Students in Exoneration Project Help Free Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder

Students in Exoneration Project Help Free Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder

For the second time this year, the hard work of University of Chicago Law School students in the Exoneration Project has successfully freed an imprisoned man who was wrongly convicted of murder.

After DNA testing linked a serial rapist to the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old southwest suburban girl, a Cook County Circuit Court judge on Thursday set aside the convictions of three men who were convicted of the crime by confessions now known to be false. James Harden, Robert Taylor, and Jonathan Barr, all of whom were teenagers when arrested, are represented by the Law School’s Exoneration Project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth with private attorney Jennifer Blagg, and the Innocence Project.

In court, the State’s Attorney’s Office noted that it would be filing papers soon to vacate the convictions of Robert Lee Veal and Shainne Sharp, who also were wrongfully convicted of the crime.

“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 Harden’s attorney Tara Thompson, a staff attorney with the Law School’s 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 twenty-year crime spree.”

Law School students Jenni James and Eileen Ho, both ’12, and Thompson traveled to the Menard Correctional Center in southwest Illinois to greet Harden when he will be released from prison on Friday. Harden’s case was one of the first taken by the Exoneration Project when it was formed in 2007 by Jon Loevy of the civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy. In addition to James and Ho, other students who were heavily involved in the case include: Robert Baca, ’08, Mark Allen, ’09, Allison Hunter, ’09, Kevin Dooley, ’10, and Akio Katano, ’11.

Students did nearly all the major investigation, including drafting and litigating the motion for DNA testing that led to Harden’s release. They also interviewed witnesses, took affidavits, and helped draft petitions. Thompson said Dooley, in particular, was instrumental in forcing the Dixmoor Police Department to find evidence that needed DNA testing by drafting and litigating a motion for a rule to show cause.

The wrongful convictions are a sad chapter in an already heart-breaking case. On November 19, 1991, Cateresa Matthews, a 14-year-old student at Rosa Parks Middle School in Dixmoor, Illinois, disappeared. Her body was discovered nineteen 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 twenty-one 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 five 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 pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received a twenty-year sentence (they were eligible for release just seven years from the date of their pleas) in exchange for agreeing to testify against Harden, Barr, and Taylor. Over the next two years, all three were convicted, and each was sentenced to at least eighty years in prison. All subsequent appeals were denied, including a post-conviction request for DNA testing.

In August 2009, James Harden, through the Law School’s 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 twenty-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. “These facts should have sent up a red flag twenty years ago, and there was certainly no reason to delay justice once Randolph was identified last spring.”

In court today, Judge Simmons vacated the convictions of the Taylor, Harden, and Barr. The State’s Attorney’s Office stated that it would be filing a motion soon to vacate the convictions of Veal and Sharp.  Veal now lives in Minnesota. Sharp is in an Indiana prison on a drug charge.

James Harden is represented by Thompson of the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project. Robert Taylor is represented by Tepfer, Laura Nirider, and Steven Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, as well as private attorney Blagg. Jonathan Barr is represented by Co-Director Peter Neufeld and Staff Attorney Cooley of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

In March, the Exoneration Project helped Eric Caine win release from prison after 25 years of incarceration for a murder he didn’t commit. Caine was arrested in 1986 when he confessed to killing an elderly couple after hours of interrogation and beatings from Chicago police detectives. Law School students in the Exoneration Project were a driving force behind preparing Caine’s successful post-conviction relief efforts.