Darrel Parker landed back in Illinois with the cloud of a murder conviction lifted from his record for the first time in 56 years, a formal apology from Nebraska and the promise of $500,000.
So he and Ele took stock.
“Are we going to take a monumental trip somewhere? No, I don’t think so at this age. What about buying a Cadillac? No. We got a seven-year-old Toyota Corolla that’s doing nicely.”
But their home had always been important to them. No matter where they lived.
And in early September, Darrel and Ele Parker were living in a Good Samaritan Society retirement home in Geneseo, 25 minutes from the Quad-Cities, where they had spent most of their marriage.
The Good Sam is a fine place, he said, full of good people. But their neighbors there, they liked to eat. And then they liked to sleep. And Darrel had worked all his life — on his family’s farm in Iowa, as Lincoln’s first city forester, in prison, after prison, after he retired.
“Truthfully, I was getting lazy,” he said.
They found a condo in Moline, a place by the woods where they could watch cardinals from their deck, walk to the movies and start thinking about the future — because they had spent so many years focused on the past.
‘I shall fight this’
Lincoln, 1955: Darrel Parker drives home for lunch, to the little house in Antelope Park the city provided him and his wife after they had moved from Iowa.
Nancy had been in the living room that snowy, mid-December morning, writing Christmas cards at a folding table.
But Darrel finds his wife upstairs, in their bed. She had been attacked, bound, raped, strangled.
Darrel is interrogated, and he confesses. But he immediately recants, saying he was psychologically tortured, coerced into saying he had killed Nancy.
A jury finds him guilty. He is imprisoned, paroled 15 years later, pardoned 20 years after that. He marries Eleanore Jeanne Vandling in 1971 and works his way up through the Moline parks department.
They never give up trying to clear his name, he and Ele riding waves of hope and rejection with every effort and every failure.
“Through the years, we’d spend a couple of thousand to try to get something going,” Ele said.
A death row prisoner confessed to killing Nancy Parker, but Darrel’s expected exoneration never comes. And any advances in DNA technology are rendered useless when physical evidence from the crime scene vanishes.
Darrel keeps trying. He had told a friend in prison: “As long as I live, I shall fight this.”
Then the past few years: His trial lawyer’s son-in-law publishes “Barbarous Souls,” which makes a compelling case for Darrel’s innocence. The state passes a wrongful conviction and imprisonment law. And in 2011, Lincoln attorney Herb Friedman sues the state on Darrel’s behalf.
The attorney general’s office fights the suit for more than a year, but in late August, it invites Darrel back to Lincoln.
To apologize, and to pay.
The day the state restored his innocence, Darrel’s voice cracked: Finally, he said, he could die in peace.
He had won the fight.
But he won’t completely relax until Nebraska pays the settlement.
“When I get the rest of this money, I’ll be done,” he said recently.
The first $50,000 arrived within weeks, as Attorney General Jon Bruning promised it would. Darrel’s lawyers took their 40 percent, plus expenses, but the Parkers had enough left to put down on their condo.
The remaining $450,000 will take longer to reach Darrel and his lawyers, traveling through committees and readings and votes.
Any payout bigger than $50,000 must move through the Nebraska Legislature, which convenes early next month. Darrel’s settlement will be included in a claims bill and, because that’s tied to budget bills, likely won’t be resolved until near the end of the 90-day session, said Shannon Anderson, state risk manager.
Assuming the settlement is approved, the earliest the state could cut a check is July 1, the start of the next fiscal year — or about 10 months after it was promised to Darrel.
The money is important to Darrel and Ele. Not because they have lavish spending plans, but because of the peace it provides.
“The big thing now, at our age, it’s nice to have security,” Darrel said. “We didn’t have security before.”
So, he’ll wait for the money. He’s patient. He was 24 when he was convicted, 40 when paroled, 60 when pardoned and 81 when exonerated.
And he can keep himself busy writing the speech he’ll deliver next semester to law students at the University of Iowa.
He’ll talk about his fleeting confession and false confessions in general and how tremendous pressure can make innocent people admit to crimes they didn’t commit.
“I’m going to tell them my story. It’s important that the students step back as they go on to be lawyers and not rush to judgment. It can happen. It can happen to anybody.”
Something else can happen, too.
A man can keep fighting for his innocence until enough people listen and enough people believe him. And then he can look forward.
“What happened 56 years ago happened,” he said. “That’s still in my memory. The vision of how I found Nancy, that’s going to be there forever.
“On the other hand, I can finally let go of a lot of that and hopefully enjoy the remaining life me and Ele have.”