Call It Even

The wrong guys went down for an old lady's murder. At least the prosecutors are unscathed

Page 6 of 6

"Everybody on our side held their nose," says Kevin Spellacy, an attorney who worked with the Innocence Project on Siller's case.

"Given the prosecutor's office we were dealing with, I knew better than to assume anything," says Alba Morales, another Siller attorney.

Siller took the deal, but only after dispatching his lawyers to ask his family whether they'd rather have him come home or continue the fight to clear his name. "Come home" was the resounding answer.

"Preferably, we'd like to have seen him vindicated," says Spellacy. "We like to say go to trial, make them prove it, and you're found not guilty. That's the ideal result. I told him point blank we'll try your case. Nothing would make me happier than to cross examine that idiot [Smith]. But when it comes with an enormous amount of risk ... Tom had to decide the quickest way to go home."

"I had enough. I had enough of the madness," says Siller. "Let me throw myself under the bus, go home, and get out of the prosecutor's way so they can convict the right person in Alice's murder. That's what I was thinking. I always wanted to go back to trial. I always thought they'd eventually be stand-up enough to admit they're wrong."

Zimmer was offered the same deal and was released shortly after. "The first thing I asked when my attorney told me about the deal was, 'What's Tom doing? Is Tom fighting it?' They told me Tom took it. I kind of couldn't believe it."

Zimmer said he had received offers over the years in exchange for testimony against Siller.

"I told them I'd be lying on Tom," he says. "I never did. I never did."

Siller says each man is lucky the other is a moral and honest guy.

The two men are free after 14 years of proclaiming innocence from the inside, but they're unable to proclaim total innocence on the outside. Multiple people familiar with the case say Siller and Zimmer were warned not to say they lied when they took the plea bargain for theft charges. Yet it's impossible for anyone to point to what they stole to justify the felony charges, each of which carries a $100,000 threshold.

"I cried through that part — the part where you say yes to the judge when he reads the charges," Siller says. "I just couldn't say yes that easy, it's like ...," and the tears come again.

"The deal was a joke. Siller and Zimmer had to 'admit' to stealing more money than Alice Zolkowski even had," says Ashlie Case Sletvold, a civil-rights attorney who worked on Siller's appeal. "In offering this 'deal,' the prosecutors did not seem to be out for justice. They seemed to be massaging their wounded egos and trying to stave off a civil suit for the wrongful convictions."

On June 14, Jason Smith posted bail for charges of obstruction of justice and perjury. Spokesman Ryan Miday told The Plain Dealer the prosecutor's office will likely seek to negate Smith's original plea, which could allow them to pursue charges for Zolkowski's murder. A pretrial conference was set for July 5. (A number listed for Jason Smith has been disconnected; Smith's attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

***

Lawyers familiar with the case say Siller and Zimmer have solid legal ground for compensation from the state.

"On a moral level, I think he deserves it," says attorney Morales. "On a legal level, I don't know what his chances are."

One thing's for sure: They could use the money.

Heavy rains have made masonry work hard to come by for Siller, who lives in a rural suburb that he would rather not have identified. He recently landed a job on an elementary school construction site, but the work has taken its toll on his 56-year-old body. "I get sore real quick," he says. "It'll come back, but for now it's rough. I used to fuck with the old guys, tell them I could pull another 12-hour shift after just finishing a 12-hour shift. Now I'm the old guy."

He receives $200 a month in food stamps. "That don't buy anything," he says. The Innocence Project assists with bills for his prescriptions — high cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. — and reimburses him for necessities. Maybe there's a union job in his future — the ones that pay $24.50 an hour or so, by his math. But for now he's humping for a lot less.

In the meantime, he putzes around. Cleaning, fixing, and cooking up chicken parmesan, pork chops, and other dishes he recalls from his days working in restaurants. "And with chicken livers, the key is to sear them, you know," he says. "My mom used to overcook the crap out of them, but when you sear them real nice, they are great."

A full belly belies the emptiness that permeates much of Siller's life beyond the prison bars. He has not spoken to his ex-wife. He is proud of his two sons, though they don't speak to their father — didn't throughout his incarceration.

"They almost came to see me once," he says, his voice giving way to tears again.

Walter Zimmer lives in Brunswick with a friend — the same friend who hooked him up with a painting job that keeps him working every day. His daughter stuck by him throughout his ordeal, and she celebrated with him upon his release. She'll be going to college soon, and Dad is saving up to buy her a computer off Craigslist.

Some of his meager prison savings went toward a 10-year-old SUV he bought for $1,100. The owner knocked $900 off after hearing Zimmer's story.

He says his faith has never wavered; he attends church every Sunday and keeps his nose clean: He doesn't drink and hasn't done drugs. One failed attempt at achieving a commercial driver's license hasn't deterred him from trying again.

Within weeks of their release, Siller and Zimmer were invited to the international Innocence Project convention in Cincinnati, a gathering of more than 100 exonerated prisoners. It offered the only environment in which either man has felt completely at ease since leaving prison.

"There's a bond there," says Siller. "My story has a lot of twists and turns, but there are some absolute horror stories out there. Stories that make you feel lucky. Sometimes I look at mine and think it's nothing."

He also knows there are some who will question his innocence, those who doubt the wrong man can be convicted.

"But I pray for those that don't believe this can happen, that this never happens to them."

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