LINCOLN — A man who spent 14 years behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife says the nightmare of that experience will soon be transformed into realization of a lifelong dream.
On Friday, the Nebraska Legislature gave initial approval to paying the remaining $450,000 of an out-of-court settlement awarded last year to Darrel Parker for his mistaken imprisonment.
Parker, now 82 and hard of hearing, said it will mean he and his current wife can finally own a home outright. It's also, he said, another step in righting an old wrong.
“It tells me that after all of these years, there's some good faith,” Parker said in a telephone interview. “We'll be happy and grateful to get the check. It seems like it's been a long time in coming.”
Parker, who now lives in Moline, Ill., was found guilty by a jury in the rape and murder of his young wife in 1955 at their home in Lincoln's Antelope Park.
But 14 years later, he was released from prison after a federal court ruled his confession was “coerced and involuntary.”
Parker, who maintained his innocence and that he was bullied into the confession, eventually won a state pardon in 1991, but wasn't able to win a declaration of total innocence until August. That's when Attorney General Jon Bruning announced it was “crystal clear” that Parker did not commit the murder.
The declaration led to an out-of-court court settlement for $500,000, the maximum allowed under a state law passed in 2009 to reimburse those wrongfully imprisoned by the state.
The first $50,000 was approved last year by the State Claims Board, but the remainder required legislative approval.
The Nebraska Legislature gave first-round approval to the $450,000 payment on Friday on a 32-0 vote. Two more rounds of votes are required, but approval is expected.
“I just can't believe we were fortunate enough to have a man like Jon Bruning who was able to step back and take a long look at this case,” Parker said.
He said he will use the money to pay off the mortgage on a condominium that he and his wife, Ele, purchased last fall. It will also be applied to legal bills.
Parker, a retired forester who later worked as a courier for a law firm, said he was able to get a loan for the condo based on the expectation that he could pay off the mortgage after getting the full, $500,000 award.
“This is going to make a dream come true,” he said.
During floor debate on the claims bill that included Parker's claim, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said the case demonstrates that the criminal justice system is not infallible.
Lathrop said it is one of the reasons he opposes the death penalty because the system “isn't perfect enough” to avoid the possibility of executing an innocent person.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers also pledged that he would seek changes in the 2009 law to reimburse the wrongfully convicted. The law, he said, unreasonably requires convicted persons to prove their innocence, rather than just show that they were not guilty.
Legislative Bill 536, advanced on Friday, also included forgiveness of $2 million in uncollected debts owed to the State Department of Health and Human Services. It also authorizes the payment of $302,000 in litigants' legal bills ordered by the U.S. District Court after the state lost a constitutional challenge to a law concerning sex offender registration.
On a recent spring afternoon, Parker planted petunias, alyssum, salvia and snapdragons around the condominium, which sits in a wooded area in the Illinois city along the Mississippi River.
His case had received little public attention until a former Lincoln resident, David Strauss, published a book in 2010 about the Parker case called “Barbarous Souls.”
Strauss' father-in-law, the late Tom McManus, had served as one of Parker's defense attorneys. Strauss concluded that the actual murderer was Wesley Peery, a career criminal who ended up dying on Nebraska's death row after being convicted of a similar rape and murder in Lincoln in 1975.
Peery had told his attorneys that he killed Nancy Parker, a confession that wasn't revealed until after Peery died in 1988.
Strauss' book sparked new interest in the case. Lincoln attorneys Herb and Dan Friedman took up his cause. Despite the loss of evidence that might have cleared Parker using DNA tests, the lawyers convinced the attorney general that Parker deserved an apology and compensation.
Parker said his only regret is that he wasn't able to enjoy the monetary award earlier.
His wife, now 87, has back problems and cancer. Parker said they're both too old to travel. Planting flowers and watching the birds at a backyard feeder are their recreation now, not a long trip.
“Those days are gone, they're behind us,” he said. “Ele and I want to enjoy what time we have left.”
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