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4 Months After Going Free, Wrongfully Convicted Man Still Searching For Job

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James Kluppelberg served 24 years in prison on arson and murder charges, before prosecutors dismissed the case, saying new forensic evidence could not prove he committed the crime. Since his release, he's been unable to find a job. (Credit: CBS)

James Kluppelberg served 24 years in prison on arson and murder charges, before prosecutors dismissed the case, saying new forensic evidence could not prove he committed the crime. Since his release, he’s been unable to find a job. (Credit: CBS)

Brad Edwards Brad Edwards
Brad Edwards is a general assignment reporter for CBS 2 Chicago. He...
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CHICAGO (CBS) – A 47-year-old man cleared of setting a fire that killed a woman and her five children in 1984 has found that freedom is a subjective term, months after his release from prison.

CBS 2′s Brad Edwards reports James Kluppelberg was behind bars for 24 years for a crime he did not commit.

“It’s exhilarating,” Kluppelberg said after taking his first steps outside without chains in May.

Now, he’s living with his son, and two granddaughters he never knew until leaving prison.

At one point, Kluppelberg borrowed money from his son, flew to Silver Springs, New Mexico to work for free as a maintenance man at an Econo Lodge managed by a prison pen pal.

Unfortunately, so far, Kluppelberg has been unable to get a paying job elsewhere.

“I wish it would be over, the fact they released me doesn’t end it because my name isn’t cleared,” he said. “Without employment I can’t progress.”

On Tuesday, he received an email rejecting him for a job at Lowe’s.

He might be out of prison, but he doesn’t feel free.

“Not really,” he said.

Kluppelberg was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison for setting fire to a building at 4448 S. Hermitage Ave. in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in March 1984. The blaze killed Elva Lupercio and her five children – Santos Jr. 10; Sonia, 8; Cristobel, 6; Yadira 4; and Anabel, 3, the Chicago Tribune recalled.

A legal publication summed up his conviction as the result of: “Junk science, coerced confession and snitch testimony.”

Now, he’s struggling to readjust to life outside of prison. Studies have shown others who have been exonerated of a crime after serving time in prison have face similar challenges once they’re free.

Unable to afford a home of his own, Kluppelberg is living with a son he hadn’t seen since his son was 3 years old.

“The capacity of a child to love it’s endless,” he said. “It really is.”

Now, Kluppelberg needs a “Certificate of Innocence” from the state to clear his record. He’d be due $199,150 from the state – the amount due anyone wrongfully imprisoned 14 years or more.

However, despite dismissing the charges against Kluppelberg, the Cook County State’s Attorney office might contest his claim of innocence.

The State’s Attorney’s office said, “We haven’t made a decision yet [whether or not to contest it].”

Meantime, Kluppelberg’s first focus is finding work.

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