“I have to make this right”
Tribune exclusive: In 1997, June Siler named Robert Wilson as the man who attacked her. Today, she's convinced he's not and blames police for the mix-up.
By Maurice Possley
Tribune staff reporter
November 15, 2006
June Siler's testimony seven years ago never wavered as she recalled the horrific details of her attack.
A man wearing a black jacket, dark, hooded sweatshirt and a dark stocking cap walked past her at a South Side bus shelter and stopped. After brief small talk and without warning, he attacked her from behind, slashing her throat and face with a box cutter.
Blood streaming from her wounds, she turned to face her attacker and got a clear look.
She told a Cook County jury all this and then, asked by prosecutors to point to the man who almost killed her, she pointed to Robert Wilson as he sat at the defense table.
After a jury convicted Wilson of attempted murder, Criminal Court Judge Kenneth Wadas imposed the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, calling Siler "the most solid, positive, outstanding victim witness I have ever seen."
But nearly a decade after the February 1997 attack, Siler now believes she was wrong. And she is willing to go to court to admit her mistake--even though Wilson signed a confession that he was the assailant.
"I have not a doubt in my mind that it was not Robert Wilson," Siler said recently in a tearful interview. "I have to make this right."
Siler told the Tribune how she identified Wilson and, in her mind, sent an innocent man to prison. Her identification was tainted because by her account detectives showed her a photo that allowed her to figure out which photograph was of the suspect in custody. She also asserts that detectives ignored her when she said Wilson was "too old" to be the man who attacked her.
Erroneous eyewitness identifications are frequently the result of improper or suggestive police procedures. They were a key factor in three-quarters of the 185 wrongful convictions documented by the New York-based Innocence Project.
After Wilson's appeal was rejected by the Illinois Appellate Court, he filed a hand-written petition with the Illinois Supreme Court. That appeal was denied without a hearing. Ultimately, his case came to the attention of attorneys Karen Daniel and Jane Raley at the Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
They filed a petition in federal court challenging the conviction, and last month a federal judge ordered a new trial for Wilson. U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo ruled that Wadas had erred when he barred Wilson's trial lawyers from presenting evidence at trial that another man had confessed to five similar attacks in the same neighborhood in the two weeks after Siler was slashed.
`They brushed me off'
In the interview, Siler said that shortly after Wilson was indicted, she learned of the arrest of the man in the other attacks and repeatedly asked police and prosecutors to show her a photo of the suspect.
"They brushed me off," she said. "They told me they were confident they had the right person. They said Robert Wilson confessed."
Wentworth Area Detective James O'Brien, the lead investigator in the case, declined to speak to the Tribune. The prosecutors at Wilson's trial, Steven Klaczynski, now in private practice, and Theodore Jamison, now a lawyer at the CTA, also declined to discuss the case.
The Cook County state's attorney's office is taking a close look at the case.
"We are reinvestigating this case as if it were a fresh crime coming into Felony Review to decide charges," said John Gorman, spokesman for State's Atty. Dick Devine. "Enough questions have been raised in this case that we are taking this reinvestigation seriously and proceeding with it as expeditiously as is responsible."
Waiting for the bus
On Friday, Feb. 28, 1997, Siler finished her shift as a registered nurse at Michael Reese Hospital and walked to the corner of 29th Street and King Drive to take a bus home.
Shortly before 8 p.m., as she stood alone in the bus shelter, a man walked past her and stopped a few feet away. He asked how long she had been there. Siler told him she had just arrived.
Both then waited silently, although Siler later said she tried to keep an eye on the man and at the same time watch for a bus. She particularly noticed the man's footwear--black shoes with laces covered by Velcro flaps.
"I remember thinking that those shoes were so out of style that he probably got them from ashelter," Siler said in the interview. "I felt sorry for him."
After two or three minutes, Siler looked south for a bus and when she turned back, the man grabbed her.
"He had me in a headlock," she said. "He was cutting my throat, but the razor was so sharp, I didn't realize it."
Siler said she struggled and fell backward off the curb, into the street, causing the man to fall backward and drop the weapon.
Lying in the street, she screamed and swore at the man, and he fled. As Siler walked to the hospital emergency room, she didn't believe she was badly hurt.
"And then, I thought it was starting to rain because I could hear drops hitting," she said. "It was my blood, spurting out."
One of the first detectives on the scene was O'Brien, who followed a blood trail from the bus shelter to the emergency room and learned Siler was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
At 1:30 a.m., lying in a recovery room, she gave detectives a description of the attack and her assailant: a black man in his 20s with a medium complexion and a mustache, about 5 feet 7 inches tall and a slim build. In addition to the black Velcro shoes, he was wearing a black three-quarter-length coat, black sweatshirt with a hood pulled over his head, and a black stocking cap.
About 24 hours after Siler was attacked, O'Brien and two other detectives were in an unmarked car cruising along King Drive when they stopped to question a man because he was standing in the same bus shelter and fit the clothing description given by Siler.
Robert Wilson, 41, an unemployed laborer, lived in the 1800 block of West Monroe Street with a cat named Smoky. He was 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighed 107 pounds and was wearing a black three-quarter length jacket, a black, hooded sweatshirt, a black stocking cap and black work boots.
Had knife, gun
After officers discovered he was carrying a knife and a loaded .38-caliber revolver, they took him into custody. They drove him to the Wentworth Area detective station, where they took photographs of him and headed to Northwestern Hospital.
In her interview with the Tribune, Siler recalled how the detectives told her they had a man in custody and gave her a stack of photographs to see if she saw her attacker.
"I looked at all the pictures, but it was obvious to me that one of them was a new picture--that it had just been taken," she said. The photo was of Robert Wilson, and she identified him as her attacker.In that photograph, Wilson was wearing a black stocking cap and none of the men in the other photographs wore a stocking cap.
Siler, in the interview, said that after she picked Wilson, the detectives then showed her another photograph of Wilson, but without a stocking cap.
That's when she saw that he had gray hair. She told the detectives she believed her attacker was much younger. "I told them that it was not him, that he was too old."
Siler said the detectives convinced her that her identification of Wilson was correct because she had not seen her attacker's hair. He looked like her attacker, she said, "when he had his hat on."
Eyewitness experts say that presenting photographs in a manner that suggests who is in custody is a flawed procedure. Showing Siler photos in which only Wilson was wearing a stocking cap also was improper because it is suggestive and taints the identification process, according to experts.
After Siler made the identification, detectives returned to the station to interrogate Wilson, who had been arrested three times in the past, but convicted only once--a misdemeanor battery.
Wilson at first denied involvement in Siler's attack and gave police permission to search his apartment as well as the residence of his girlfriend, the mother of his children. They found nothing linking him to the crime; nor did they recover any Velcro-style shoes like the ones worn by the attacker.
After 30 hours in custody, Wilson signed a confession, stating he attacked Siler because he was smoking a cigar and he became angry when she had complained of the smoke and said he would get cancer.
But the recent interview with Siler provides fresh evidence that Wilson's confession may have been bogus. To begin with, Siler said she never mentioned a cigar in her statement to police. She also said her assailant was not smoking a cigar, and there was no discussion about smoking or cancer. "I smoke," she said. "I wouldn't have said anything like that."
A few weeks after she was released from the hospital, Siler went to court for a hearing.
Afterward, she walked into the hallway and was approached by some people who said they were Wilson's relatives. "One man said they were so sorry about what happened to me, but they wanted me to look at a photograph of another man," she said. "They said someone else had done some other attacks."
Friends who accompanied her to court quickly escorted her away, Siler recalled, and she did not see the photo.
Curious, she talked to prosecutors about it. "They told me [Wilson] confessed," she said.
Before Wilson's trial began on Nov. 1, 1999, Wilson's lawyers, assistant Cook County public defenders Kenneth Fletcher and Kulmeet Galhotra, sought to present to the jury details about the other attacks.
By then, Jerryco Wagner, 21, had admitted he assaulted several people with a knife and an ice pick over a two-week period and been found not guilty by reason of insanity. (He remains in the state's maximum-security mental health facility in Downstate Chester.) The first attack occurred on March 1, one day after Siler was assaulted, at a bus stop at 35th Street and King Drive. It was six blocks from the Siler attack.
Wagner told authorities that God had ordered him to kill each of the victims because they were white, according to police reports.
A photograph taken by police shortly after he was arrested showed he was wearing black shoes--with Velcro straps over the laces.
Wadas ruled that the details of Wagner's attacks were too different from those of the attack on Siler. Wagner, for instance, had used a steak knife and an ice pick, not a box cutter.
Wadas called the evidence about Wagner's assaults "too remote ... and not relevant."
Galhotra, cross-examining Siler, showed her a portion of a photograph depicting Wagner's legs and the black shoes with a Velcro strap. Siler testified they were same kind of shoes her attacker wore. Galhotra chose to show her only the shoes since he was arguing that Wilson did not own that particular style. He did not show Wagner's face to Siler because, without hearing about Wagner's attacks, he did not believe she would change her mind.
Testifying at trial, Wilson said his confession was false and that he gave it because he was sick and scared that police would beat him. He told the jury that a detective had slapped him. He also said police had ignored his repeated requests to bring him the heart medication he was taking.
Finally, after allegedly being fed some of the information about the crime by detectives, he signed a statement in which he said he invented some details--particularly the story about smoking a cigar.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Klaczynski repeatedly characterized Wilson as a liar. Lead detective O'Brien told the jury that Wilson was not mistreated.
Juror: I was coerced
In the week after jurors convicted Wilson, one of them wrote to Wadas, saying she had been coerced into convicting him because the rest of the jury wanted to go home for the weekend. The juror, Carolyn Jones, said in a recent interview that she believed Wilson's confession had been "forced because there was wrong information in it."
"I still feel remorse," she added. "I still regret it."
After the trial, Siler tried to get on with her life. She moved out of state. Her scars faded and became barely visible. Yet closure did not come.
"Intellectually and factually, it all made sense that Robert Wilson had done this," she said. "But there ... was something inside of me that didn't feel right."
A year ago, she went online and downloaded copies of news stories about the attack and Wilson's arrest. She pored over them in the hope of resolving the vague and unexplained anxiety inside.
"It was like finishing a jigsaw puzzle, but having five pieces missing," she said. "I just couldn't put it back in the box."
Then, she learned of the decision granting Wilson a new trial. Informed by the Tribune of the ruling, Siler broke down in sobs when she learned that the shoes she saw at the trial belonged to Wagner.
"As soon as I read about Jerryco Wagner and that he wore black Velcro shoes, I knew," Siler said. "I had never been OK about the shoes. And I felt like [now] the puzzle was together."
Siler said she wants to see Wilson freed. "They took nine years of his life," she said. "They didn't want to know the truth."