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THERAPIST FINALLY WAKES FROM 12-YEAR NIGHTMARE

Fourteen years ago, Steven Linscott told police a shocking story: He saw a man attack and kill someone. His account of the crime had one very unusual aspect - he said it was just a dream.

A dream, though, that occurred the same night a neighbor was murdered.Some details he recounted were similar to the woman's death; others were not. The discrepancies didn't dissuade police. To them, this was no vision, no coincidence - this was a confession.

So began a long, bizarre odyssey that sounds like a Kafka tale: A Bible student and young father whose dream of a crime turns into a 12-year nightmare as he repeatedly proclaims his innocence - from the police station to court to prison - until new DNA tests finally make him a free man.

Two years have passed since charges were dropped against Steve Linscott and now, as he rebuilds his life, he has begun talking openly for the first time, promoting a book that examines lessons learned - painfully.

"You have to be careful where you place your faith," says Linscott, now a 40-year-old family therapist and the father of four. "We had a naive trust in the legal system. That was DEFINITELY a mistake."

"You have to force the system to do its job," he adds. "You need to kick it in the rear end. Even then, innocent people get harmed."

The state never declared him innocent. When abandoning its case, it said scientific evidence raised sufficient doubts about retrying Linscott, who served 3 1/2 years in prison before his guilty verdict was overturned.

Linscott isn't surprised. "When this crowd drops a case, that's better than a jury decision that says you're not guilty," he says. "That's the best exoneration possible."

Linscott said he hopes his book, "Maximum Security," co-written by journalist Randall Frame, published by Crossway Books and avail-able mostly in Christian bookstores, will help other victims through their ordeals. "There are injustices all the time. . . . We've learned a lot about that."

But the mild-mannered man with a penchant for religious parables and homespun phrases - in talking about prison violence, for example, he says one inmate "beat the tar" out of another - is not at ease playing the promotion game.

He asks that the central Illinois town where he lives remain secret. And though he has conducted numerous interviews, he also rejected an appearance on a big-time TV talk show - one that would likely mean big book sales - because it wanted to explore the psychic angle.

"I'm not going to rush out and say this power exists," he says.

In October 1980, police came to the door of the Christian halfway house where Linscott and his wife, Lois, had just begun working as houseparents.

Karen Ann Phillips, 24, a nurse's aide, had been raped and bludgeoned to death down the block in Oak Park, on the edge of Chicago's West Side, a high-crime area. Had the Linscotts heard or seen anything?

At first, Linscott, then a Bible college student, said he was reluctant to reveal his dream. But he did after mentioning it to his wife and a friend.

In his book, he describes that dream: A blond man, about 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-7 - Linscott stands over 6 feet - is talking to a second person. At first, he is calm. Then his demeanor changes, he takes out an object and begins striking the victim, until blood is flying everywhere.

"It wasn't an unusual dream under the circumstances," Linscott insists, noting that he was tense living with former inmates in a halfway house in a new neighborhood plagued by drugs, prostitution and violence.

"I believed that God maybe would use it (the dream) in some way," he says. "I did not ever suspect that it would be used by the cops against me. . . . If I have a sin, it was being naive."

Though there were some similarities between the dream and the crime, Linscott says there were dozens of differences, including a notable one: He thought the victim was black. Phillips was white.

Authorities later said the discrepancies were his way of distancing himself from the slaying.

Linscott said he had never been in trouble before; his most serious brush with crime was a $50 speeding ticket in his native Maine.

He said police repeatedly assured him he was not a suspect. But they took blood, saliva and hair samples.

And Steven Linscott soon found his words used against him. He was convicted, sentenced to 40 years in prison and given what inmates jokingly call a Buck Rogers release date: 2002.