Posts Tagged ‘Exoneration Project’

Ben Baker, 43, of Chicago was convicted of drug possession in 2005 and sentenced to 14 years in prison, but last year, the Exoneration Project discovered evidence that the investigators framed Baker.  He was eventually released from the Robinson Correctional Center this week and sent home.  Baker’s legal team knew for more than a day that he was no longer convicted of what a corrupt officer framed him for, but Baker had no idea.  He said, “I was coming from the gym, from a fitness class they provide there. I was standing, waiting.  The officer told me to pack my stuff. I was going home. I told him, ‘Stop playing.’ ”

“This is what we do this work for.  This conviction should have never happened, but we are delighted that once the case got on their radar, the state’s attorney’s office acted quickly and decisively,” said Joshua Tepfer, a lawyer with the Exoneration Project.

Sergeant Ronald Watts and a number of officers on his squad testified that Baker was selling drugs out of one of the city’s public housing buildings, the Ida B. Wells building.  Baker has always maintained his innocence and said that the authorities were framing him.

At trial, he testified that Sgt. Watts had previously tried to frame him for drug-related cases when he refused to give Watts $1,000 for “protection”.   Baker refused to pay the money and got out of those false charges later.  He subsequently complained to another officer Alvin Jones, but he didn’t know that Jones was part of the scheme.  Jones responded it was all “part of the game…you win some, you lose some.  Next time we get you, it will stick.”

Watts and the other officers testified that Baker was lying and the jury convicted him.

Officer Douglas Nichols, who worked under Watts’ command, testified that he saw Baker with drug bags packaged for distribution and tried to capture him, but he fled.  Officer Robert Gonzalez, also a member of Watts’ team, testified that he arrested Baker in the lobby after Baker got away from Nichols and that he found heroin, crack cocaine, and $800 in his pocket.

Baker told the court that Watts and his officers were the ones with a criminal empire in the housing complex.  They often stole narcotics proceeds and shook down dealers for “protection money”, and even pinned cases on innocent residents if they refused to play ball with them.

At the sentencing hearing, the trial judge fully believed the officers stating that he thought Baker’s accusations were unfounded.  He sentenced Baker to 18 years, but that sentence was later reduced to 14 years.  The accusations “[hold] no water at all,” Judge Toomin said.

It turns out that the criminals were the ones wearing the badges in this case. (more…)

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Shawn Whirl who served 25 years in prison for a murder he said he was forced to confess to, walked out of prison October 14th.  Whirl, now 45, was convicted of shooting and killing taxi driver Billy Williams in 1990.  Whirl said former Chicago Police Detective James Pienta tortured him until he confessed.  Whirl was stepped on, slapped, and Pienta yelled racial slurs at him.  Pienta allegedly forced Whirl to confess when Whirl professed his innocence.  Pienta also stabbed Whirl in the legs with his keys.  Whirl’s girlfriend was also at the police station and reported hearing him screaming out.  Police questioned Whirl because his fingerprints were found in the taxi.  Whirl told police that two days before he had hopped in the taxi to escape gang members who were trying to rob him.  Whirl’s lawyers advised him to plead guilty because he confessed and the state planned to pursue the death penalty.  Whirl was sentenced to 60 years.

Using Whirl’s false confession, prosecutors formulated the motive for the crime.  Whirl was having financial issues and struggling to pay his rent so he robbed Williams.

An appeals court overturned Whirl’s conviction in August.  Whirl was the first defendant given a new trial as the result of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission investigations.  The commission was founded in 2009 to correct wrongful convictions of people who were tortured by the police especially under Police Commander Jon Burge.  The cases span 3 decades, from the 1970s through the 1990s.  Burge and his detectives are suspected of torturing 200 men.

Tara Thompson, Whirl’s lawyer and a member of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project said, “I think that Shawn’s case is proof that it’s not too late for those of us that are making sure people who were tortured into giving confessions can still have their day in court…I hope Shawn’s case brings hope to other people…”

The Exoneration Project is a non-profit organization at the University of Chicago, where law students work to help prisoners who profess their innocence.  Whirl could pursue a certificate of innocence, which will expunge and seal his records, or he could file a wrongful conviction and torture lawsuit, but any damages would be capped at $200,000.

Whirl has served half of his life in prison and said he knows that it will be hard to adjust, “God is not through with me yet and he hasn’t brought me this far for no reason…I don’t hold any bitterness, or anger, or animosity because I don’t have room for it…I think I’ll be OK.”

Sources:  AFRO

More than 20 years after 11-year-old Holly Staker was raped and murdered in one of Illinois’ most contentious cases, DNA evidence from her case has been matched to a suspect in a second murder that occurred 10 years after Staker’s.  DNA evidence obtained from a two-by-four used to beat Delwin Foxworth in 2000 matches DNA from semen taken from Staker’s body in the early 90s.  A lawyer for the man convicted of Foxworth’s murder says the evidence shows that his client is innocent as he has long insisted.  The DNA match also shows that Juan Rivera was wrongly convicted of Staker’s rape and murder and that the failure to identify and arrest Staker’s real killer allowed Foxworth to be killed years later and two innocent men to be sent to prison.

“While Mr. Rivera fought to clear his name and officials fought to keep him in prison, the man who really committed the crime was free…It’s the antithesis of good policing…” said Steven Art, Rivera’s attorney.

Despite the DNA matches, the identity of the potential suspect remains unknown.  Authorities have entered the profile in DNA databases, but have not obtained any matches.  The new link represents a break in the case, but also an embarrassment for authorities, who even recently said that Rivera was still a suspect in Staker’s murder.

The case bears similarities to Jerry Hobbs, a father who was wrongfully accused of murdering his daughter and another young girl in 2005.  DNA later connected Jorge Torrez to the two murders.  He was sentenced to death for killing a sailor in 2009.  Torrez also attacked three women in 2010.

Staker was babysitting two children when she was raped and stabbed to death in 1992.  Rivera was convicted three times on the strength of a false confession.  Authorities drew criticism for their “methods” in obtaining his confession.  After his third trial and life sentence, the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011 once again overturned his conviction and prohibited his retrial, in a rare ruling, saying there was insufficient evidence against him.  Rivera was released and has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against authorities.  He maintains his innocence.

The case was marred by controversy and criticism especially for prosecutor’s comments that the DNA evidence was the result of Staker, who was 11, having consensual sex with someone else shortly before her murder.  Earlier this year it was revealed the police recovered a knife just steps from the murder scene about 2 years after the murder, but destroyed it without notifying defense attorneys or testing it.

Foxworth, 39, was attacked by 3 men in a home invasion in 2000.  He was held at gunpoint, beaten, tied up, robbed, then doused in gasoline and set on fire.  After the gunmen fled, he freed himself, extinguished the flames, and sought help.  He died in 2002 from his injuries.  Police identified three suspects, but arrested only Marvin Tyrone Williford, 43.  He was convicted in 2004 based upon eyewitness testimony and was sentenced to 80 years.  Williford also maintains his innocence.  There was never any physical evidence to link Williford.

The DNA match from Staker’s killing to Foxworth’s death adds strength to both men’s innocence claims.  Williford was prosecuted by George Strickland and Christopher Stride who are now both judges.  David Owens, Williford’s attorney, who works with the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project, argued at a recent hearing that the new evidence merits a new trial.  Another hearing is scheduled for June 18th.

CORRECTION:  An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the location as Wisconsin.