CHICAGO-Cook County prosecutors on Thursday vacated the convictions of three of five men serving prison time for the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old suburban Chicago girl after DNA evidence linked another man to the crime.
The men were convicted as teenagers in the rape and murder of Cateresa Matthews of Dixmoor, which is about 20 miles south of Chicago. She disappeared after leaving her grandmother’s house in November 1991 and her body was found weeks later near a highway with a gunshot wound to the mouth.
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The murder went unsolved for about a year. Then in 1992, five teens were arrested. Two signed confessions and agreed to testify against the others for shorter prison sentences, even though attorneys said there were inconsistencies in their testimony and DNA evidence taken from the girl did not match any of the five teens.
Prosecutors reopened the case this year after new DNA testing uploaded to a state database linked a convicted rapist to the crime. He has not been charged in Matthew’s killing, but remains under investigation and is serving prison time in Cook County for a drug offense, authorities said.
The mood in the courtroom Thursday was described with word: Stunned.
“It’s truly unexplainable,” said attorney Josh Tepfer who represented one of the men and works for Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. “It’s one of the most tragic injustices in this state’s history. It’s five kids who were wrongfully convicted … while a true perpetrator went on and lived a criminal lifestyle.”
The prosecutors’ move came after years of legal battles for the three men — Robert Taylor, 34, Jonathan Barr, 34, and James Harden, 36, — who have been in prison for nearly two decades. The three were to be released from Illinois prisons as early as Thursday once paperwork was completed. Prosecutors said they would vacate the convictions of the two others who had already served prison sentences.
“He’s lost his childhood. You can’t put a price on that,” said Craig Cooley, a staff attorney with the New York-based Innocence Project, who represented Barr. “He’s angry at what happened, but he’s forgiven and is moving on.”
Barr and Harden, who are brothers, were both in custody at Menard Correctional Center.
“Their mother and father passed away while they were in prison,” said Tara Thompson, a staff attorney with the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project, who represented Harden. “He missed the opportunity to go to college. Everything you’ve done in your life since high school, he’s missed out on that.”
Taylor was in custody at Stateville Correctional Center.
“They were all in tears and very, very happy that this ordeal was over and grateful they’re going to be home for the holidays,” said Tepfer, Taylor’s attorney.
Thursday’s case, once dubbed “The Dixmoor Five,” is among the dozens of wrongful conviction cases in Illinois made public in recent years. Allegations of torture and coerced confessions by Chicago police eventually helped lead then-Republican Gov. George Ryan in 2000 to impose a moratorium on Illinois’ death penalty. Earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.
Defense attorneys in the Dixmoor case blame a series of missteps on prosecutors and local police at the time, including allegedly coerced confessions.
“The fact that they accepted these false confessions is tunnel vision,” Cooley said. “The fact that they couldn’t look outside these confessions, and say, `Wait a minute.'”
The teens, including the victim, all knew each other from school. Defense attorneys claim the teens who confessed were questioned relentlessly and at least in one case were told that they could see their parents if they signed confessions.
Robert Lee Veal, 34, and Shainne Sharp signed written confessions and agreed to testify against the others in exchange for reduced 20-year prison sentences. Records show each served about 10 years.
Veal, who has “severe learning disabilities,” could not read when he was arrested and signed a confession not knowing what it was.
Taylor also had confessed to the crime, but later recanted saying it was coerced. He and Harden were sentenced to 80 years in prison. Barr received 85 years.
Defense attorneys had asked for new DNA testing in 2009. New tests this year isolated a genetic profile from swabs taken from the victim. Illinois State Police uploaded it to a database which matched the profile of a man who was 33 at the time of the 1991 murder and had been convicted of a separate sexual assault.
Dixmoor police declined to comment Thursday.
“We conducted a very detailed and extensive investigation into the details of this case,” said Cook County state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman Sally Daly.
Sharp, 36, is serving time at Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana on a drug offense, according to online records with the Indiana Department of Corrections.
Veal, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., had not been told the news, his Chicago-based attorney Stuart Chanen said.
While Veal has been out of prison since 2002, his wrongful conviction has dramatically altered the course of his life, Chanen said. Unemployed, Veal spent a good chunk of his life behind bars at a time he might otherwise have been getting help for learning disabilities.
“It’s virtually impossible to get a job with a murder conviction, with being an ex-con … on your rap sheet,” said Chanen.
He said the decision to drop the charges, while not giving him back a decade of his life or make finding work a certainty, “At least he gets the stench of that off his record.”