Chuck Sweeny: College kids help dispute ’95 murder conviction
By Chuck Sweeny
Posted Sep 14, 2013
The controversial 1995 murder conviction of John Horton for the Sept. 19, 1993, death of Arthur Castaneda at a Rockford McDonald’s has been challenged in Winnebago County Circuit Court by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law.
The center filed a lengthy motion Thursday seeking to overturn Horton’s conviction, based on the confession of Horton’s cousin, Clifton English, who is in prison until at least 2029 for killing a man at Bombay Bicycle Club, which was a restaurant on East State Street.
Horton, who was 17 at the time, was sentenced to natural life in prison. His conviction was upheld by an appellate court and the Illinois Supreme Court. Horton has long claimed his innocence, and English has been confessing to prison officials for years to killing Castaneda.
In 2012, “we were contacted by some friends of Horton who had read about our work and said they always believed the wrong person was convicted of this crime, and that Clifton English had committed it. We agreed to take the case,” said Joshua Tepfer, one of three Northwestern lawyers and four law students representing Horton.
“We were officially retained in October. It has been a labor of love. English has admitted his guilt. He has proved it to us. He drew a map of the crime scene, with me and two students sitting there, our mouths agape as he described in intricate detail what happened 20 years ago, details only he could know. It matches up with the details of the crime the way it was described in the hours after the event. It was surreal.”
Paul Logli, the Winnebago County state’s attorney at the time, remains convinced the right man was convicted in the case.
“I recall going to the scene. I recall the prosecution was pretty straightforward. There was very solid evidence that put (Horton) at the scene committing the crime. The jury found him guilty, and the appellate court affirmed the verdict,” said Logli, who now leads the United Way of Rock River Valley.
“Without seeing the (Northwestern) materials, my recollection is that the case established guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” including a confession from Horton. But Tepfer said “all the facts weren’t in front of the jury. The jury forewoman and a member of the jury said if they knew what was in this petition, it’s pretty clear that Horton would have been found not guilty.”
The forewoman was Janine Nunes, who later married Judge Gary Pumilia, then a public defender who represented Horton. Nunes, then the editor of a weekly newspaper, wrote a column on April 5, 1995, expressing misgivings about voting to convict Horton. She wondered why “10 hours of interrogation (of Horton by police) had been reduced to a four-page confession statement and we were not allowed to see one word of it with our own eyes.”
Nunes also wondered why Judge John W. Nielsen “ruled English would not be testifying. We weren’t told why. The judge also ruled that testimony from witnesses about English admitting to the crime would not be allowed. We were not allowed to see English or a photo of him to see if he matched the description of the killer provided by witnesses.”
Nunes was more direct in Judy Emerson’s column in the April 12, 1995, Register Star: “Knowing what I do now, I know I didn’t make the right decision. I would do anything to straighten it out.”
At the time, Mark Karner, the assistant state’s attorney who prosecuted Horton, told Emerson he was “110 percent” certain Horton was guilty, the jury made the right decision and “this wasn’t even a close case.”
Karner, now with the U.S. attorney’s office, said Friday that he wants to read the Northwestern filing before commenting further. Pumilia said he would not comment because “there’s now pending litigation,” and his wife would have no comment, either.
The new evidence the Northwestern motion cites is a Feb. 13, 2013, notarized confession by English “in which he admits under oath that he alone committed the armed robbery and murder.”
There’s also a written, notarized statement English made to the Internal Affairs Division of Hill Correctional Center in 2008 “in which English correctly states that the victim was wearing a Hard Rock Cafe jacket. Both this statement and his 2013 confession are consistent in describing where the victim was shot (left side of face,) how much money was taken from the safe ($500) and other facts.”
The filing contains an affidavit from Dr. James Tiller, English’s psychiatrist at Hill Correctional, stating that English voluntarily confessed to the McDonald’s murder to him in 2008. Finally, there’s a 2006 letter from English to Logli, saying English alone committed the murder.
Jennifer Aronoff, Imran Ahmad, Jonathon Jacobson and Molly Wyler are the Northwestern law students who worked on the new filing.
“I was one of the persons who went to interview Clifton English” in prison, Ahmad said. “He was glad we’d come. He’d wanted to talk about it for a long time. While he was describing how he committed the crime, on his own he drew a map of McDonald’s, how and where everything happened.”
“It was plainly a legal error to exclude evidence of English’s confession,” Jacobson said.
“The case kept me up late at night. English is not trying to protect his cousin. English is projected to be discharged in 2029, when he’d be 60. If convicted of this murder he’d never get out,” Wyler said.
“It was hard for me to understand how somebody would falsely confess to a crime. I’ve learned an enormous amount about confessions. Horton was a 17-year-old kid, put in a room for 10 hours by police. False confessions do happen,” Jacobson said.
The students estimated that among the lawyers and students, more than 1,000 hours were spent preparing the court filing.
Chuck Sweeny: 815-987-1366; firstname.lastname@example.org; @chucksweeny
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