Those who plead guilty typically do their time quietly. Phillip McDowell has spent two decades in prison insisting he was innocent.
McDowell pleaded guilty to fatally stabbing an acquaintance in 1989 after he says courtroom deputies beat him and he feared he would be assaulted again when he was returned to Cook County Jail.
"I believed I was in danger," he said earlier this month in an interview in state prison.
Now McDowell, 49, hopes to become the first inmate in Illinois to take advantage of a proposed state law that would open DNA testing to prisoners who have pleaded guilty to help them try to prove their innocence.
The legislation, expected to be signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, promises to open a small but notable chapter in DNA testing at a time that the number of exonerations are on the decline nationally as many appeals based on DNA evidence have worked their way through the criminal justice system.
A little more than 10 percent of the 1,378 exonerations compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations involved prisoners who had pleaded guilty. Of those 145 exonerations, DNA evidence cleared 29 of them, according to the registry, which is a joint project of Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions and the University of Michigan Law School. Four of those 29 DNA cases took place in Cook County.
Dave Blanchette, a spokesman for the governor, said Quinn plans to sign the proposed new law but gave no timetable for when he would act. Illinois would become the 45th state to allow inmates who pleaded guilty to seek DNA testing.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul, the Chicago Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the legislation recognizes that sometimes innocent defendants plead guilty to avoid a more severe punishment. Raoul said he did not anticipate many inmates would be able to meet the law's requirement that there be a "reasonable probability" that a favorable DNA test result would have led to an acquittal if they had gone to trial. But he said the new law would be worthwhile anyway.
"I think it's important that, as we look at criminal justice reform, that we don't just do it for the big hits," he said. "Even if there's not a huge number, it's worth doing if you have somebody in prison who may not have committed the crime they pled guilty to."
Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, said the office worked closely with Raoul to craft the bill's language but takes a neutral position on the legislation. She said prosecutors, however, would agree to the DNA testing in McDowell's case but that details needed to be worked out with his attorney.
McDowell pleaded guilty to the murder of Joseph Freeman Pankey, who was found stabbed in an Alsip motel after he and McDowell had driven a car together from Alabama to be sold at an auto auction. McDowell never confessed, and no physical evidence linked him to the killing.
Facing the death penalty, McDowell entered a so-called blind plea, meaning that his lawyer did not work out a deal for a reduced prison sentence in exchange for his admission of guilt.
As for McDowell's claim that courtroom deputies beat him before he pleaded guilty, court records show that he was taken to the jail hospital for bruising and abrasions on his face. Later, in court, a judge discussed the incident, but a deputy contended that McDowell caused a confrontation.
McDowell was sentenced to 60 years in prison, but he soon attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, saying he had not made it voluntarily.
"I've been trying to forgive myself for pleading guilty to a crime I did not commit," he told a reporter at the Dixon Correctional Center.
He also filed a lawsuit against the Cook County sheriff's office. To settle the dispute, the county agreed to pay him just $5,000 without admitting any wrongdoing.
Still, the settlement allowed McDowell to begin buying law books and studying the criminal justice system. Over the years, McDowell, with light blue eyes that highlight a narrow, tense face, has made a name for himself as a jailhouse lawyer.
He played an important role in the 2008 exoneration of Alton Logan for the 1982 murder of a security guard by acting as a jailhouse lawyer for the real killer, convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson. McDowell prepared a document in which Wilson confessed to the murder and cleared Logan, information Wilson also told his two attorneys but made them keep secret until after his death in November 2007.
Even prosecutors acknowledge that he is adept in the courtroom and at writing legal briefs, but they also said that he too often tries to manipulate the legal system.
In 2002, McDowell succeeded in convincing the Illinois Supreme Court to order Cook County to hold a hearing on his own innocence claim. However, a dozen years later, that hearing has yet to happen, in part because of strategic decisions by McDowell in handling his own case.
Now, however, he has an attorney as well as the assistance of the Innocence Project in New York as he seeks the DNA testing he hopes will support his latest claim of innocence: that he had been arrested in a traffic stop and was in custody when Pankey's murder occurred. He said the police records weren't handed over until 1999 after a long fight.
Those records indicate that McDowell was arrested about 11 p.m. on Oct. 24, 1989, and released from custody around 10 p.m. on Oct. 25, according to McDowell. McDowell contends Pankey was slain on the morning of Oct. 25, but prosecutors maintain the timing was not as clear as that.
McDowell wants hairs found on Pankey's body, a blood-soaked rag discovered outside the motel room and cigarettes and beer bottles from inside the room all to be tested for DNA. He believes the results will link a man he was with on the day of the murder to the crime scene. His attorney, Jennifer Blagg, said the man confessed to another individual but died a decade ago.
"What we don't know is who was in the (motel) room when Pankey was murdered," Blagg said. "With the changes in (the law), Phillip now has access to forensic testing that has the ability to answer that question."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun