Andre Davis was at the bottom of the deepest hole a man can be in when the letter reached him.
The envelope held a lifeline, an offer of help, but even a less-jaded man than Davis would have been skeptical. The return address was for a stranger who introduced herself as the aunt of Brianna Stickel.
Three-year-old Brianna had been raped and suffocated in 1980 in a small house in Rantoul. Two Champaign County juries had said Davis was the killer.
Tell me what happened, Judi Stickel wrote. I have doubts, she said. I can help you.
Davis had been 19 when he was arrested, and, during the dozen years until that letter arrived, the Chicago native always believed he would be exonerated. He had no idea how, or when, and it had been a long time since anyone had offered to help him with anything.
He was sentenced to 80 years without parole. Prosecutors had pushed to have him executed. In prison, Davis soon found that when someone is convicted of raping and killing a child, fellow inmates are only too happy to carry out a death sentence. As far as Davis knew, Brianna's family wanted him dead, just like everybody else.
Davis threw away the letter. A few weeks later, he threw away another.
From her kitchen table in Davenport, Stickel kept writing once or twice a month to update Davis on the contents of a folder she was filling with old police reports and court records, and the more she read, the more convinced she became that Davis did not kill Brianna.
Between jobs working construction, tending bar or pressing clothes for a dry cleaning chain, Stickel made phone calls and scribbled notes on the backs of envelopes and the margins of newspaper clippings. It was two years before Davis wrote back.
Davis was 50 when he was released from prison this summer, thanks to DNA evidence uncovered by Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
He had been behind bars for 31 years, 10 months and 29 days, the longest any Illinois inmate has served before being exonerated by DNA testing, Davis' attorneys said.
If not for Judi Stickel, he might be there still.
More than 100 inmates have been exonerated of crimes in Illinois since 1989, and lawyers at the Center on Wrongful Convictions cannot recall another case in which they were recruited by someone in the victim's family.
"I just wanted answers. That's what I told him," Stickel recalled in a recent interview. "And I kept bugging him and bugging him until he wrote me back."
Doing hard time
It was hard-earned paranoia that led Davis to assume that Stickel wanted information about him so she could have him killed in prison or hurt his loved ones on the outside.
His mother and father had spent their life savings on his trial. His upwardly mobile extended family on Chicago's South Side and in the suburbs might have had means to help, but they had all but ignored him after his arrest.
He'd had no attorney since his last appeal in 1984. The jailhouse lawyer who had offered to work on his case took one look at his file and promptly told inmates and guards scattered around the prison system to reserve a special place in hell for the convicted child-killer.
Davis had been at Pontiac Correctional Center only a few days before inmates began calling him a pedophile. When the insults escalated into threats and assaults, he realized guards always wrote him up as the instigator.
And so Davis, who had only a juvenile arrest for auto theft on his record before he landed in prison, racked up one of the longest disciplinary records in the state.
When the "supermax" lockup opened in Tamms in 1998 to house the purported most-dangerous inmates in Illinois, he was one of the first ones shipped there.
Tamms inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in a tiny, gray cell. The only respite is a daily hourlong trip to a 12-by-30-foot prison yard, with walls so high the sun can only reach your skin if you are outside at noon.
"After the first couple weeks, I didn't even go for yard," Davis said.
"I was like, what's the point? Half of it has a tin roof over it, the other half has a fence over it. They just put that there to make the sky seem farther away."
Family mystery solved
Stickel remembers writing to Davis the first time in 1992, while he was still living in the general population at Pontiac. She had recently moved back to Davenport from Nevada, where she had been studying to become a paralegal.
She never finished her classes, but she enjoyed poring over court records and watching cop shows, and Davis' case was not the first mystery she solved.
Stickel's older brother had died when she was 14, and she'd always been told he'd been shot dead by two boys who were his closest friends. For years, she and her relatives had seen the boys walking free and unpunished in Davenport.
She decided to head to the courthouse and find out why. As she read through the files, she learned the family lore was wrong: The three boys had been playing Russian roulette. Her brother had shot himself.
Stickel was mortified that she had been so wrong about an innocent family. And she wondered about another family tragedy, the death of her brother's daughter, Brianna, in faraway Rantoul.
She found where Davis was imprisoned and wrote him a letter. She got no response. She wrote again.
"I said to my sister, 'You know, we never really did know what happened with Brianna's case,' " she said. "We should go down to Rantoul and find out."
She drove to Rantoul and asked to meet with the detective who had handled the case. He assured them, she said, that Davis was the killer and had pleaded guilty, drumming his fingers on a folder he refused to let them open.
So they went to the Champaign County courthouse. They found out Davis had not pleaded guilty but in fact had been found guilty in 1981. He was awarded a second trial on appeal and was again found guilty in 1983.
Stickel requested copies of the transcripts, but what arrived in the mail a few weeks later was a stack of police investigation reports. Reading the reports, witness statements didn't seem to gibe with court testimony, and investigators never seemed to have investigated witnesses she believed should have been suspects.
She became convinced Davis might be innocent.
She wrote to Davis again in late 1994, after her trip to Rantoul. This time, he wrote back with questions for her.
A few months later, Davis sent his mother, Emma Davis Ellis, to meet with Stickel and her sister to "see what kind of people they were." In a mall food court in Davenport, Davis' mother sifted through Stickel's files.
For about two years, Stickel spent every free moment researching Brianna's murder. She went back to Champaign and got transcripts. Then she interviewed the coroner and trial witnesses.
She called lawyers trying to get them to take Davis' case but had no money to hire one. She wrote to the state's attorney in Champaign. She wrote to the governor and the attorney general. She wrote to newspapers. She wrote to TV host Maury Povich.
About 1998, she ran out of people to write. Stickel was sure Davis would walk out of prison, free and exonerated. She just didn't know how or when.
One afternoon in late 2002, Stickel's sister called her and told her to turn on the TV. Oprah Winfrey was doing a show on wrongful convictions.
Soon after, a handwritten letter arrived at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, outlining Stickel's investigation. Stickel then mailed Davis forms that Northwestern wanted him to fill out to apply for a review of his case.
Davis began corresponding with the legal team at Northwestern. He had his first DNA test in 2004 -- none had been available at the time of his arrest. He'd been convicted largely on the strength of imprecise 1980s forensic technology and the statements of two witnesses who had known each other since childhood.
One witness discovered Brianna's body then told police that Davis had confessed to killing "a white woman," court records show.
The second witness turned out to be a DNA match for semen found on bedclothes in the room where Brianna was found, court records show. He is not being named because he has not been charged. Police in Rantoul would not say if he is a suspect in Brianna's murder.
Davis got news of the DNA results in 2005.
In March 2012, an appellate judge ordered a new trial for Davis. Champaign County prosecutors, weighing the new evidence against their 32-year-old case file, dismissed the charges in July.
A judge ordered Davis released immediately, catching his legal team and family by surprise. He had no ride home from prison.
"I hadn't been around people in 14 years, and they were talking about putting me on a bus," Davis said.
When a jail administrator unlocked his handcuffs and shook his hand, Davis estimates it was the first time he had made physical contact with another human being in four or five years. He had no idea how he would fare on a crowded Greyhound bus for seven hours.
Davis recalls walking through the tunnel-like hallways of Tamms to a section of the prison he never had visited. He walked through a waiting room and outside the prison walls and saw his father.
"We hugged, boy," Richard Davis said. "I just told him, 'At last. You're free.' " And Andre Davis replied, "I'm free."
In the end, the DNA evidence proved the most compelling factor in his successful appeal, and Stickel had been happy to pass on the heavy lifting after years on the case. Northwestern lawyers and students eventually were able to dig up all the documents Stickel had found, and more.
A week after he was released, Northwestern hosted a welcome home luncheon for Davis in a conference room overlooking Lake Michigan at the law school.
As Davis walked to the front of the room to take a seat beside the lectern, he looked out at a small crowd of friends and relatives, law students and fellow exonerated inmates. He took little notice of the slim blond woman seated in the front row until his lawyer announced her name: Judi Stickel.
Stickel had seen only Davis' prison mug shot, and she had moved on from working on his case to pestering authorities in Champaign County to charge someone else in the case. As she listened to the speakers, Andre Davis became a real person in her mind for the first time.
"Listening to everyone talk, I was thinking about what I'd done since I was 19," she said, "all the things he had missed, all the things he didn't get to do."
Davis was speechless as Stickel rose and stepped toward him. He clasped her in a hug and spoke softly in her ear.
Today is Sunday, March 9, the 68th day of 2014. There are 297 days left in the year. 1864 -- 150 years ago: Much damage is being done to sidewalks, shade trees, fences and gardens by hogs that are running at large about town. 1889 -- 125 years ago: H.C. Cleveland was elected air knight captain of Rock Island Division Uniform Rank Knights of Pythias. 1914 -- 100 years ago: B.W. Wilson, authority on birds and their habits, spoke at the weekly luncheon at the Rock Island Club. 1939 -- 75 years ago: The famous Dionne quintuplets have been invited to visit King George and Queen Elizabeth in Toronto on May 22, but Papa Dionne thinks their majesties should include the Callander nursery in their tour. 1964 -- 50 years ago: Ever been smothered by funny stuff? Well more than 2,600 people were last night when two boys named Tom and Dick Smothers took a "rocky, twisting road to folk music" in Davenport Masonic Temple. 1989 -- 25 years ago: Moline residents soon may be asked to recycle part of their garbage and might even get paid for it.