Chicago Tribune

DNA exonerates inmate on rape conviction after 14 years

By Maurice Possley, Tribune reporter

6:45 PM CDT, May 27, 2008

DNA tests have exonerated a South Side man who has served nearly 14 years in prison in the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl who was attacked in the fall of 1994 as she walked to school, the inmate's lawyer said Tuesday.

Dean Cage, 41, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 40 years in prison despite his assertions that he was innocent and was home at the time of the attack.

"I have my life back," Cage said in a telephone interview with the Tribune from the Illinois River Correctional Center in Downstate Canton. "It means the world to me. I never had a doubt. I am happy and blessed."

Attorney Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, which investigates wrongful convictions, said he was informed by the Cook County state's attorney's office that Cage's conviction had been dismissed after DNA tests eliminated him as the attacker.

Cage was to be released as soon as Tuesday night.

The exoneration by DNA is the 29th such case in Illinois. The case is another example of an erroneous eyewitness identification leading to a wrongful conviction, said Alba Morales, an Innocence Project attorney who has been working on Cage's case for several years.

More than three-fourths of the wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA testing have involved faulty eyewitness testimony, she said. And, like Cage's case, many of those involved composite sketches of suspects.

After the assault, the victim provided a description of her attacker and a computer-generated composite sketch was circulated in the neighborhood. About a week later, an anonymous tipster called police and said that a possible suspect worked at a meat-packing house nearby. The victim identified Cage at the business as her attacker.

After a lineup, Cage was charged with participating in a separate rape that took place in February 1994, according to John Gorman, a spokesman for the state's attorney. A 29-year-old woman said that Cage and two other men grabbed her, and that one raped her. She could not identify the rapist.

After DNA tests failed to link Cage to the rape, he was acquitted in 1995 in a bench trial by Circuit Judge Michael Bolan. The next year Cage went to trial before Bolan on the Nov. 14, 1994, rape charge.

The victim in that case testified that she had missed her bus and was walking to a train station about 6:25 a.m. when a man grabbed her, dragged her and sexually assaulted her between two porches of an apartment building near 70th Street and Wabash Avenue.

Cage testified at the trial that he did not leave his home that morning until about 7:30 a.m.

"I had never been locked up a day in my life," Cage said Tuesday. "I was just trying to support my family. But my mother said everything happens for a reason, that it happened to put me closer to the Father, to make me a stronger person."

The Innocence Project began reinvestigating the case in 2004. Initial DNA tests were not definitive, and another round of tests, completed recently , eliminated him as the attacker.

On Tuesday morning, Chief Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel dismissed the case at the prosecutor's request.Cage's mother, Jerley, 63, left her Far South Side home Tuesday afternoon with her daughter, Michelle, to drive to the prison to pick up Cage.

"This is a trip I've been waiting to take," she said. "I was in shock at first. We've been fighting for so many years. I've prayed for this day. Everyone in my church has prayed for him."

Cage's mother is diabetic and has heart problems. She has undergone a dozen surgeries during the last few years.

"I'm fine now," she said. "I can't wait to get him home and cook his favorite meal—smothered potatoes."

She said she has soured on the justice system.

"I don't believe in the justice system no more," she said. "They let the bad guys run, and they got the good guy locked up."

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