Innocents Project Exoneration Essay

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Corrections/Police - Criminal Justice

Innocents Project Exoneration

On November 19, 1991, 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews left her great-grandmother's house in Dixmoor, Illinois. She was not seen again until December 8, 1991, when her body was found on a well-worn path running along I-57 as it passes through Dixmoor. "She had been shot in the mouth at close range with a .25 caliber pistol. She was also an apparent victim of sexual assault, as her body was naked from the waist down. A pair of white panties was found around her right ankle, and her jeans were draped across her chest. Seminal fluid was recovered from the vaginal and rectal swab of the victim" (Robert Taylor, n.d).

The Investigation

The police made no arrests and apparently had no leads in the case for over ten months, until October 20, 1992. On that date, a police report specified that Keno Barnes, 15, supposedly told the police that Jonathan Barr had told him that when he last saw Cateresa, she was getting into a car occupied by Robert Lee Veal and Robert Taylor. At the time of the crime, Barr, Veal, and Taylor were only 14 years old. On October 29, Veal who was only 15 at the time was brought in for questioning. After more than five hours in police custody, where he was interrogated without the presence of his parents or counsel, Veal signed a handwritten statement, connecting himself, Jonathan Barr, 15, Robert Taylor, 15, Shainne Sharp, 17, and James Harden, 17, in the gang rape and murder of Matthews. Later that day, Robert Taylor signed a handwritten statement, again without the presence of his parents or counsel, implicating himself and the other four teenagers in the crime. On October 31, after more than 21 hours in police custody, Shainne Sharp also signed a handwritten statement implicating himself and the other four teenagers in the crime. The three confessions disagreed with each other on the fundamental facts of the case. In June 1994, before any of the teenagers were tried, the Illinois State Police crime lab identified a lone male DNA profile from sperm taken 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 the victim's body" (Robert Taylor, n.d).

The Trial and Post-Conviction

Based on doubts about the honesty 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 both pled guilty to first-degree murder and received 20-year sentences. They were eligible for parole after seven years, in exchange for agreeing to testify against Taylor, Harden, and Barr. Two years later all there were convicted and sentenced. Taylor and Harden were both sentenced to eighty years, and Barr was sentenced to 85 years. All subsequent appeals were denied, including a post-conviction request for DNA testing. In August 2009, Harden again tried to get DNA testing. Later on both Taylor and Barr made this request too. 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, Cook County Judge Michele Simmons ordered the Dixmoor police to allow defense counsel to view the evidence storage areas and log books for themselves. Soon after that 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 CODIS database of criminal offenders, and matched the DNA profile of a violent serial offender, Willie Randolph. At the time of the crime, Randolph was 33, lived in the victim's neighborhood, and was on parole after serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery. He was apprehended by authorities on April 12, 2011" (Robert Taylor, n.d).

Based on the DNA evidence, Judge Simmons set aside the convictions of Taylor, Harden and Barr on November 3, 2011, and the State's Attorney's Office dismissed all charges against the five men. Taylor, Harden, and Barr were let out of prison. Veal had already served his prison term and was living in Minnesota. Sharp served 10 years in prison for the crime. "But based on his presumed criminal history, he was sentenced to an additional ten years in 2009 for unrelated drug charges. He was released in February 2012" (Robert Taylor, n.d).

The Road to Exoneration

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 that an appellate court later reversed.

Veal and Sharp pled guilty to first-degree murder and received 20-year sentences 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 80 years in prison. All subsequent appeals were denied, including a post-conviction request for DNA testing (Law School's Exoneration Project helps free wrongly convicted man, 2011).

In August 2009, James Harden, through the 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" (Law School's Exoneration Project helps free wrongly convicted man, 2011).

At the time of the crime, Randolph, 33, lived in the victim's neighborhood and had recently been released on parole after serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery. Authorities apprehended him 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 that Randolph raped her at the same location (Law School's Exoneration Project helps free wrongly convicted man, 2011).

Post Release

For nearly two decades, Robert Taylor had been imprisoned for a rape and murder he had insisted he did not commit. Then one day earlier this month, after DNA tests prompted Cook County prosecutors to ask a judge to throw out his conviction, officials handed him $13 for bus fare and he walked out of prison into a soft rain and the powerful embrace of his father. He had been set free. For 11 years, Taylor had not seen anything beyond the 33-foot-high concrete walls that surrounded the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center unless he was standing in the yard and looking straight up at the sky. He had not seen the fields outside the prison, not the nearby Des Plaines River. He had only imagined the south suburban houses and apartments where his family lived, could only picture walking around the distant Chicago downtown that he had never visited (Exonerated, freed and facing a new life, 2011).

Years earlier, feeling pressured by police, he and…[continue]

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