Chicago Tribune

Prosecutors vacate charges for 5 who served years for rape, killing of 14-year-old girl
Decision means freedom for 3 still jailed after DNA testing pointed to another man in 1991 Dixmoor case

By Steve Mills and Andy Grimm, Chicago Tribune reporters

November 4, 2011

Even before the five teenagers went to prison, DNA evidence failed to link them to the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old Dixmoor girl. For the three who received the longest sentences, that scientific evidence fueled a lengthy effort to prove their innocence and obtain their freedom.

That day came Thursday, some seven months after new DNA tests connected a convicted rapist to the crime and suggested the teens — in spite of their confessions and, in two cases, guilty pleas — were innocent.

After Assistant State's Attorney Mark Ertler asked a judge to vacate the convictions during a brief hearing at the Markham courthouse, gasps and sobs went up from friends and family members, whose loved ones were 14 and 16 when the crimes were committed. One of the inmates hugged his attorney. Another smiled at his supporters in the courtroom and beamed through blocky eyeglasses.

"I'll see you all soon," he told several family members.

The prosecutors' decision also took defense lawyers by surprise. They were aware that the office over the past several months had been reviewing evidence and conducting interviews — including with the convicted rapist — but had arrived at the morning hearing expecting to discuss issues in the case.

Late in the afternoon, Robert Taylor, 34, emerged from Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, a soft rain falling as he walked into the arms of his father and was held there for more than a minute. They swayed softly as they embraced outside prison walls for the first time since the son was a high school freshman.

"How does the rain feel?" asked one of the dozen or so relatives and lawyers who greeted Taylor in the prison parking lot.

"It feels good," Taylor said, smiling broadly.

He regarded the new white sweatshirt he was wearing, its creases still showing, and vowed he would never again wear yellow, the color of the prison-issued clothing he had worn for two decades.

Jonathan Barr, 34, and James Harden, 36, were expected to be released Friday from Menard Correctional Center in Southern Ilinois.

Just a few months ago, prosecutors had argued in court that DNA tests linking the genetic profile of the convicted rapist to semen found on the victim's body did not amount to new evidence, a position that raised the ire of defense attorneys. But on Thursday, prosecutors changed their position and asked a Cook County judge to vacate the convictions of the three men who were still serving lengthy prison terms.

Prosecutors also filed papers to dismiss the convictions of the other two men, Robert Lee Veal and Shainne Sharp, who had made deals to testify against the three in exchange for shorter sentences and already had been released.

The case shines light on the frailties of teenagers' confessions — a persistent problem in Cook County — and raises questions about the tough stance taken in the case by State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.

As the Dixmoor case was wending its way through court, Alvarez was confronted with a strikingly similar set of convictions on which she also took a tough stance. In that case, DNA connects a convicted murderer to the 1994 rape and killing of a Chicago woman named Nina Glover that sent four teenagers to prison. Prosecutors have opposed vacating those convictions.

But Alvarez, in an interview, said the cases were more complex than they appear at first blush. Glover's slaying remains under investigation, as does the Dixmoor case.

Alvarez said she felt "confident that what I've done today is the right thing to do and the just thing to do." She said prosecutors had worked hard to investigate the case and struggled to reconcile the DNA evidence with the confessions. DNA cannot be viewed in a vacuum or as the "end all" of evidence, she said.

With that in mind, Alvarez said, she could not proclaim the Dixmoor defendants innocent.

"The most perplexing and troubling thing about this case for me is that I don't think we know exactly what happened here. It's convoluted and confusing," she said. "I don't believe we can say for sure that they're innocent. But as I sit here, I don't think I can have faith and certainty in their convictions."

Tara Thompson, who represented Harden, took issue with Alvarez's assessment.

"I don't know what other conclusion you draw from this evidence," she said. "This seems like the quintessential case where the DNA proves (innocence)."

The five then-teenagers were convicted of the rape and murder of Cateresa Matthews, who disappeared after leaving her grandmother's home in Dixmoor on Nov. 19, 1991. Some three weeks later, she was found dead from a single gunshot wound in the mouth in a field near Interstate 57.

The five were arrested after the crime went unsolved for about a year.

Three of the teens confessed and implicated the other two in the crime. But the confessions, lawyers said, were marked by troubling inconsistencies. What's more, DNA tests on semen evidence did not point to any of the five. However, two suspects, Robert Lee Veal and Shainnie Sharp, agreed to plead guilty and testify against the other three in exchange for reduced 20-year sentences. Each served about 10 years in prison.

Veal lives in Minnesota; Sharp is in an Indiana prison on drug charges.

Their testimony was crucial in convicting the other three, all of whom maintained their innocence during and after the proceedings. Taylor and Harden were sentenced to 80-year terms; Barr received an 85-year sentence.

"This is a conviction that never should have happened and drives home the point that confessions of juveniles should not be considered reliable without adequate corroboration," said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney at Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions, who represented Taylor. "But today we're thrilled that they'll be home for the holidays."

Last year, central figures in the case recanted their testimony. Veal told defense lawyers that during his interrogation he repeatedly told police he was not involved in the crime but signed a confession because he believed it contained those denials. Veal had severe learning disabilities.

In a new round of DNA tests, a lab isolated a single genetic profile from the swabs taken at the time of the rape and killing. When Illinois State Police uploaded it to a database, it matched the DNA profile of a man who was 33 at the time of the crime. He had been convicted of sexual assault and recently paroled near Matthews' home. The convicted rapist, whom the Tribune is not identifying because he has not been charged, remains under investigation, said Alvarez. He is being held in the Cook County Jail on other charges.

As he walked away from the prison, Taylor struggled with a flood of emotions — the excitement of newfound freedom and gratitude that his family stood by him and that his lawyers worked hard for him. He got into a family car and left for a quiet homecoming.

"I want to get reacquainted with my pops," Taylor said, looking at Robert Sr.

"We got a lot of time to make up," his father said.

Tribune reporter Becky Schlikerman contributed.

Recent Cases
Truth in Justice