THEY OPENED his cell and let him go last year. But they didn't free Jerry Miller until yesterday.

A few minutes in a Chicago courtroom ended an ordeal that started when he was locked up 25 years ago. He was guilty of looking like the guy who raped a woman in a Chicago parking garage in 1989.

Last March, he was released on parole as a registered sex offender and attached to an electronic monitor. If he stayed out of trouble, his parole would be up in another 20 years.

But wherever he moved for the rest of his life, his neighbors would be notified that a dangerous felon was in their midst.

He got himself two jobs, moved in with a cousin in the Chicago suburbs and considered himself lucky. He might still be tethered to his monitor if his case hadn't come to the attention of the Innocence Project.

Yesterday, Miller became the 200th client of the Innocence Project to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Peter Neufeld, who founded the project with Barry Scheck, looked up from his work just long enough to acknowledge the milestone.

"We've got 250 pending cases around the country and another couple thousand that we haven't gotten to yet," Neufeld told me yesterday.

Most are like Miller's. Some 77 percent of them involved misidentifications by eyewitnesses. Many of them are cross-racial. About 64 percent of those who were wrongly convicted of rape are black, two thirds of them wrongly convicted of raping white women.

Miller was misidentified by two black parking-lot attendants whose descriptions led an artist's composite drawing of a suspect. A police officer who had stopped Miller once for looking into parked cars thought he matched the photo. He was arrested for the first and only time in his life.

It wasn't until last year, when the Innocence Project got the Cook County prosecutors's office to test semen samples on the victim's clothing that Miller was exonerated.

In more than a third of their cases, the Innocence Project not only proved the innocence of their client, they also identified the real perpetrator. The semen sample in Miller's case matched a felon who is serving time for another conviction.

But Miller's case differs in a way that confirms the value of the Innocence Project's work. Cook County prosecutors did not oppose the testing or results.

"They cooperated with us as soon as we went to them," Neufeld said. "In the past, a lot of district attorneys have fought us in court over admitting DNA evidence, including D.A.s in Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

"Sometimes, they beat us in the state courts before we finally beat them in federal court."

After 15 years and 200 wins, they have changed more than the fortunes of their clients. There are now 40 states that have laws granting prisoners access to DNA testing to prove their cases. Five others have introduced similar legislation.

There are laws now in 21 states providing some compensation to people wrongly convicted. Another 13 states have pending compensation laws. Pennsylvania is not among them.

A campaign launched today supports the formation of innocence commissions in every state. Six states have them. Pennsylvania is among seven others that are forming commissions.

"We hope the commission in Pennsylvania will write a compensation law," Neufeld said.

Miller, like so many innocent men who have been released after spending much of their lives behind bars, was not bitter.

"I want to get on with my life," he told reporters yesterday. "I'm just thankful for this day."

Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, called Miller's response "typical."

"You can't stay angry for 25 years," he said. "It's on the rest of us to be angry about this." *

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