Early last summer, the Missouri Department of Corrections began the process for the release of prisoners whose sentences were up in the coming months. Cornealious “Mike” Anderson was one of them. Convicted in March 2000 for armed robbery after he and a friend robbed a Burger King manager as his friend brandished a BB gun, he was sentenced after what was considered an unfair trial complicated by an inadequate defense. Now his thirteen year sentence was up and he would soon be able to walk out of the prison gates.
Except for one thing – Cornealious Anderson was not at the prison.
After his conviction, Anderson’s family hired another attorney who filed an appeal. In June 2000, the 19-year-old was released on $25,000 bond while his appeal worked its way through the courts. During the next two years, Anderson trained to become a journeyman carpenter, married and became a father. In May 2002, a split Missouri Supreme Court upheld his conviction, and the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case. At this point, bond would be revoked, an arrest warrant would be issued and Anderson would begin serving his sentence.
There was only one problem – somebody forgot to file the paperwork.
No one is really sure who made the mistake. The Missouri Supreme Court never notified the appeals court, which never notified the trial court. All the while, Cornealious Anderson prepared for the inevitable knock at his door. It would come just after dawn on a July morning – more than ten years later.
During the 13 years he would have been living life in a jail cell, Anderson never had another run in with the law. After his first marriage ended, he remarried in 2007 and they had two more children. They were active in their church and community where he coached football. He built their home from the ground up, which served as a permanent calling card for his successful contracting business. The entire time Anderson remained in the neighborhood, became a master carpenter and raised four children with his wife.
He was a model citizen.
Anderson never intended to be a fugitive. Another team of lawyers filed a post-conviction appeal in 2004, two years after the state Supreme Court upheld the original conviction. In their filing, the lawyers claimed he had inadequate counsel which failed to challenge key parts of the prosecution. Anderson’s current home address was listed and it was also noted that his co-defendant, who had entered a plea deal, was currently serving his sentence in the Missouri Department of Corrections. The first line stated that Anderson was not currently incarcerated. When the appeal failed in 2005, Anderson’s attorney informed him that he would soon be arrested.
It would take the processing of his release from prison for the Department of Corrections to realize they forgot to pick him up.
On July 25, 2013, a day that would have probably seen Anderson walking out of prison, he was removed from his home in handcuffs amid the tears of his two-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son and taken to a facility more than 100 miles away. He had been watched for several weeks prior by marshals, who were stunned that he had been living in plain sight all these years. The arresting officers allowed him to make arrangements for his children and call his wife, who was out of town. He told her not to worry and that it was something he had to deal with from 13 years ago.
Nearly 14 years after his conviction, Cornealious Anderson has begun serving his prison sentence.
No one involved in the case knows quite what to do at this point. Legal experts interviewed by the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, Missouri all state they have never seen anything like this. Through no fault of his own, Anderson was never taken into custody. He did not run and waited to be taken into custody. While no one argues that he owes the state time, many are questioning whether he should be required to fulfill his obligation after the fact. Yet, if the theoretical point of prison is rehabilitation, hasn’t Anderson already paid his debt to society?
Even the victim of his crime believes he shouldn’t have to serve time now.
After reading about the story in the paper, the former Burger King manager talked to a reporter. He relayed how the robbery was terrifying for him and he suffered psychologically for years afterward. He admitted that he was angry and feared the robbers would come back for him. However, after hearing about how Anderson had remained free due to an administrative screw-up, he had a change of heart. “[Mike] screwed up and he was supposed to pay for it. Our government screwed up. Who’s paying for that? Does he have to pay for that again? Doesn’t seem right. They should let him go.”
In December 2013, Anderson’s new attorney, an expert in post-conviction appeals, filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the state’s right to hold Anderson. The petition claims that forcing him to serve his sentence now is a violation of due process. He also points out that ripping him from a productive life where he has more than proven that he can be a contributing member of society amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. While his attorney agrees that this will not be easy, he is determined to fight as long as it takes.
In 13 years, Anderson accomplished what he was supposed to in prison. Shouldn’t that account for something?
Even the current prosecutor is baffled. “Anybody who doesn’t have sympathy for Mr. Anderson is not being genuine. It’s a horrible tragedy for him and his family. Whether that spurs somebody at a higher pay grade than me to a better way to do this, I don’t know.” Anderson’s options are limited. There are hopes that everyone involved, including the state’s attorney general and the Department of Corrections, can figure out a way to correct their mistake without forcing him to stay in prison.
His attorney notes that they are setting legal precedent in uncharted territory.
In the meantime, Anderson spends his time in prison keeping to himself and spends time only with the prison church group. For the first time in his life he has missed the first day of school, his wedding anniversary, birthdays and Christmas. He has refused to see his wife and children as he is not willing to accept that he will be spending the next 13 years in prison. When told that the victim of his crime believes he should be released and that he would be willing to write a letter to that effect, Anderson choked up and says through tears, “All I can say is praise God, thank God for that. I appreciate him. I never wanted this to be brought back to him. That’s my fault.”
Photo: Cornealious “Mike” Anderson on his wedding day via Riverfront Times, courtesy LaQonna Anderson