Nearly two decades after they were arrested for a crime they didn't commit, five Chicago-area men are about to be cleared.
And, as in so many other cases, it was DNA that let the genii out of the bottle.
Last week, an Illinois judge tossed out the convictions and dismissed charges against three men after DNA tests proved their innocence of a 1991 rape and murder and implicated another man in the crime. One of the three men, Robert Taylor, was freed last week. The other two, Jonathan Barr and his brother James Harden, are expected to be freed momentarily in downstate Illinois.
In a statement, The Innocence Project, which was a major factor in the outcome of these cases, said:
"The five men were convicted in a clear case of false confessions and tunnel vision. Nearly a year after a 14-year-old girl was raped and killed in Dixmoor, a village south of Chicago, police interrogated Robert Lee Veal, a 15-year-old classmate of the victim. After five hours in police custody, Veal signed a statement implicating himself and the four other defendants, who were also teenagers. Two of the other defendants, Taylor and Shainne Sharp also confessed after long interrogations. Veal and Sharp received a lenient plea in exchange for their testimony against the other three defendants, who were convicted at trial."
The group added, "After months of delaying justice, we're relieved that the Cook County State's Attorney's Office has finally seen the light in this case. It is clear that the petition signed by more than 70,000 activists calling for justice on behalf of these men had a profound impact on prosecutors. Unfortunately, we are still fighting for justice on behalf of four men convicted in a strikingly similar crime in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood just a few years after this one."
Their statement concluded: "This is one of the most tragic miscarriages of justice that we've seen in this state and perhaps the nation. Even before they were convicted, the state had DNA evidence proving that the confessions were false, yet it chose to go forward with the prosecutions in spite of this evidence and over the objections of a juvenile court judge," said Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project. "This destroyed the lives of these young men while the real perpetrator was allowed to go free, destroying even more lives during a 20-year crime spree."
DNA testing linked a rapist to the 1991 rape and murder of the 14-year-old girl.
This is a brief history of this case as prepared by The Innocence Project:
On November 19, 1991, Cateresa Matthews, a 14-year-old student at Rosa Parks Middle School in Dixmoor, IL, went missing. Her body was discovered 19 days later on a footpath in a residential neighborhood near Interstate 57 in Dixmoor. She had been raped and shot in the mouth. Nearly a year after the murder, the Illinois State Police interrogated Veal, a 15-year-old student from the same school. After five hours in police custody, Veal signed a written statement implicating himself, Taylor (15), Barr (15), Harden (17) and Sharp (17). After four hours in custody, Taylor also signed a written confession. Two days later, after 21 hours in custody, Sharp did the same.
In June 1994, before any of the teenagers were tried, the Illinois State Police crime lab identified a lone male DNA profile from sperm recovered from the victim's body. Even though all 5 defendants were excluded as the source of the semen, the prosecution pushed forward rather than seeking the source of the semen recovered from this young victim. Based on doubts about the truthfulness of the confessions, a juvenile court judge refused to charge Barr and Taylor in adult criminal court, a decision later reversed by an appellate court. Veal and Sharp pled guilty to first-degree murder and received a 20-year sentence (they were eligible for release just 7 years from the date of their pleas) in exchange for agreeing to testify against Harden, Barr and Taylor. Over the next 2 years, all 3 were convicted, and each was sentenced to at least 80 years in prison. All subsequent appeals were denied, including a post-conviction request for DNA testing.
In August 2009, James Harden, through the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, again sought DNA testing, a request later joined by Robert Taylor through the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and private attorney Jennifer Blagg as well as Jonathan Barr through the Innocence Project. For more than a year, the Dixmoor Police Department claimed that it was unable to locate the DNA and was threatened with contempt of court for failing to respond to a subpoena. Eventually Judge Michele Simmons ordered the Dixmoor police to allow counsel to view the evidence storage areas and log books for themselves. In short order, the Department informed the lawyers that they had finally located the evidence. DNA testing uncovered a full male profile that was entered into the national DNA database of criminal offenders, matching serial violent offender Willie Randolph.
At the time of the crime, Randolph, 33, lived in the victim's neighborhood and had recently been released on parole after serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery. He was apprehended by authorities on April 12, 2011. Police questioned Randolph, whose semen had been found in the victim's body, about the murder, and he denied having sex with Matthews. Subsequently, defendants' attorneys located another woman who says she was also raped by Randolph at the same exact location.
"It is abundantly clear that overly aggressive police interrogation techniques can cause adults to falsely confess to serious crimes - and when it comes to juveniles, it can happen at a truly alarming rate," said Joshua Tepfer with the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. "These techniques don't only hurt those wrongfully convicted, but as we saw in this case, they allow the real perpetrators to go free and commit other crimes. Hopefully this case will lead the way for much-needed reforms like requiring that all police interviews and interrogations be videotaped in full."
Brothers Barr and Harden were just 14 and 16 when Matthews was murdered. Neither Barr nor Harden confessed to the crime and have always maintained their innocence. Their father, James Harden, Sr., provided an alibi at each of their trials, testifying that he was home with the boys on the alleged day the victim was murdered. Barr and Harden's mother and father both passed away while they were incarcerated.
Taylor was also just 14 at the time of the murder. After a relentless interrogation, he signed a written statement confessing to the crime. He recanted soon thereafter but was convicted at trial based on his statement and the testimony from Veal and Sharp. Taylor plans to live with his father, Robert Taylor, Sr., who has stood by him throughout his two-decade fight to clear his name.
"After months of offering up disingenuous arguments to delay justice, we're relieved the State's Attorney's Office has finally seen the light. This is a classic example of tunnel vision. Five teens supposedly confessed to a rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, yet they didn't recover any DNA from the five teens, they offered no evidence that the girl had a boyfriend at the time and they recovered semen from an unknown male," said Craig Cooley, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.
He added: "These facts should have sent up a red flag 20 years ago, and there was certainly no reason to delay justice once Randolph was identified last spring."