Sun Times

Mom never gave up hope on son wrongly accused in child rape and murder
Posted: 02/11/2015, 08:45am | Frank Main

Christopher Abernathy
Christopher Abernathy walks out of Stateville Correctional Center with his attorney Lauren Kaeseberg after his murder conviction was vacated.
Christopher Abernathy’s mom never believed her son raped and killed a 15-year-old girl back in 1984.

After he was convicted of Kristina Hickey’s murder, Abernathy’s mother, Ann Kolus, even bought a mobile home so she could stay close to him in prison. She visited her son almost every week until a few years ago — when financial problems forced her to sell the mobile home and move to southern Illinois.

On Wednesday morning, Kolus, who is suffering a serious illness and is 73, was in court in south suburban Markham when her 48-year-old son’s conviction was reversed at the request of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

“She was in tears,” said Lauren Kaeseberg, one of Abernathy’s attorneys. “She’s been his most stalwart advocate.”

Later in the day, Kolus was at Stateville Correctional Center where her son walked out a free man after almost 30 years in prison. When reporters asked Abernathy how he felt about his release, he said, “scared.”

Alvarez said laboratory tests cleared Abernathy.

“There is no DNA match that would link Mr. Abernathy to any piece of evidence in this case, and in our opinion today, the DNA evidence tends to exonerate him of this crime,” she said, adding that her office will now try to find the real killer.

Hickey, a Rich East High School student, was slain while returning home from a choir concert. Two boys found her body on Oct. 3, 1984 — several days after she disappeared — hidden in bushes near a Park Forest shopping center. Abernathy was charged with the killing in December 1985 after a teenage friend told authorities that Abernathy confessed to him.

Abernathy was 17 at the time of the murder and was ineligible for the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison.

About nine months ago, the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield approached Alvarez with a request to conduct the DNA testing.

They told Alvarez’s office that he was coerced to sign a false confession after more than 30 hours of being interrogated by detectives.

His attorneys also said the friend who implicated Abernathy recanted his testimony. That individual now claims Abernathy never confessed to him and that he was pressured by detectives to finger Abernathy as the killer, according to Abernathy’s lawyers.

Alvarez said she agreed to test biological evidence on Hickey’s clothes and body and hired a private lab to speed up the process. The same unidentified person was tied to each of the DNA profiles created from the samples, Kaesberg said.

Alvarez said she has instructed her cold-case unit to reinvestigate the murder. “We believe there may be important evidence to pursue with respect to other potential suspects,” she said.

Alvarez acknowledged Abernathy’s confession was “completely devoid of any significant details about the crime” and he may have suffered from a “diminished mental state.” There was no other corroborating evidence against him, she said.

But she stopped short of saying the Park Forest Police Department botched the case.

“I don’t think the actions of the police, that they did anything wrong. They were acting the way they would act 30 years ago,” she said, adding that modern DNA testing was unavailable then.

At Abernathy’s sentencing three decades ago, Hickey’s mother, Patricia Hickey, gave the judge a written statement that the thought of Abernathy ever getting out of jail was “more than I could stand emotionally.”

Alvarez said her assistants notified Hickey’s family before they vacated Abernathy’s sentence.

“Kristina’s mother and her family have lived through a nightmare and they are probably suffering deeply again today as a result of my decision,” Alvarez said. “But I cannot and will not let a wrongful conviction stand.”

It was Alvarez’s Conviction Integrity Unit that reviewed Abernathy’s conviction. The unit was created in 2012 to take a second look at questionable convictions. Since the unit was formed, more than 350 cases have been reviewed. Thirteen convictions — including Abernathy’s — have been vacated, according to Alvarez’s office. Most were murder convictions.

Other major cities also have created similar units to review questionable convictions, Alvarez said. ”We are all facing the same thing. This is not something that’s unique to Chicago or Cook County,” she said.

Truth in Justice