Chicago Tribune

19 years later, 'strong proof' of innocence

May 17, 2012

Daniel Taylor
Daniel Taylor, shown in 2010, is serving a life sentence for a 1992 double murder despite a strong alibi that he could not have committed the crime. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune / August 18, 2010)

A decade ago, Cook County prosecutors took a long second look at the case against Daniel Taylor, who'd been sentenced to life in prison without parole for a 1992 double murder. Their review assured them they'd gotten it right the first time.

We disagreed then. We disagree now. And the evidence is still mounting.

Late last year, a federal appellate court granted Taylor permission to file a new appeal, which could lead to another trial. Since that ruling, more documents have surfaced that could have helped Taylor fight the charges in his 1995 trial.

Cook County's rare reinvestigation was prompted by the Tribune's 2001 "Cops and Confessions" series, which raised questions about the circumstances surrounding Taylor's confession and offered evidence to support the alibi that prosecutors had shot down at trial: Taylor was in a police lockup when the murders took place.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that evidence compelling. The court said the evidence produced at trial, combined with "testimony of a newly revealed witness and the newly disclosed police reports" is "strong proof" that Taylor couldn't have participated in the crime. His confession, the judges wrote, was "suspect."

The evidence on which that decision was based wasn't new. It was available before the trial, but prosecutors didn't share it with Taylor's attorneys.

The Illinois attorney general's office, which is handling the case in federal court, has since discovered more documents that apparently weren't turned over, either. That evidence, too, could have bolstered Taylor's story.

Taylor was 17 at the time of the murders. There were no fingerprints or DNA to link him to the crime scene. No weapon was recovered. But jurors couldn't reconcile the teenager's alibi against the 25-page confession he signed two weeks after the murders.

Seven others were arrested and charged in the murders. All of them confessed and implicated the others, though all but one have since maintained they are innocent. Dennis Mixon, who admits he was involved in the murders, says Taylor wasn't there.

Taylor's alibi seemed unimpeachable. Shortly after he signed the confession, he recalled that he'd been locked up on a disorderly conduct charge that night. An arrest report showed he was booked at 6:45 p.m. and bonded out at 10 p.m. The murders occurred around 8:45 p.m.

Two weeks after Taylor asserted his alibi, though, two Chicago cops filed a report saying they'd encountered him on the street around 9:30 p.m. that night. Another new witness, a convicted drug dealer and rival gang member, said he'd seen Taylor in Clarendon Park around 7:30 p.m. At trial, prosecutors accused the cops who ran the lockup of shoddy record keeping.

Paperwork, they asserted, isn't foolproof. But confessions are.

By now it's well established that confessions are far from foolproof. Young or mentally impaired suspects are vulnerable to suggestion by investigators. Abuse, torture or prolonged questioning can lead to false confessions.

"Considerable empirical research shows that the potential for false confessions increases markedly when the defendant is a juvenile, placed in isolation and sleep deprived," the appellate decision notes.

Taylor said investigators yelled at him, hit him with a flashlight and told him they'd let him go if he confessed. So he did.

But jurors couldn't get their minds around the notion of a false confession. They found it easier to believe that the cops had messed up the paperwork. "Who knew if he was really in jail?" one told a reporter later.

They might have believed otherwise if they'd seen the evidence that didn't make it to trial. Police reports named a man who was in lockup the night of the murders. Taylor's attorney could have tracked him down — as Tribune reporters did years later — to corroborate the alibi. But the defense attorney said he never saw those reports.

The attorney general's office, which is handling the federal appeal, recently came across handwritten notes from interviews with the officers that ran the lockup that night. Those notes could have been used to support Taylor's alibi, but it doesn't appear that they were shared with his lawyers. The attorney general passed them along to Taylor's current attorney at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

So what of that vaunted 2002 reinvestigation? A Tribune review of those documents suggests the exercise focused more on supporting Taylor's conviction than on exploring evidence of his innocence. Investigators didn't interview the cops who worked the lockup the night of the murders or the detectives who obtained the confessions. They were only two-thirds of the way through the investigation when they announced their conclusion that Taylor's conviction was solid.

Like the jurors, they took more stock in Taylor's confession than in the records and witnesses that called it into question.

The federal appellate panel saw things differently. But Taylor, who has spent more than half of his life behind bars, could be years from learning whether he'll get another trial. His attorney, Karen Daniel, has called for prosecutors to vacate the charges and release him instead — something we called for back in 2001. At the very least, they ought to drop all roadblocks to a new trial. It's clearer than ever that Taylor didn't get a fair shake the first time.

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice