LINCOLN — Darrel Parker plans to go back to the little house in Lincoln’s Antelope Park now.
For 56 years, he hasn’t been able to revisit the “tragic place” where, on a snowy mid-December day, he found his wife’s bound, gagged and brutalized body.
Grief and shock kept him away at first, followed by 14 years of imprisonment after being convicted of her murder.
Then there was the struggle to find justice and an acknowledgment of his innocence after a federal court found that his confession had been coerced and ordered him freed.
On Friday, Parker finally got an apology from the state’s top prosecutor and a $500,000 judgment from the state of Nebraska for his wrongful conviction.
Now 80, he said he was overwhelmed at the turn of events. “After 56 years, it’s finally over. Now I can die in peace because I’ll no longer have this burden of fighting this case.”
Parker joined Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning for the announcement of the judgment under Nebraska’s Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act.
A week ago the Attorney General’s Office had argued in Lancaster County District Court against compensating Parker.
But Friday, Bruning said it was clear the former Lincoln city forester had been wronged in 1956.
“Under coercive circumstances he confessed to a crime he did not commit,” Bruning said. “We hope this acknowledgment of his innocence will provide some measure of closure for Mr. Parker and his loved ones.”
Bruning said he decided to pay compensation after reviewing case records, which included a detailed confession by Wesley Peery, who was convicted of the similar rape and murder of Marianne Mitzner of Lincoln.
Peery died of a heart attack on death row in 1988. After his death, his attorneys released the confession, which attorney-client privilege had prohibited them from revealing during his lifetime.
Peery also confessed to killing others, Bruning said.
Peery, who had done work around the Parkers’ home, had been questioned by police about Nancy Parker’s slaying during the initial investigation.
Bruning said law enforcement records discovered earlier this year included 14 reports from witnesses who identified a vehicle matching the description of one owned by Peery near the area at the time of the murder.
In addition, Nancy Parker was killed in the same method as Peery’s other victim.
Bruning said his office initially opposed Parker’s bid for exoneration because it took time to review all the records.
But he said it became clear that Parker was innocent and that “law enforcement had dropped the ball.”
Parker’s confession came under questioning by a Chicago expert, John Reid, who Bruning said is “known for questionable, high-pressure tactics that led to numerous false confessions.”
“We wanted to do the right thing,” Bruning said. “Today, on behalf of the state of Nebraska, I concede Mr. Parker’s innocence.”
Parker, who now lives in Moline, Ill., with Ele, his wife of 41 years, said he never lost hope that such a day would come. Yet he conceded there were times he was “pretty discouraged” as his appeals wound through the courts.
He was paroled in 1970 after a federal court ruled that his confession was coerced, and he won a state pardon in 1991.
“I firmly believe, whatever your persuasion, there’s someone greater than us out there that can help us get through these trying times,” Parker said. “So I kept the faith.”
He will receive the maximum amount allowed under a 2009 state law.
The wrongful conviction act was passed after DNA tests showed six people had been wrongly convicted of a 1985 murder in Beatrice, Neb. The state exonerated all six in 2009.
Bruning said Parker would get the first $50,000 after the district court judge approves the judgment. Legislative approval is required to release the rest of the money.
Parker now plans to spend his time caring for his wife, whose health prevented her from traveling to Lincoln.
He said the money and apology can’t replace the years he lost, but he said he is not bitter about his fate.
“I’m not built that way,” he said.
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