DNA tests gain release of 2 in '76 rape, slaying
Freedom sweet for men in prison more than 27 years
Chicago Tribune By Steve Mills and Jeff Coen
May 24, 2003
More than a quarter-century after they were sent to prison for one of the most sensational crimes of the 1970s, two Chicago men walked free into the arms of tearful relatives and a dramatically different world Friday after prosecutors agreed they should have a new trial.
Citing DNA tests that excluded Michael Evans and Paul Terry in the 1976 rape and murder of 9-year-old Lisa Cabassa, Cook County prosecutors dropped their opposition to a new trial, though they plan to try the two men again.
Assistant State's Atty. Mark Ertler sought a substantial bond for the two men, saying the crime was particularly heinous and prosecutors believe they can again win convictions, though the case has been severely weakened.
But Judge Dennis Porter released the two on an individual bond, or I-bond, meaning they had to post no money.
A short time later, the 44-year-old Terry emerged from offices behind the courtroom to applause and was swarmed by a dozen relatives clad in yellow shirts, which they said they wore to express hope and unity.
Terry's sister, Doris Johnson, who was home with her then-teenage brother in 1976 when police took him away as he ironed a pair of blue jeans in preparation for a job interview at Sears, pressed her face into his neck and told him, "You're going home."
Terry, who has suffered mental illness in prison, said, "Uh-huh," and was helped into a yellow T-shirt that draped over his thin frame.
Twenty minutes later, Evans, 44, walked out, also to applause and relatives overwhelmed by joy. He wore a broad grin.
"I'm, could you say, on cloud nine right now," Terry said. "I feel wonderful. I feel amazing. This DNA is really just a wonderful thing."
Evans and Terry hugged and walked out of the court building.
Ricky and Annette Cabassa, who were youngsters when their sister Lisa was abducted and killed, said outside court that they were angered and disappointed by how a criminal case once considered closed had been upended.
"I don't think it's fair. Something as hideous as this and you let them out on an I-bond as if it's worth nothing," Annette Cabassa said. "This is like killing her all over again. I hope they don't live long enough to enjoy [their freedom]."
After court, Ertler said the decision not to challenge the petition for a new trial came from State's Atty. Richard Devine.
"Essentially, under the law, the DNA evidence that has arisen in the course of the post-conviction proceedings was legally enough for a new trial," Ertler said.
Evans and Terry were sentenced to 200 to 400 years in prison for the abduction, rape and murder of Lisa on Jan. 14, 1976. The girl was abducted as she walked near her home in the South Chicago neighborhood. Her body was found the next day.
At the time, Evans and Terry were 17.
Evans was tried and convicted in 1976, but a judge overturned the conviction, ruling prosecutors had failed to disclose they had paid moving expenses for their sole witness in the case, Judith Januszewski.
Terry was charged for the second trial, and the two teens--who all along maintained their innocence--were convicted by a jury in 1977, although no physical evidence was ever found to tie them to the crime.
Januszewski, who lived near the Cabassa family, testified she saw three men abduct the girl as she walked home from work. By her own admission, she repeatedly lied to police and did not give them a full account of what she said she witnessed until six weeks after the girl's body had been found.
The case gained new life in an unusual way. Thomas Breen, who was one of Evans and Terry's prosecutors in 1976 and 1977 but now is a leading defense attorney, told Lawrence Marshall of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University of his misgivings about the case. That prompted a reopening and reinvestigation of the case.
Recent DNA tests of semen taken from Lisa's body found one unique genetic profile that didn't match Evans, Terry or a third young man Januszewski identified as being involved in the abduction.
Other men linked to the case by the police also have been tested. But none of them matches the genetic profile from the semen, according to court filings.
A Tribune investigation in January uncovered additional evidence suggesting Evans and Terry were wrongly convicted. Lisa's mother and father told the newspaper key testimony from the mother about when the girl was last seen was changed to fit Januszewski's account, which also had been changed.
Karen Daniel of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and Jeff Urdangen, the lawyers representing Evans and Terry, then sought to have the convictions vacated based on the DNA evidence, saying that it proved Evans' and Terry's innocence.
Prosecutors had opposed the effort, saying they thought it possible that Evans and Terry had attacked Cabassa along with someone else--though they had failed to identify an additional suspect.
But on Friday, Ertler walked into court and, during a brief exchange with the judge, said prosecutors now were dropping that opposition.
"I've been praying hard for this day," said Evans' sister, Ann, who said she was going to hurry her brother to a reunion with their ailing mother. "For 27 years, I've been praying morning, noon and night."
Nonetheless, Ertler told the judge, prosecutors will retry Evans and Terry, saying that "the state believes that we will again be able to convict Mr. Evans and Mr. Terry."
If prosecutors do not try Evans and Terry or if the two men are acquitted, the case would be the oldest DNA exoneration in the nation, said Rob Warden of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
Winning a conviction would seem difficult in the face of the DNA evidence and the numerous contradictions in Januszewski's testimony, lawyers for the men said.
"At this point, just as a quarter-century ago, there's nothing to corroborate the extremely questionable testimony of Judith Januszewski," said Urdangen. "Add to the mix the DNA, we certainly like our position on the facts and the evidence."
Said Daniel: "I think the state needs to look elsewhere for who the perpetrator is, and I don't think they should think about trying our guys until they figure it out."
Evans also called on prosecutors to drop the case.
"They know they were wrong," he said. "They need to let it go."
||Truth in Justice