Reflections on Exoneration

by Tonia Miller

Tonia Miller wrote this essay in the weeks after her release from prison in April, 2021, after her conviction had been vacated based on 7 years of legal work by the Michigan Innocence Clinic. Please see this posting about her case.

Prison! Just the word made my stomach turn. But there I was, heading toward the one place I never thought I would end up. I sat in a van with one other prisoner who was on his way back to a men’s facility after a writ. I was in the jailhouse-orange jumpsuit and made to sit in the back, unable to speak to him. We dropped him off first and then it was off to Robert Scott Correctional Facility for me. As we pulled up and I saw the barbed wire, all I could feel was panic. I wanted to turn around, to wake up from this nightmare, but that was not an option. The guard at the front warned me not to tell anyone why I was there or get into a relationship with another female. I was put into holding with a few others, and we were all processed together. We were fed a decent lunch and issued our prison clothing, and then sent to our cells. I was not given a rule book nor was I told what was expected of me. I was given a roommate who was just as new. Together, we learned the rules by default.

 In the beginning I was petrified, not wanting to believe this was my life for the next 20 years. Imagine that for a moment: sentenced to a minimum of 2 decades in prison. The exact amount of time I had been alive and living life free already. 260 months; 7300 days—or more, up to 30 years—behind bars. How did this happen? Where did I go wrong? I was terrified to talk to others, to make friends when you were told that there are no friends in prison. I had to figure out how to exist there for the next couple of decades. I began school, got a job and made some friends. I got active in sports, working out, and I started helping others with their writing and math. I developed a routine that worked for me. 

I heard from my family on a regular basis at first, but I was warned it wouldn’t last long. All of the women on the inside knew from experience that family drops off after the first couple of years. They would get over the shock of my being gone and go back to their normal routines, and I would have to find a new normal. I was good at being a chameleon; I had been one my whole life. Pretending everything was okay while it wasn’t but moving on just the same. Holding in all of those feelings of being scared, ashamed, abandoned, a degenerate. I felt like I was the lowest on the totem pole, scum to society. I felt like I’d let down my whole family. Eventually I stopped calling them so much. They didn’t need to know the ins and outs of prison life. And soon enough, they stopped asking. Other prisoners became my family and the intimate conversations I once held with my family became foreign.  

 Fast forward nearly a decade. I am making money to take care of myself, so my family doesn’t feel obligated to help me. I have friends inside and am doing what I need to do to become a productive member of society again. I suddenly get mail from an utter stranger telling me that he believes in me and thinks I should start fighting my case. My first thought is amazement that someone believes in me, but then I think of the money it would take—my mother had already spent more than she could afford for the first trial. I’d felt a flicker of hope, but I make myself set it aside. Then the man writes again, with an application to the Michigan Innocence Clinic. I have no faith that I would be chosen, but I reluctantly fill it out and send it in.

While I waited for an answer, the stranger kept writing and sharing with me what he’d been learning online from families with loved ones in my position. We started up a friendship, and finally I could see a light at the end of tunnel—a faint light, but a light. My new friend urged me to call David Moran at the Clinic directly and gave me the number. David sent me another application, which was accepted.

I was elated, and this time I let the hope creep in. I was releasing all of these medical records and talking to all of these law students, but the process was slow and arduous. Years went by with no movement in court. I began to feel stupid for being so excited and for telling my family about it. Worse, because of the appeal, my case was back in the news, and everyone was forced to relive that day, that nightmare. I began to wonder if it was even worth it. The students all seemed to be excited to be a part of my case, but I just couldn’t understand why. What was so special? 

Finally, I realized that my case was a classic example of misdiagnosed shaken baby syndrome, and I was the poster child. I could see a path to exoneration but, boy, did it take a long time to get there. Motions were filed and denied and filed again. Hearings were set. Slowly, the case moved forward, but I kept a wall up, not wanting to get too excited in case it floundered. I also didn’t want my family to get their hopes up, because they didn’t deserve another heartbreak, so I kept my excitement to myself.

Then a lower court decided I should be granted a new trial. My attorneys were optimistic that I could be released on bond, so they set a hearing, and I’d even told my family… and the judge said no. I’d let myself get excited and had my family making plans, and then the answer was no. Devastated, I dreaded having to tell everyone, including fellow inmates and prison staff. The next hearings were hard, because my faith had been shaken. (Oh, the irony of that word, shaken. I’m surprised it still has meaning in other contexts, but I see it does.)

Eventually, the appeals court upholds the decision of the lower court and another bond hearing is set. This time, I am granted bond.

I don’t tell anyone in the prison because I’m expecting them to come back and say they had made a mistake—but the facility is buzzing with the news because it was in the press. Officers begin to congratulate me and then my officer tells me that I am leaving that very day! April 22, 2021. I start giving away things, and my friends are wondering why, and then suddenly it sinks in and everybody knows this is the day. The whole unit is quiet as the phone rings, waiting to hear if it’s my call. They are all excited and ready to blow the roof off of the place. No one understands how I am so calm. I am just in shock, I think. I go through the motions and end up outside the prison. I am still not feeling free. I see my family and my attorneys and it still feels unreal. 

Soon, though, being out feels normal. Like I was always out. No feelings of being overwhelmed. But I am not free. I can’t let myself be happy because it is not over.* There is still that fear of going back. I want to make memories with my family while I can and then another part of me wants to protect them and not let them get close so they aren’t hurt again if this goes bad. Who wants to live life like this? To want so desperately to be happy but not knowing if you should be because you don’t know what the future holds? Sometimes, it is still just as traumatizing as it was being inside. 

Everything is difficult. Getting an ID and trying to get a driver’s license when Covid is a thing. Everything is delayed, but I am feeling the need to get a job so I have money to give to these attorneys when we go to trial again. All the while wanting to be hopeful that I won’t have to go back. I just want to do whatever I can now to be prepared. I feel so conflicted. Should I get a job and store away money or should I make plans for the summer with my family? Is the end finally near? Can I then reach out to my daughter and hope for a relationship? I haven’t yet because it is not over. I have not been able to prove my innocence so in her mind she believes I did it. Why would she want a relationship with someone she believes killed her little sister? I try to put myself in everyone’s shoes, and ultimately I neglect myself. I want everyone else to be happy and fail to express how I feel. I don’t want them to hurt at all, so I hold inside my fears of potentially returning to prison and leaving behind even more debt than I had before. Why should one human have to feel such feelings? To have to look so far into the future and think about every possible outcome? Should I have just left well enough alone and just finished up my time? Am I going to be the one who helps others win their cases and get this theory thrown out for good? Am I capable of being a spokesperson if it comes to that? How will I feel if I lose again? I can’t help but think of all of these things instead of allowing myself to be happy in the moment. When can I feel normal again?

*Tonia wrote this essay when there was still an open case against her. Since then she has found a job she likes, and now the state has dropped the charges, so she can start rebuilding her relationships and her life without the spectre of another trial and possibly more prison.

Regarding one of the questions in her final paragraph: Those of us who have spoken with Tonia believe she is already finding her voice as an advocate for justice.

See this post for a summary of her story.

Tonia would like to thank:

  • The relatives and friends who have supported her
  • The staff and student volunteers at the Michigan Innocence Clinic
  • The staff and student volunteers at the Medill Justice Project (which has since refocused its efforts away from SBS)
  • The “utter stranger” who wrote her in prison, encouraging her to fight her conviction (that is, Jeremy Praay, citizen advocate for the wrongly accused)
  • Anyone working on behalf of wrongly accused families and caretakers