FORGIVES ACCUSER WHO RECANTED STORY
By Evan Osnos and Raoul V. Mowatt
On his third day of freedom, Xavier Catron hugged his accuser and said he forgave him.
Dedrick Warmack, who fingered Catron in 1992 as the shooter of a 16-year-old Chicago boy, has made things right, Catron said, and that is what matters.
Last month, with Catron serving a 35-year murder sentence, Warmack appeared in a Cook County courtroom and declared he had made a mistake: Catron was not the man who shot Kendrick Thomas.
"(At the time) I wanted to end the case. . . . I just wanted to get it over with," Warmack explained to the judge, adding that investigators at the time allegedly coached him into identifying Catron--a charge that police deny.
Faced with Warmack's new testimony, and the testimony of three other accusers who now say they erred or lied to police during the initial investigation, Judge James Schreier overturned Catron's conviction Monday.
Catron, now 30, walked out of prison Tuesday alongside Rick Strasser, a WGN-TV journalist whose examination of the case led to the recantations.
More than six years ago, Catron was convicted of fatally shooting Thomas in the 5600 block of South Hermitage Avenue.
On Sept. 18, 1992, Thomas, Warmack and two other youths were walking nearby on South Paulina Street when they encountered roughly 30 young men who chased them several blocks. Several of the attackers shot at them.
Thomas was struck in the head and died.
Police interviewed Warmack and the two other youths, and Warmack described one man he saw firing a handgun. Later, police asked the three youths to view photographs and lineups that included Catron.
The three youths later testified to a grand jury and in court that Catron appeared to be the gunman.
Based on Warmack's and the other youths' statements--and those of another
witness who has since recanted his statements--authorities charged Catron
with murder. By that point, Warmack says, any doubts about the identification
He urged the other two youths to echo the identification at the trial, he recalled, and they did.
Now, however, all three say they were never certain that Catron was the gunman, and they allege that police urged them toward that conclusion.
In testimony at last month's hearing, Detective John Halloran, who handled the case, denied that charge, saying the youths volunteered their identifications.
Catron's relationship with Strasser began soon after Catron was sentenced September 1993.
"I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in jail," Catron said. "I just had the thought to get in touch with anybody in the news media to help me out."
He sent a stack of letters to television stations and newspapers. He received a single reply.
Strasser had received scores of similar letters in the past, but Catron's struck him as sincere. The two talked frequently, and eventually Strasser began interviewing witnesses to the shooting.
The first break came when Strasser interviewed the victim's father, Anthony Thomas, who conceded he did not believe Catron was guilty. Thomas later expressed that belief to Judge Schreier in a letter. "I feel that (after researching on the street and retracing Kendrick's steps) Xavier was not involved," Thomas wrote in October 1996.
"It was becoming clear that the man who was responsible for this murder wasn't in jail, and another person was," said Strasser, now an assignment manager at WGN-TV News.
Strasser continued interviewing witnesses, eventually obtaining affidavits from each of the three youths saying they had not been truthful on the stand.
The new statements were added to Catron's petition and filed with Schreier. Still, the judge was not immediately convinced.
"Recanted testimony is usually the most unreliable kind of evidence," Schreier explained in an interview Tuesday. "People change their minds after some years and then try to come back in with some reason or another and say, `I told a lie or was mistaken at the original trial.' "
For that reason, he explained, he denied Catron's petition without calling a hearing.
But in October 1998, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on another murder case that, despite the unreliability of recanted testimony, should not have been dismissed out of hand.
With that ruling, Schreier granted Catron a new hearing. One by one, Warmack and other youths took the stand last month to say they were never certain Catron was the gunman, and the new witnesses corroborated Catron's alibi.
In the end, Schreier said, "The defense overcame that thesis about recantation and showed what I found to be a credible and sincere new testimony by the witnesses."
Prosecutors are considering whether to try Catron again.
Meanwhile, legal experts, such as Professor Timothy O'Neill of John Marshall Law School, wonder whether the Supreme Court decision might not open the door to more hearings on post-conviction petitions.
"I will not be surprised to see more like this," O'Neill said.