Saying "you can't beat freedom," Gary Dotson today was freed from prison, pending appeal of his conviction for a rape that the original accuser says never happened.
At an afternoon news conference on the driveway of the medium-security Illinois Correctional Center in this small farming city 100 miles west of Chicago, Dotson said he hopes that he has seen the last of captivity.
Tonight, after arriving at his mother's house in the Chicago suburb of Country Club Hills, Dotson told reporters that he is "skeptical" about his chances for continued freedom and does not "want to look too far ahead just now."
Now 28, Dotson was found guilty in 1979 of kidnaping and raping Cathleen Crowell Webb two years earlier, when she was 16. He has served six years of a 25- to 50-year sentence.
Webb, 23, married and living in New Hampshire, has stirred wide news media attention with a series of nationally televised interviews in which she recanted her detailed accusations against Dotson.
Today, NBC's Chicago affiliate, WMAQ, flew Dotson's mother, Barbara, and his lawyer, Warren Lupel, here from Chicago with the court order freeing him. Mrs. Dotson, 48, posted a $10,000 cash bond she and a relative raised by using the Dotson house as collateral.
About 50 reporters, photographers and members of television crews congregated outside the prison on the northern outskirts of Dixon to record the latest event in the case.
Dotson, wearing beltless jeans, a khaki work shirt and white tennis shoes, spoke to reporters in a low, firm voice, saying, "I'm just holding on, hoping things eventually work out."
"I'm beginning to feel like a pinball," Dotson added, saying he has read very little about his case. "I still get shook up [reading about it] . . . . I just get upset," he said.
On Tuesday, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon ordered Dotson released, pending appeals. Lupel also has petitioned for a new trial and dismissal of the original verdict in trying to extricate Dotson permanently.
Three hearings are planned next week, the most dramatic of which likely will be a clemency hearing Thursday before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in the 600-seat auditorium of the new State of Illinois Center in downtown Chicago.
Gov. James R. Thompson has said he will act quickly on Dotson's clemency move after the hearing.
Webb has said recently that she never saw Dotson before she fabricated a police sketch and picked him at random from a police lineup as her attacker.
At Dotson's trial, however, she testified in harrowing detail about the kidnaping and rape. "I'll never ever forget his face," she testified.
In a hearing last month on the recantation, Webb just as emphatically denied her testimony, saying she falsely accused Dotson because she feared becoming pregnant by a teen-aged boyfriend.
"Eventually, I'd like to see her and talk to her," Dotson said today, noting that the meeting must await the outcome of his appeals. High on his list of things to do, he said at home tonight, is talking with Webb, because there are "things I want to get straight in my mind."
He said he feels no sense of bitterness toward any of the principals in the case, including the original trial judge, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Richard Samuels. Last month, Samuels listened to Webb's recantation, said he did not believe it and sent Dotson, who had been out of prison for a week, back to jail.
Also on hand today were dozens of local residents, many of them middle-aged women, who clapped and cheered when Dotson appeared. Local women have become staunch defenders of Dotson.
"He was railroaded," said one woman among the onlookers, while her friends nodded emphatically.
"I feel the guy got a bad deal. Why would the girl come up now eight years later to say it never happened? She's got nothing to gain," another woman said, asking that her name not be used.
At home tonight, Dotson stepped out of the car in which he had been driven from the prison and saw a sign hanging from his garage. It said: "Welcome Home Gary."
Bare bushes in front of the house were strewn with crepe streamers and festooned with balloons. Neighborhood children distributed bumper stickers saying, "Welcome Home Gary Dotson."
He told reporters that tonight he planned to "just sit around." On his lawyer's advice, he said, he plans to "keep a very low profile" while his clemency petition is considered.