Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions helps exonerate three men

Here's yet another exoneration story.

Three men are scheduled to be released from Illinois prisons this week after being exonerated of a 1991 rape and murder Thursday with the help of Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions and other legal advocacy groups.

Robert Taylor, James Harden and Jonathan Barr are represented by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, the New York Innocence Project and the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, respectively. All three agencies worked to prove the innocence of their clients, who have each been incarcerated for more than 10 years.

According to a press release from the New York Innocence Project, the State's Attorney Office in Illinois will soon move to "vacate the convictions" of Robert Lee Veal and Shainne Sharp, who were also falsely accused of the crime.

"We're certainly delighted that basically five innocent teenagers have been absolved of a horrible crime," said Rob Warden, the executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Cateresa Matthews, a 14-year-old Rosa Parks Middle School student went missing in Dixmoor, Ill. on Nov. 19, 1991. Nineteen days later, her body was found, and authorities discovered she had been raped and shot in the mouth, according to the press release. Almost a year after the grisly murder, Illinois State Police questioned a student from the same school, then-15-year-old Veal, who subsequently signed a document confirming the guilt of himself and fellow teenagers Taylor, Barr, Harden and Sharp, according to the press release.

Despite the discovery of a semen sample from the victim's body that did not match any of the five defendants in 1994, the prosecution continued to push the case.

Veal and Sharp testified against Harden, Barr and Taylor in order to receive 20-year sentences, according to the press release.

The three other boys were later sentenced to at least 80 years in prison.

"It's an absolutely horrible thing that the state of Illinois has done to these children," Warden said. "The police coerced false confessions from three of these five kids. We think the police should not be able to lie to you about the strength (of their evidence). That practice ought to be banned."

In August 2009, Harden, with the support of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, submitted a request for DNA testing.

Taylor and Barr also later requested for DNA testing through their respective representation. After the Dixmoor Police Department failed to cooperate, Judge Michele Simmons ruled the police department had to allow counsel to view evidence in storage.

After lawyers placed evidence into the national DNA database of criminal offenders, they found a match in Willie Randolph, who has been convicted of several offenses including domestic violence, burglary and assault with a deadly weapon, said Craig Cooley, a staff attorney at the New York Innocence Project.

"Once we identified Willie Randolph, we thought it was a slam dunk case," Cooley said.

After questioning Randolph, whose semen was found in Matthews but claimed he did not have sex with the student, the defendants' attorneys found another woman who said she was raped by Randolph at the same location.

According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions website, Cook County prosecutors vacated the convictions of Barr, Taylor and Harden. Although Taylor was released from Stateville Correctional Center Thursday, Harden and Barr are "scheduled to be released" from Menard Correctional Center on Friday.

Cooley said the prosecutors' decision to vacate all convictions came as a surprise because they did not alert any of the attorneys of their decision.

Representatives from each advocacy organization agreed that despite the success of Thursday's ruling, the time in prison has severely impacted their clients' lives.

"Nobody emerges from a system, from an experience like that, that's not seriously damaged," Warden said.

Brothers Harden and Barr, whose parents died while they were in prison, will have an even more difficult time adjusting to life outside prison, said Tara Thompson, staff attorney for the University of Chicago Exoneration Project.

"The process of learning how to function in regular society takes a long time," Thompson said. "Their parents will not be waiting for them."

Link: http://www.dailynorthwestern.com/campus/northwestern-s-center-on-wrongful-convictions-helps-exonerate-three-men-1.2665345