Appellate court frees man after 24 years behind bars

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Adam Gray (right) with his brother, Michael, after a news conference at his attorney’s office in the Loop Thursday. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

With his first public comments since suddenly being set free this week after serving 24 years behind bars for a fatal arson, Adam Gray said Thursday he simply wants to reconnect with loved ones and perhaps dust off his old Nintendo.

Gray was a “video game nerd” when he was arrested in 1993 at the age of 14 and accused of spreading gasoline on the rear stairs of a brick two flat in the Brighton Park neighborhood and setting it on fire.

Cook County prosecutors said he committed the crime because Gray was angry with a girl who lived in the building for rejecting him. The girl and her family escaped. But two other people died in the blaze. Gray, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.

“I had to make peace with the idea I was going to die in prison for something that I didn’t do,” Gray, 38, said at a news conference at his attorney’s Loop office.

For years, a pro bono legal team fought to prove that the science behind evidence used to convict Gray was flawed. They got a break last year when then former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s Conviction Integrity Unit concluded that Gray deserved another trial.

However, Cook County Judge Angela Petrone, unconvinced there was enough new evidence for a jury to acquit Gray, denied him a new trial.

“She seemed not to understand the new evidence that made a difference in the case,” Terri Mascherin, one of the attorneys who represents Gray, said Thursday.

“It’s unprecedented as far as I’m aware that a judge would deny a joint request by the prosecution and the defense to give someone a new trial where the prosecution agrees that scientific knowledge has changed and that the evidence on which the defendant was originally convicted is no longer considered scientifically valid,” Mascherin said.

Advancements in science show that there was no accelerant found and the only chemicals detected in the fire debris were the kind commonly used to treat wooden stairs against water, Mascherin said.

Gray’s attorneys appealed the decision. While the appeal was pending, Alvarez’s successor, Kim Foxx, went even further — agreeing to submit with Gray’s attorneys a joint motion asking the appellate court for three things: to vacate Gray’s convictions, to enter an order dismissing the charges against him and to release him immediately.

The motion was filed Tuesday and granted Wednesday. Gray was released within hours.

“It was a pretty harsh road to be on,” Gray said of his legal journey.

“I think I had more days believing this day wouldn’t come than I had days believing it would.”

Asked about his immediate plans, Gray said: “I still don’t feel like I’ve got my sea legs yet, so you know, I’m winging it.”

Gray said he had dinner at a restaurant with his attorneys and found  himself reeling in his new environment.

“It was weird for me to adjust to everything being bright and shiny,” he said. “They had like little video poker machines, there was just a lot of lighting, to me it was really kind of dizzying.”

“Prison is muted by design,” he said.

Both Gray and Mascherin railed against Chicago Police detectives who questioned Gray for seven hours without a parent or attorney present before the then teenager signed a statement admitting he started the fire using gasoline he bought from a local gas station.

“I spent several hours expressing my innocence to the cops, the cops weren’t trying to hear that,” Gray said Thursday. “Anything that I said that wasn’t in sync with what they wanted me to say was dismissed.”

“There was only so much I could take,” Gray said. “You just want it to stop.”

The detectives had tunnel vision, Mascherin said.

“This is a case that shows the danger that can happen when the police and prosecuting authorities go into a case with a theory and try to fit the facts to meet their theory instead of really investigating the facts,” she said.

When asked if planned to sue for wrongful conviction, Gray said, “We haven’t made any decisions, me and my lawyers are talking.”

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