Dean Cage, An Innocent Man

(Innocence Project)
Photo: Dean Cage.

NEW YORK (CBS/AP) Dean Cage once said "if you believe in something, fight for it."

Those hard-earned words rang out hours after the 41-year-old was released from prison more than a year ago after serving more than 12 years for a rape he didn't commit.

He was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the rape of a 15-year-old girl, who, at the time, identified him as her attacker. But Cage always maintained his innocence and asked for DNA tests to prove it. He said his family had even tried to pay for it themselves.

Those efforts fell on deaf ears until he wrote to the Innocence Project, which took his case in 2004.

The New York-based Innocence Project specializes in using DNA to exonerate the falsely convicted.

"The single greatest cause of wrongful convictions is victim misidentification," said attorney Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the organization.

Cage, who worked at a Chicago supermarket, said he was home at the time the teenager said she was attacked while walking to school in November 1994.

The teenager gave a composite drawing description to authorities and after it was circulated police brought Cage in as a suspect. The girl identified him as her attacker. Cage was also accused in the rape of a 29-year-old woman, but acquitted of those charges. Evidence at the time discounted Cage as the attacker, Neufeld said.

Finally after years of legal work and a long sought after DNA test, Cage's conviction was overturned.

The Innocence Project said nationally Cage is now the 217th person exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence. He is the 29th Illinoisan to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Only Texas, with 31, has more DNA exoneration cases than Illinois.

The conviction was dismissed at the request of the Cook County state's attorney's office.

Cage was released from Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton and went straight to his mother's home on Chicago's South Side for an all-night celebration with family.

"It didn't seem like it was real," he said of life on the outside. "It was really scary. At the same time, it was a blessing."

(Innocence Project)
Photo: Dean Cage, with fiancé, Jewel Mitchel.

Dressed in baggy jeans and a white T-shirt, Cage told reporters in 2008 that he got through the toughest times in prison with the support of his family, reading novels, playing basketball and faith.

"There's a God up there. He blessed me," Cage said. "I couldn't have done this without him."

While in prison, Cage missed his three young boys growing up, both his grandparents' funerals and the 12 surgeries his mother underwent for thyroid and heart conditions.

"They stole my son's life. They stole mine too," Cage's 63-year-old mother Jerley said through tears.

Cage appeared overwhelmed after his released, saying he was amazed by advances in technology, especially all "the little phones." Cage said he wasn't angry or bitter and renewed his faith by reading the Bible.

"We can never know how he got through those years," said Alba Morales, an attorney who worked on Cage's case.

Innocence Project officials made an appeal to Gov. Rod Blagojevich on May 28th, 2008, to pardon Cage and others in his same situation, so that they can receive compensation due to them under state law.

Cage, who said he has no money or material possessions, said he will try to look for work.

"I guess I gotta try to take one day at a time," he said.