazing to not just be furious with his situation."
"I have no room in my life for that," Caine said. "I can't enjoy it if I did. That's a waste. I want to enjoy my life. My new life. And it has no room for none of that."
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