After hours of interrogation and a beating from police that ruptured his eardrum, Eric Caine falsely confessed in 1986 to killing an elderly couple – an act that would lead to a conviction on murder charges and a lifetime prison term.
He spent the next 25 years behind bars, and would have been there longer if not for the tenacious work of students in the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project. Clinic students were a driving force behind preparing Caine’s recent successful post-conviction relief efforts. On March 16, prosecutors recognized that Caine was wrongfully convicted and asked a judge to order his release from prison.
“He would have gotten out eventually, but in terms of pushing the case forward, there’s no way justice would have come as soon for Eric Caine if not for the students’ hard work,” said Russell Ainsworth, partner at the Chicago firm Loevy & Loevy and an attorney with the Law School’s Exoneration Project.
Students became involved in Caine’s case several years ago. In 2009, the Exoneration Project filed an amended petition for post-conviction relief on behalf of Caine declaring that his confession was coerced and introducing new evidence of misconduct by the officers who interrogated Caine. The petition also included new evidence identifying the true perpetrators.
Chicago Law alum Frank Bednarz, ‘09, drafted the amended post-conviction petition, as well as a 70-page response to the state’s motion to dismiss. He started during Spring Quarter of his last year in law school, then continued working for the Exoneration Project as a full-time attorney during a deferral year from the law firm where he works today. Bednarz dedicated well over 100 hours of his time on this case and worked on other Exoneration Project cases as well. “His involvement was integral,” Ainsworth said. “The resources needed for the case were extraordinary, and Frank did an extraordinary job.”
At the beginning of the year, Adam Marvin, ‘11, and Megan Leach, ‘11, worked with the Exoneration Project to prepare for an evidentiary hearing. They reviewed transcripts to prepare for the Exoneration Project’s meeting with prosecutors to discuss the strength of Caine’s case. Marvin and Leach painstakingly sifted through old witness depositions and trial testimony to make sure the version of events they would present to prosecutors was unimpeachable.
It had been a long road for Caine. He was arrested in the stabbing death of an elderly couple in April 1986 following the wrongful arrest of another man, Aaron Patterson, who implicated himself, Caine, and two other innocent men who were never charged. Patterson was interrogated and tortured by Lt. Jon Burge, the disgraced Chicago police commander sentenced this year for lying to federal investigators about his role in torturing murder suspects.
During Caine’s long interrogation by detectives, he steadfastly maintained his innocence, despite severe beatings, until detectives falsely told Caine he could go home if he confessed to being present for the killings and implicated Patterson as the primary assailant. At trial, Caine was found was found guilty of double murder, home invasion, and residential burglary, and later was sentenced to life in prison. The only evidence ever introduced against Caine was his and Patterson’s coerced confessions.
In 2003, Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of everyone on Illinois’ death row, and pardoned four death row inmates, including Patterson, who had been tortured into giving false confessions. In a sad twist, Caine wasn’t pardoned, possibly because his life sentence escaped Ryan’s attention, which was focused at the time on death row inmates.
But the Chicago Law students’ preparation was worth it. In the spring, attorneys with the Exoneration Project used the strength of the evidence to negotiate Caine’s release from prison. He walked out of the Menard Correctional Center a free man. Since then, Caine has spent time reconnecting with family members and catching up on today’s technology. Soon after leaving prison, Caine learned how to use a cell phone and signed up for a gmail account.
A dozen Chicago Law students continue working on other cases with the Exoneration Project.