In 2017, he and three others were paid millions to settle a wrongful conviction for a 1994 rape and murder in Chicago.
There was nothing but relief and smiles for Michael Saunders in 2011 when he walked out of jail after spending 17 years behind bars for a rape and murder he did not commit.
"I want to catch up on lost time," Saunders said at the time.
However, this week, Saunders, 42, was shot and killed in Calumet Park early Monday morning.
"Shock was the first word that came across, and heartbroken because Michael had been doing great in life," said Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the Innocence Project. "Since he got out, he started his family."
Neufeld represented Saunders in his post-conviction cases and lawsuits against the city and county. Saunders was just 15 when he and three others, known as the Englewood Four, were convicted of raping and killing a woman on the South Side in 1994.
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"It wasn't until we were able to prove who the real perpetrator of the crime - which was a serial criminal twice his age that acted alone - that we were able to exonerate him," Neufeld said.
The Englewood Four said they were physically abused by Chicago police detectives and coerced into confessing.
"I'm very, very angry," Saunders said in 2011. "It's a lot of resentment."
But, the effort was made to compensate Saunders for the years lost. In 2017, he and the 3 others settled a $31 million wrongful conviction lawsuit with the City of Chicago. Two years later, Cook County paid $24 million to settle their case.
"He was very careful with that money," Neufeld said. "He wanted to be there for his kids, for his sister and his mother."
Neufeld said Saunders, who was always smiling, stayed active with the Innocence Project by helping other exonerees and successfully lobbying for legislation to record police interrogations.
"He's going to be missed by so many hundreds of people across the country who have gotten to know him and benefit by his presence and inspiration," Neufeld said.
Calumet Park Police have not released any details about Saunder's death.