Man walks out of prison 28 years early — with the help of a prosecutor

After more than 19 years behind bars, Corzell Cole walked out of prison on March 7, 2022 to the cheers and embraces of family and friends. He thought he'd have to wait 28 more years for this day.

Maya Dukmasova / Injustice Watch

After more than 19 years behind bars, Corzell Cole walked out of prison on March 7, 2022 to the cheers and embraces of family and friends. He thought he’d have to wait 28 more years for this day.

On a blustery Monday morning in March, Corzell J. Cole Sr. stepped out of Stateville Correctional Center after 19 years and four months behind bars, holding a manila folder with discharge paperwork and a face mask. He walked a few paces, stopped, grinned, threw his head up to the gunmetal gray sky and raised his arms, dropping the folder and mask to the ground. A second later, he was enveloped in loved ones’ embraces, as his aunt’s voice rose in a wail above the crowd: “Thank you, Lord!”

“I love you, I love you so much,” Cole kept saying, with tears streaming down his face as he reached for hugs from his family members and supporters.

Cole’s first stop after his release was the Orland Park Mall. He was excited to buy new clothes to swap for his prison-issued black sweatsuit and eat shrimp and lobster for his first meal outside prison walls in nearly two decades. But most of all, he was excited to see his three sons, all in their 20s, who were on their way to meet him.

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Just two weeks before, he thought he’d have to wait 28 more years for this day.

Cole, 38, is the first person in Illinois to have his prison sentence reconsidered in part with new powers granted to prosecutors under SB2129 — an amendment to the state’s criminal code that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law last summer. It allows prosecutors to ask judges to revise sentences when “the original sentence no longer advances the interests of justice.”

The office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx had lobbied for this new power. “This is an effort by prosecutors to recognize the evolution of criminal justice,” the office told Injustice Watch in a statement. “We saw initiatives like this across the country and felt that it was time for Illinois to be a part of it.”

Still, the law is being cited for the first time, in Cole’s case, by Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow — a seven-term incumbent Democrat with a tough-on-crime reputation.

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In 2003, a jury convicted Cole of first-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from a shooting at a busy intersection in Joliet, just 6 miles from Stateville’s doors, according to court records. Cole was driving a car with another man, Travaris Guy, in the passenger seat. They were stopped at a traffic light next to another vehicle when Guy shot at the people inside — killing 39-year-old David Woods and wounding his 19-year-old daughter, according to court records.

Cole, who was then 19, was the first to be arrested and charged in connection with the murder of Woods and the attempted murder of his daughter. Although he wasn’t the accused shooter, the state’s accountability doctrine allowed the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office to charge him with the crimes because he drove the car from which Guy shot Woods and his daughter.

Cole has maintained that he didn’t even know Guy had a gun, according to his attorney, but his trial attorneys didn’t put him on the witness stand. Guy, who was then on the run from law enforcement, didn’t testify at Cole’s trial, either. A jury found Cole guilty and sentenced him to 15 years for attempted murder and 35 years for first-degree murder, to be served consecutively. Even with good behavior in prison, he wouldn’t be eligible for release until 2050.

When Guy was eventually brought to trial in 2005, he testified that he feared for his life when Woods pulled up at the intersection because of a conflict between their families. Based on this, a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder and attempted murder of Woods’ daughter. He was sentenced to serve consecutive 30-year sentences, but because second-degree murder sentences are eligible for day-for-day good time credit, Guy could be paroled as early as 2044.

“Guy’s testimony established that he acted with an unreasonable belief of self-defense so that the shooting was not a first-degree murder,” Glasgow wrote in his motion asking Will County Judge Daniel Kennedy to recall Cole’s case. “Obviously, this evidence was not available to Cole during his trial, and the result is that Cole is serving a sentence for a first degree murder that never occurred.”

Cole’s current legal team, led by Shelisa Thomas, who met him while she was still a law student at Northwestern University, had initially asked Glasgow to approve a clemency petition they were preparing to file with the governor.

A portrait of Will County State’s Attorney James W. Glasgow

Will County State’s Attorney James W. Glasgow (Photo courtesy of Will County State’s Attorney Office).

“When I looked at (the case) it immediately offended my sensibilities,” Glasgow, who wasn’t the state’s attorney when Cole was prosecuted, told Injustice Watch. He also didn’t think Cole had a good chance at clemency. “The governor is up for election this year so the odds are strong he won’t have wanted to get near a case of someone with an out date of 2050.”

It was Glasgow’s idea to instead bring Cole’s case back to court using the existing “revestment doctrine,” which allows judges to review cases when the state and defense agree a prior conviction or sentence is unjust. He argued that resentencing Cole was in the spirit of the new law too. Glasgow said it was important to show the judge that there is a new law on the books that has at its core “the principle to support what I was doing” — revisiting a sentence for the sake of justice.

The court hearing in late February that cut Cole’s sentence by two-thirds was brief. Cole spoke tearfully about his past and the future.

“I regret the day that I woke up and somebody lost their life,” he said. “It’s senseless violence that’s happening in these communities every day. And I feel like I have the tools necessary to help combat some of these issues. … Having this opportunity is just something that I won’t take for granted at all, your honor.”

The judge vacated Cole’s first-degree murder conviction, accepted his guilty plea to second-degree murder, and resentenced him to 14 years and 8 months. The attempted-murder conviction and 15-year sentences remained undisturbed.

When speaking with Injustice Watch, Cole noted the difficulty of continuing to accept responsibility for taking a life he hadn’t taken by pleading guilty to the second-degree murder charges. “Although I feel like I’m wrongfully convicted all the way, I could not pass up the opportunity to regain my freedom,” he said.

Corzell Cole with (from left) his attorney Shelisa Thomas, tutor Charlotte Rosen, and best friend and Project(Criminal)Couture collaborator Emily Kissner as he prepared to swap a prison-issued sweat suit for some new clothes.

Maya Dukmasova / Injustice Watch

Corzell Cole with (from left) his attorney Shelisa Thomas, tutor Charlotte Rosen, and best friend and Project(Criminal)Couture collaborator Emily Kissner as he prepared to swap a prison-issued sweat suit for some new clothes.

Cole’s attorneys from Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions praised Glasgow’s actions — especially his choice to cite the new prosecutorial powers granted by SB2129.

“Jim (Glasgow) is acting in harmony with the highest ethical principles of prosecutors,” said Steven Drizin, co-director of the center, which has helped exonerate dozens of innocent people since 1999. “Some of the greatest sentencing injustices are in cases of violent crimes, and we will never end mass incarceration unless we are willing to give a second look to some of the sentences handed down in these cases.”

Cole maintained an exemplary disciplinary record and amassed a slew of educational achievements while incarcerated. He earned a GED diploma, an associate’s degree, and nearly a dozen certificates, and began work toward a bachelor’s degree through Northwestern’s Prison Education Program.

He has also developed a visual art practice and fashion line with other artists inside and outside prison called Project(Criminal)Couture. His advocates and instructors repeatedly referred to him as a leader and mentor when they spoke with Injustice Watch.

It remains to be seen whether Glasgow and other state’s attorney’s offices will use their new powers to advocate for resentencing people who may have been harshly and unfairly punished but have not achieved the same distinctions as Cole or if more of them will use this new power in cases involving violent crimes. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has announced that in its “Phase 1” of using the new power, it would only consider “non-sex and non-homicide” offenses and isn’t taking applications from people who want their cases reviewed.

This week, Foxx’s office is bringing the first three cases into court to argue for resentencing in the interests of justice. The incarcerated people are: a 63-year-old man and a 55-year-old man convicted of home invasion and burglary, respectively, with prison release dates in 2023; and a 58-year-old man convicted of aggravated robbery with an out date in May of this year.

Photo courtesy of Robert Peters.

Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago) is the Illinois Senate Black Caucus Chair.

State Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago), who was the chief sponsor of SB2129, said he would have preferred the state have a blanket policy for new sentence considerations, rather than leaving it to the discretion of individual prosecutors on a case-by-case basis. “But if you compare it to where we were before this and after — I’ll take this,” Peters told Injustice Watch.

Peters said “long, brutal sentences” are a byproduct of a political environment that rewards officials for appearing to be “tough on crime” even though long prison terms “haven’t done anything to improve public safety.” He said seeing Glasgow cite the new law gives him hope that the political calculus has changed in favor of more progressive, evidence-based policies.

Maya Dukmasova / Injustice Watch

Corzell Cole

Cole said he hoped his case would inspire other prosecutors to follow Glasgow’s lead. “For him to do what he did is amazing, and hopefully that opens the eyes of other state’s attorneys,” he said. “I’m going to show them what rehabilitation really looks like.”

As he thought ahead to what’s next for him after prison, Cole said he would continue pursuing his education at Northwestern, keep working on fashion projects with his best friend and business partner (who’s launched a GoFundMe to support his transition to a new life), and maybe try out modeling. He also said he’d keep pushing for more people harmed by wrongful convictions and harsh sentences to get a chance at freedom too.

“For the most part, I’m thinking about the guys that I just left behind,” he said. “I’m here now, but so many people are suffering.”

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