Attorneys today hailed a landmark wrongful conviction settlement awarded to five men who were wrongfully imprisoned for the rape and murder of a teenage girl but called for a deeper look at authorities’ use of false confessions in Cook County.
In what appears to be the largest wrongful conviction settlement in state history, the Illinois State Police agreed to pay $40 million to the so-called Dixmoor Five who were arrested as teens for the November 1991 murder of Cateresa Matthews and given lengthy prison sentences. The three men who received the longest terms were freed in 2011 after DNA tests connected semen on Cateresa to a felon who had been paroled to near where Cateresa's grandmother lived.
None of the exonerated men appeared at the press conference with their lawyers.
“Frankly, you know, the money that’s being paid out is almost beside the point,” said Peter Neufeld, a New York attorney representing Jonathan Barr, one of the wrongfully convicted men. “What you have here in Cook County is an epidemic. An epidemic of false confessions of juveniles, primarily people of color.”
Neufeld, speaking at Chicago’s federal courthouse, called for a “root cause analysis” of the problem.
“Until they do that kind of analysis, and until they have an independent investigation, you are doomed to continue to repeat those kinds of errors into the future. And that would be a catastrophe.”
Henry Turner, a Chicago attorney representing Robert Veal, described the settlement as “somewhat bittersweet … because our clients spent a collective approximately 80 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.”
The settlement exceeds the $36 million Cook County agreed to pay in 1999 to the Ford Heights Four who were wrongly convicted of the 1978 murders of a young couple in the south suburb. It matches the amount the city of New York agreed to pay to the Central Park Five, who were falsely convicted of the 1989 rape of a jogger.
Individually, Thaddeus Jimenez was awarded $25 million by a federal court jury in 2012 for his wrongful conviction for a 1993 murder of a teenager on the city's Northwest Side. Arrested at 13, Jimenez spent 16 years in prison.
John Stainthorp, a Chicago attorney also representing Barr, said the area has “a history of false confessions that has never been addressed.”
“Even where there have been settlements, even where there has been acknowledgement of wrongdoing, there has never been an effective investigation by Cook County into what’s going on here,” he said. “When you don’t have that investigation, you have police who essentially operate with impunity.”
Dave Blanchette, a spokesman for Gov. Pat Quinn, said that the staggering Dixmoor Five settlement amount was included in a supplemental appropriations bill that already had been signed by the governor.
News of the settlement on Tuesday came the same day Cook County prosecutors asked a judge to vacate the convictions of two men who had served 15 years for a double murder in Chicago after their confessions were undermined by evidence that a co-defendant was being held in a police lock-up when the killings occurred.
The Dixmoor Five, all teens at the time of their convictions, alleged in their federal lawsuit that Dixmoor police and state police ignored evidence implicating another suspect, instead focusing on the five young men. They alleged, too, that police coerced a confession from Veal, who was 15 at the time, had an IQ of 56 and developmental disabilities, a common theme in wrongful convictions cases.
The lawsuit also alleged that detectives physically abused and threatened some of the other teens to obtain confessions. In addition, the lawsuit alleged police misled the mother of Robert Taylor, then 15, into believing he was to be questioned as a potential witness in a drug investigation. Instead, police took him in for questioning and beat and threatened him until he confessed to the rape and murder, according to the lawsuit.
“They got targeted because they presented an expedient solution to a crime,” said Locke Bowman, Taylor’s attorney.
Taylor also pleaded guilty to violating his bail bond after he did not appear in court near the end of his trial. He has petitioned the governor for a pardon on that conviction.
“We wait for Gov. Quinn to hopefully do the right thing with respect to that pending petition for executive clemency,” Bowman said.
Officials in Dixmoor have apologized for what they called “tragedies” but have not yet settled the case against the town. Attorneys on Wednesday promised to continue pressing for a conclusion to that case.
“This is a substantial step, but it is not enough,” said Michael Oppenheimer, an attorney representing Shainnie Sharp, one of the men who confessed to the murder during police questioning and agreed to take the stand against Taylor.
“No amount of money, no matter how great, can bring justice to these young men who were children at the time. And now they’re young men; they face struggles in their life. This helps, but nothing can compensate them for almost 80 years in prison … We hope that someday these false confessions and injustices to our nation’s youth will stop,” he said.
Sharp and Veal were released after serving 10-year terms. The others – Taylor, Barr and James Harden -- received longer sentences and served close to two decades in prison before they were set free.
“It never should’ve happened,” said Jon Loevy, one of Harden’s attorneys. “Our hope is that this and other cases like it will cause authorities and the public to bring attention to the fact that sometimes people confess to crimes that they didn’t commit. Sometimes the police cross the line, coerce confessions that are not true, as in this case.”