MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We start the program today with a remarkable story of a second chance. Cornealious "Mike" Anderson spent 13 years wondering when a mistake would catch up with him, until the day a SWAT team arrived at his house.
Back in 1999, when he was in his early twenties, Anderson helped rob a Burger King employee. He was convicted. He went home on bail and waited to find out when he would report to prison for a 13 year sentence. But for some reason, Anderson never got word, so he went on to live a normal life. Actually, what some might call an exemplary life. He started businesses. He got married, had children, coached football, helped out at church.
Last year, though, when it came time for his scheduled release, officials realized their mistake and then went to jail him to serve his full sentence. But this week, a Missouri judge sent Anderson home, praising him for achieving what the criminal justice system often does not achieve - rehabilitation. And Mike Anderson is with us now. Welcome. Welcome home.
MIKE ANDERSON: Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate you. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: How are you doing? You were telling us you were having trouble sleeping.
ANDERSON: Yeah. I haven't slept since Sunday. I just tried to lay down and sleep last night at probably around three o'clock and I couldn't. You know, just watched the wife and watch them sleep - the wife and kids. And, you know, once again, I didn't want to take the chance of going to sleep and waking up and it was all a dream. So if I found a new way to stay in the dream, I had to keep it going.
MARTIN: I feel you. So, you know, lot of people are probably still wondering how this happened, so let me clear this up. You did not go on the lam, right?
MARTIN: You were not living undercover?
ANDERSON: Not at all.
MARTIN: In fact - do I have it right that your previous lawyer actually tried to tell the Department of Corrections that you were not in jail?
MARTIN: Is that true?
ANDERSON: Yes. Yes, he tried to.
MARTIN: So what happened? I mean, you just - what? - you went home from the sentencing and they just said, just go home and wait?
ANDERSON: Well, from the sentencing, I was sent to Fulton Correctional Facility for about two weeks. And from there I got bonded out on an appeals bond. And on the appeals bond, during the process over about the next two years, we had some court procedures that we'd go through. You know, certain things that the lawyers would file. And I was never required to attend.
And during one of them, the judge asked my lawyer and the prosecuting attorney, where is Mr. Anderson? And my lawyer handed her his briefs and physically stated, Mr. Anderson is currently out on bond, and gave her my address. And the prosecuting attorney then hopped up and said, no, my office checked. Mr. Anderson is currently in the Fulton Correctional. Department of Corrections says that he's there. So everybody thought I was there.
I hadn't talk to my lawyer in, you know, the last couple days. And so I called him that day to see how court went and the first thing he said is, you're not incarcerated? You're not in jail? And I said, no, I'm at home. And he said, well, you need to come in and talk to me. And he scheduled an appointment about two days later. And when I went in to talk to him, he said - he was like, hey, man, you know, the last two days, I've been calling the Department of Corrections. They're saying you're there. I'm trying to tell them you're not. You know, the marshal's office won't pick you up 'cause there's no warrant. You know, it's a mistake. I don't know how they made this mistake, but, you know, they're going to figure it out. It may take a day. It may take a month. But, you know, I don't think it'll take that long. But they'll figure out their mistake, so you just need to be prepared. You know, we can't move any further with anymore appeals until they figure out their mistake and, you know, they get you back in custody. And, you know, one of the questions I asked him - you know, are they asking me to turn myself in? He said, no, they're not asking you to turn yourself in. They're saying that you're already there.
MARTIN: And you just kind of went home that day and - what? - you just kind of waited?
ANDERSON: I just went back home, went back to work. You know, I got into the construction field, union carpenter. And it was always in my mind. You know, like, I waited like he said. I waited to be picked up like he said that I would. He said, hey, it's a mistake. They're going to figure it out. You know, I don't know how they made this mistake, but they're going to figure it out. And, you know, the next couple years were rough, 'cause I was always wondering, you know, are they going to figure it out?
But then after that, it got to the point where was kind of, you know, routine. Hey, maybe they're not. And, you know, strange stuff was happening. You know, I got pulled over one time and the officer told me that the system showed that I was on probation or parole. And I'm like, well, you know, I've never reported to a probation or parole officer, so if that's you're telling me, I'm not going to argue with you, you know. So...
MARTIN: That was exactly the kind of thing I was wondering. 'Cause you hear a lot of people who are here - undocumented immigrants - right? - for example.
MARTIN: And one of the things you hear is that they're always looking over their shoulders, thinking, OK, I can't get pulled over for a speeding ticket. Or - you know, they're just always worried. And I was wondering - was it like that for you?
ANDERSON: Oh, yes. Yeah. Like I said, the first few years, it was. You know, any time - just driving on the freeway or driving in traffic, you know, on the streets and a police officer just behind you, just in normal traffic. You wonder - oh, my goodness, is he running my plates? You know, is it a bunch of them? They're about to get me. The only few times I've ever been pulled over for, you know, non-moving violations - and they actually ran my name, took my ID, came back, gave me a non-moving violation ticket - it was - I was always thinking, hey, are they going to know? But they never did.
MARTIN: Did you tell your wife?
ANDERSON: I never told her what was going on. No, I never did. It was something I felt...
MARTIN: How come?
ANDERSON: It was a burden that I had to carry. I didn't want to put that on her. It was something I didn't want her to carry. You know, she's got so much going on with the kids, work, you know. At one point, my wife has worked two or three jobs at a time. And it was too much for her. She's the type that - she cares about everybody and their problems become her problems. And I didn't need that. You know, I didn't want anyone else focusing on this burden that was in my life. It was something that I had to bear.
MARTIN: Can I be a little mean about it, though, and ask you - I'm not speaking for her. I'm just speaking as a wife - is it possible, though, that this was kind of a barrier between you two - that, in a way, you're kind of lying. Like, it's like, in a way, not telling about another child or something else that was a big part of your life. Do you think that me possible?
ANDERSON: No. I'm not going to say it was a lie, because I was never asked the question, so I never denied it. And it was something that - once me and my wife had got together, you know, it just had already been in the background for about five or six years. And during that five or six years, honestly, I never - I didn't think about as much as the first couple years. So it never - you know, it was in the back of my mind every now and then if something happened. You know, like I said, if a police officer got behind me or something like that, it'd come up.
But I never thought about it. I would just - you know, God just gave me such a piece that he was with me. He was going to take care of this. And being with my wife is a joy. I can't think of anything else when we're together but her - you know, her and the kids. So I never thought about it. It wasn't something that was on my mind after about the fourth or fifth year of this going on.
MARTIN: What was it like - I'm sorry. Not to bring you something painful, but when the police - I understand wasn't just like one or two...
ANDERSON: Oh, no. It was about - it was about eight of them.
MARTIN: Eight of them came...
MARTIN: Yeah. Came to your house, like, dressed as a SWAT team for some reason.
ANDERSON: Oh yeah. They had the shields, the helmets, the AR15 rifles. They had the...
MARTIN: Did they bust down your door? What did they do?
ANDERSON: No. They knocked. They were knocking pretty hard. You know, I was just waking up at the time they were knocking. And I was at the top of the stairs and I looked down and saw shadows outside. And I was like, who is it? And he said, U.S. Marshals, open up or the doors coming down.
And I said, OK, let me turn the alarm off, and I turned the alarm off. And I'm like, there has to be somebody playing a joke. And soon as I unlocked the door, they already pushed it open. I put my arms up and I said, hey, man, you've got the wrong guy. He grabbed my arms. He said, no, man, it's you. You remember 13 years ago. And as soon as he said that, I knew, you know. But up until that point, I thought they had the wrong guy.
MARTIN: What was that like for you?
ANDERSON: It was like a nightmare. And it was embarrassing. The biggest part of this is it's been embarrassing to me, you know, especially being the man I that am now, and not really as much for me, but for my family. You know, it's embarrassing for my family - for them to be in the media and for them to have to deal with this.
I have four children that are still in school and kids can be cruel these days, bullying going on. And I don't want my kid being subjected to something that was me. You know, I don't want them to have to pay for my sins. The embarrassment in this was really for my family.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us we are speaking with Cornealious "Mike" Anderson. You might've heard about him. A clerical error allowed him to avoid prison for nearly 13 years. Last year, he was taken into custody and jailed and told that he would serve his sentence. But this week a judge sent him home early with time served.
So your attorney argued that punishing you after the state's error was cruel and unusual punishment. But I have to assume that there are some people who don't agree, who think that you should have had to serve that time somehow or another. And I'm wondering what you would say to them.
ANDERSON: I respect everyone's opinion, you know - everyone's thoughts and opinions. And I can't change the way they feel. You know, once someone's heart is hardened, it's hardened. And it's hard for people to change their mind. But everybody's got faults. No one's perfect.
And, you know, sometimes those are the people that may not be able to even admit their own imperfections. But once again, I just hope and pray that they can see the man that's been here for the last 14 years and not the man where something happened 15 years ago.
MARTIN: Well, one person who was able to see you as you are now is the man you robbed - a man named Dennis. And this came to the attention of our brother-sister public radio program, This American Life. He was interviewed. He said he was initially mad when he heard about the error, but that eventually he came to this conclusion. I just want to play a short clip from the conversation he had with our colleagues. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DENNIS: He seemed to have gotten his life together. You know, you got to give the guy little bit of slack. Yeah, he screwed up when he was little, you know. But the law dropped the ball. The law ought to drop it completely. They need to leave the man alone.
MARTIN: What did you think when you heard that? Had you heard this before?
ANDERSON: That's my first time hearing it.
MARTIN: That's your first time hearing it?
MARTIN: Did you know that he said that or that he'd essentially forgiven you?
ANDERSON: I had known that - the support and the things that he's saying. I didn't know about that recording. That's my first time hearing it and it's overwhelming. It's amazing. He's a wonderful guy. And it just goes to show you the heart that he has, his character.
And that's what Americans are about - forgiveness. You know, we mess up. People mess up. And we can come to forgive people, especially people that believe in God. You know, we can forgive people and he's amazing for that. And I just appreciate him, his comments and all his support that he's given throughout this.
MARTIN: I think the other thing a lot of people listening to our conversation - listening to you - will be interested in is - what do you think turned things around for you? Like, I don't know what it is that brought you to want to rob this guy. I - like, I don't know what was going on with you that - what made you want to rob him then or be part of that then. But what do you think turned it around for you?
ANDERSON: I gave my life to God. You know, I got in that word, got in the Bible. And I saw his forgiveness, his love for me and what he did for me. His son died for me. And I had to give him my life. And he turned it around, you know. I just give him all the honor and glory and praise.
I'm not smart enough to - you know, everybody - hear everybody saying you rehabilitated yourself. But I give God the glory for that, you know. So I just - once again, I just give him the glory and the praise. And I just thank everyone for their support. I couldn't have gotten this far without the support of the public and my family and friends and loved ones.
MARTIN: Cornealious "Mike" Anderson is a master carpenter. He is a husband and a father and now a free man. Thank you so much for joining us.
ANDERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.