Constitutional Law

DNA Test Wins New Trial for 4 Jailed as Teens in Murder Case, But Top Chicago Prosecutor Has Doubts

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A top Chicago prosecutor said she wasn’t convinced by DNA evidence that excluded four convicted men and seemingly pointed to a convicted murderer as the culprit in the 1994 strangulation slaying of a prostitute in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“DNA evidence in and of itself is not always the ‘silver bullet’ that it is sometimes perceived to be,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez told the New York Times. Her job as a prosecutor, she said, is “to look at everything and weigh it.”

But a Cook County Circuit Court judge today found the DNA evidence persuasive, vacating the convictions of four then-teenagers charged in the case, the Innocence Project announced in a press release. The Innocence Project, along with other legal aid groups, represented the defendants in the appeal.

Brief Associated Press and Chicago Tribune stories confirm the ruling by Judge Paul P. Biebel, Jr., who serves as presiding judge in the court’s criminal division.

The state’s attorney’s office will now decide whether to retry Harold Richardson, Michael Saunders, Terrill Swift and Vincent Thames. They were 16, 15, 17 and 18, respectively, at the time of their arrests.

The new suspect identified by the DNA match, Johnny Douglas, who was 32 and present at the scene when Nina Glover’s body was discovered in a Dumpster in November 1994, was convicted in a 1997 strangulation murder of a prostitute and found not guilty in a second strangulation murder case despite a DNA match. He was himself murdered after being released from prison.

The four teens were identified as suspects in the apparent rape-murder of Glover, although there was no DNA match, after a fifth teen agreed to implicate them after a lengthy police interrogation. The four teens then made what the Innocence Project calls “wildly inconsistent” confessions. The fifth teen was also originally charged, but the case was dropped after his confession was determined to be inadmissible because it had been coerced.

“This is yet another very troubling case where multiple black juveniles were coerced into confessions and wrongly convicted. How many young men’s lives are going to have to be destroyed before the state’s attorney’s office recognizes that it has a false confession epidemic on its hands?” said Josh Tepfer, of Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, in the press release. “They need to stop interrogating young people the same way they interrogate adults.”

Alvarez said the DNA match to Douglas did not necessarily establish his guilt, the Times article reported. Douglas, she said, was “the type of person that was utilizing prostitutes. He didn’t kill every other prostitute he was with.”

A post on the Innocence Project’s Innocence Blog prior to Biebel’s ruling today provides further background.

Additional coverage:

Chicago Tribune (1995): “5 Teens Charged In Beating Death”

Chicago Sun-Times: “Convictions of four men thrown out in 1994 prostitute murder”

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