Chicago man who served 12 years for murder wants life back. Key witness in case was blind.

A Chicago man who was exonerated in 2023 after investigators found evidence that key testimony in his murder trial came from a legally blind eyewitness is suing the city and police department

The federal civil rights lawsuit, which was filed last month and first reported by the Chicago Tribune on Monday, says that the wrongful conviction of Darien Harris was caused by the "egregious misconduct" of Chicago police who fabricated evidence and coerced witnesses into making false statements. Harris was an 18-year-old high school student when police arrested him in connection to a fatal shooting at a South Side gas station in 2011.

A judge convicted Harris in 2014 of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and aggravated battery with a firearm, according to The National Registry of Exonerations. Harris, now 31, had served more than 12 years of a 76-year prison term when he was exonerated last December after The Exoneration Project showed that the eyewitness was suffering from advanced glaucoma at the time of the shooting and lied about being legally blind.

Although Harris received a GED and worked jobs while he was incarcerated, he told the Chicago Tribune that he has been struggling to get his life back together since his release.

"I don’t have any financial help. I’m still (treated like) a felon so I can’t get a good job. It’s hard for me to get into school," Harris told the newspaper. "I’ve been so lost. … I feel like they took a piece of me that is hard for me to get back."

Harris is seeking compensation from the city of Chicago and several Chicago Police Department officers involved in the case.

'Not an outlier': Ronnie Long's wrongful conviction is shocking — Unless you study the US justice system

Lawsuit: Investigation against Darien Harris was 'systemic police misconduct'

Harris' conviction was "secured almost solely" through the testimony of the legally blind eyewitness, who the court identified as a credible witness, The Exoneration Project said.

The witness had given varying accounts "with numerous inconsistencies" to authorities and identified Harris in both a photographic and live lineup, according to The National Registry of Exonerations. He testified before a grand jury that he was riding a motorized scooter when he saw the shooting and tried to follow the gunman.

During cross-examination, Harris' defense attorney asked the witness if his diabetes affected his vision. The witness said he had diabetes but denied that he had difficulty seeing.

But in February 2022, two attorneys filed a post-conviction petition seeking to vacate Harris’s conviction which revealed that the witness was legally blind and lied about it when he testified, according to the registry. "In addition to his medical condition that severely limited his visual acuity, surveillance video of the crime reveals that the witness was much farther from the scene than he claimed to be," The Exoneration Project said.

The organization added that police misconduct was a factor in Harris' wrongful conviction. During Harris' trial, the alleged getaway driver in the shooting had recanted his initial identification and said police officers coerced him into making a false identification. Another witness also claimed that officers attempted to coerce her.

"(Harris’s) wrongful conviction is not an isolated occurrence," alleges the complaint. "Rather, it is part of patterns and practices of systemic police misconduct at the Area Two Police Headquarters, where police officers were trained to fabricate evidence and withhold exculpatory evidence to secure wrongful convictions."

Exonerations across the US

Since 1989, there have been more than 3,500 exonerations, in which exonerated people spent more than 31,900 years in prison for crimes they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry recorded 153 exonerations that occurred in 2023.

"Official misconduct occurred in at least 118 exonerations in 2023," the registry said in its annual report. "75 homicide cases – 85% of homicide exonerations in 2023 – were marred by official misconduct."

The number of exonerations has also increased by nearly 70% since 2017 – 3,200 compared to 1,900 – the registry said in its 2022 report on race and wrongful convictions in the United States. The report found racial disparity in all major crime categories except white-collar crime and noted that Black people comprise 53% of the 3,200 exonerations listed in the registry.

"Judging from exonerations, innocent Black Americans are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes," the report added.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago man exonerated after 12 years in prison sues city and police