“I kind of felt like I was walking on air.”
After serving nearly 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, Danny Wilber finally walked out a free man on Dec. 22.
The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin citizen maintained his innocence through the years and said it was surreal when he was finally exonerated.
“Just being able to just move around and just taking that weight off my shoulders, I just felt relieved,” Wilber said recently on the ‘ICT Newscast with Aliyah Chavez.’ “I felt like I can finally breathe.”
In 2004, a 24-year-old Wilber was charged with first-degree intentional homicide of David Diaz in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2005. According to court documents, Wilber was at a house-party in the home of Diaz and witness statements said Wilber “had been acting belligerently at the party; when his belligerence escalated into a physical confrontation with other guests.”
After other party-goers tried to convince Wilber to leave, a shot was fired and Diaz fell to the floor.
Two witnesses reportedly said they saw Wilber with a gun and initially assumed he was the shooter. However, at trial, “all of the witnesses called by the State denied seeing who shot the victim,” according to court documents.
Additionally, there were inconsistencies in evidence presented by the state. Court documents say Diaz was shot at close range in the back of the head and had fallen forward after being shot. Witness accounts state that Wilber was standing in front of Diaz at the time of the shooting.
Moreover, a firearms examiner testified that Diaz had been shot with a revolver and witnesses testified the gun they had seen in Wilber’s possession was a semi-automatic weapon, which “would have ejected a casing; but no such casing was found,” according to court documents.
Wilber described the conviction as rough and disheartening but one thing that kept him going was his spirit and the fact that he knew he was innocent.
“I knew eventually the facts and the physical evidence that prove my innocence would eventually come to the light,” Wilber said.
While incarcerated, Wilber got to work. He spent the majority of his time in the law library and learned a lot about the law as he was fighting for his life.
“It was a roller coaster, it was a lot of ups and downs, but you know, you got to keep it moving,” Wilber said. “You got to find things that give you spirit, you got to find things that give you strength, you got to find things that motivate you to keep it moving, and to keep going forward.”
Wilber’s partner, Lacey Kinnart, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, got involved in his case when he needed a crime scene diagram redesigned. She knew Wilber’s family and had taught his nieces and nephews in the Milwaukee public school system.
After redesigning the diagram, she said she saw that Wilber was innocent but not having experience in the justice system she says she was naive to the process.
“I just thought, okay, ‘once you can prove your innocence, you can get out,’ and that was far from the truth. And that was about nine years ago, and six courts later and many motions and briefs later,” Kinnart said. “So, I was hooked by seeing his innocence right away.”
It was a long and arduous process. Wilber said he went through six lawyers, four private investigators and three forensic experts. Describing it all in one word, he said the process was “treacherous.”
“They do a great job in the so-called criminal justice system at demonizing people, you know what I mean?” Wilber said. “Once they take your humanhood from you, then it's easy for them to say all type of things about you that's not true.”
Throughout everything, in moments Kinnart described as the “bottom of the roller coaster” and thoughts that they might never win, she said they relied on the strength of ancestors that came before them.
“Our people went through so much worse. Our people fought for us to be here. If they could go through what they went through, we can keep going. You know, we are resilient people. The fact that we're here and alive, is resiliency and that's what kept us going,” Kinnart said. “There were days when we wanted to give up. We never did, we never could but we just relied on that resilience and that's what got us through to the next day. Sometimes it was day by day, and that's really what we relied on.”
Being that he spent so much time in the law library, Wilber gained a reputation for being a legal mind. In doing so, he said a lot of people come to you with questions pertaining to their cases.
“Sometimes you may establish a friendship or a bond or just have some type of understanding with a person to the point where you want to help them because you see some of the injustice or some of the stuff that went on in our case,” Wilber said.
Since his release and with more resources at his disposal, Wilber has been helping prison inmates. He said helping others has given him fulfillment and purpose.
“I'm trying to give them a little hope and I'm trying to give them just something to keep it going, Wilber said. “Sometimes that's all it takes because that's what was essential for me when I was going through what I was going through.”
After spending much of his time in prison in one location, one thing that happened upon his release was that Wilber would get motion sickness when traveling by car or plane. He noted that some of the biggest changes in the world involved technology but also the kids that had grown into adults reminded him of how much time he had served.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Wilber said. “It was good though, it was great. It’s a blessing.”
Aliyah Chavez contributed to this report.
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