Chicago man, 62, exonerated after 42 years in prison for double shooting he did not commit reveals how he wakes up in a ball of sweat and tears as he struggles to adjust to life outside jail – and the meal he had to celebrate his freedom
The first Christmas at home after 42 years in prison has brought its own challenges for an exonerated Chicago man, as he struggled with an iPhone, Google and even a fork.
Jimmy Soto, 62, and his cousin David Ayala, 60, were released 11 days ago after spending decades inside for a murder they did not commit.
A court accepted their conviction for the 1981 murders of two teenagers, which was based almost entirely on coerced witness testimony in the longest miscarriage of justice in Illinois history.
He celebrated with a steak dinner, but the joy of freedom has proven bittersweet as he struggles to sleep or eat after his years behind bars.
“For 42 years I had to eat with a plastic spork,” he said CBS when they visited him on Christmas Eve.
Jimmy Soto, 62, pictured with wife Diana Gauna, spends his first Christmas at home for 42 years after his 1981 murder conviction was overturned
The case is believed to be the longest-running miscarriage of justice in Illinois history
But even tasks as simple as eating a meal with routine cutlery have proven to be a challenge
“It was just an uncomfortable feeling to hold a steak knife, and now I'm getting more and more used to it.”
'Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I know I'm gone.
“And it's like I'm sweating and crying. Why am I crying? I should be so happy, happy to be gone.
“But I just feel like I don't belong here.”
However, his wife Diana Gauna has no doubts about where he should be.
“My Christmas has already come true,” she said.
'I couldn't have asked for anything more or better.'
Soto and his cousin received life sentences for the murders of Julie Limas, 16, and U.S. Marine Hector Valerino, 18, on August 16, 1981.
The pair, aged 20 and 18 at the time, were accused of killing the couple by carrying out a drive-by attack on a crowd during a softball game.
Prosecutors alleged that Ayala was the leader of the Two Six gang and ordered Soto to commit the shooting that killed the young couple.
Jimmy Soto (left) and David Ayala (right) were just 20 and 18 years old respectively when they were given life sentences for the 1981 murders of a teenage couple
Both men pleaded their innocence for 42 years, and their convictions were criticized by experts without physical evidence linking them to the crime.
Soto earned a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University behind bars last month and now plans to pursue a law degree to “help people like me.”
As he walked out a free man, Soto said he was “excited, elated and exuberant” but still felt “a little righteous anger” about the system that kept him wrongly incarcerated for so long.
But because neither man ever confessed to the murders and there was no physical evidence, their convictions depended almost entirely on witness testimony, according to their lawyers.
Soto spent 15 years of his 42-year sentence in solitary confinement at Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois, which closed in 2013.
But during that time, he earned a bachelor's degree and now plans to attend law school.
Last week he was back in a Chicago court to support 30-year-old Darien Harris when his murder conviction was overturned after 12 years in prison after it emerged there was no physical evidence and the only eyewitness in the case was legally blind used to be.
'The law should be blind. The eyewitness cannot be blind,” said Harris' attorney Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, who also worked on Soto's case.
“We've got to start pushing and make them get away,” Soto said.
“They shouldn't have to do so many years like I did, like Darien did, like others still do.”
A dozen people were reportedly arrested and charged in the immediate aftermath of the 1981 murders.
Soto's attorneys argued that officers used the threat of charges to coerce others into implicating the cousins.
Wally “Gator” Cruz, who admitted to being the driver of the car involved in the drive-by, testified against the cousins, but witnesses later said Cruz's statement was false, according to the Chicago Sun Times.
Cruz was initially charged with murder, but received a plea deal with the state for a five-year prison sentence.
Other witnesses who implicated them in their original trial, in addition to Cruz, all later withdrew their accusations against the couple as well.
Soto and Ayala both petitioned for their release in 2015, but a judge threw out the case after it was heard by lower courts.
Eight years later, a judge agreed that their conviction should be overturned because their assistant attorney general may have had a conflict of interest by also representing one of the state's witnesses.
Soto received a rapturous welcome when he spent the first Christmas Eve since his release with Diana at his local Catholic church, where he laid 42 red roses – one for each of the years he had spent in prison.
“In the Catholic religion, you light a candle – you can do it for a special prayer – and then you make a small offering,” he said.
Soto received an enthusiastic reception when he spent the first Christmas Eve since his release with Diana at his local Catholic church, where he laid 42 red roses to mark his years in prison.
“In this case, we offer these roses to the Virgin Mary to let her know that we appreciate her for answering our prayers so that I could be home during the holidays.”
He plans to seek help for the trauma of his decades of incarceration and vowed to use his hard-won legal education to help others.
'There is someone in a cell who feels like all hope is lost. It is my hope that I can help one of them,” he said.
“I want to be that lawyer who can help people like me.”