Flawed murder cases prompt calls for probe 

By Ken Armstrong
and Steve Mills
Tribune Staff Writers 
January 24, 2000 

In the past eight months, Cook County State's Atty. Dick Devine has dropped charges against two former Death Row inmates in cases where evidence of their guilt unraveled during appeals.

 Defense attorneys have praised Devine for abandoning such cases. But at the same time, many express frustration with the office's apparent lack of enthusiasm for finding out why such faulty prosecutions were mounted in the first place, or whether police and prosecutors acted criminally in securing those convictions.

 The cases of former Death Row inmates Ronald Jones, exonerated last year based upon DNA evidence, and Steve Manning, whose case was dismissed last week, are the latest where Devine's office has appeared averse to thoroughly investigate wrongful convictions involving allegations of improper or even illegal tactics by police and prosecutors.

 Defense attorneys say the reluctance to scrutinize and assign accountability in cases that went wrong places the county in a position where it is more likely to repeat mistakes than learn from them.

 And even though the Illinois Supreme Court and Illinois General Assembly have created committees to study possible reforms to the capital punishment system, their efforts, too, have included no exhaustive research into cases that went awry.

 Bob Benjamin, a spokesman for Devine, said at one point or another, the office does review cases carefully where allegations of misconduct arise and is willing to take action against police or prosecutors if they believe it's warranted.

 In one of Cook County's most infamous wrongful conviction cases, Devine's office successfully opposed the appointment of a special prosecutor to review the conduct of the sheriff's police officers and prosecutors who sent the Ford Heights 4 defendants to prison, including two to Death Row.

 Instead, Devine hired former Illinois Appellate Judge Gino DiVito, a former high-ranking supervisor in the state's attorney's office who has publicly defended its practices and employees, to conduct such an investigation. Ten months later, DiVito has yet to produce a report of his findings, and many of the most prominent players in the case say DiVito has not interviewed them.

 In addition, the U.S. attorney's office, which pledged last year to investigate the Ford Heights 4 case, has had only occasional contact with relatively few lawyers and former defendants in the case.

 Ford Heights 4 member Dennis Williams spent 18 years in prison, most of them on Death Row. He said last week he has not been interviewed by DiVito or any federal investigator.

 "I don't think I'm important enough, as far as they're concerned, for them to talk to me," Williams said. "If there's an investigation, it must be some charade. It's just a joke, a big joke. How could you investigate without talking to the victims of the case in the first place?"

 DiVito was retained in March 1999 at a rate of $180 an hour. DiVito would say little last week about his investigation, including what he has done, who he has interviewed or even how much he has charged taxpayers.

 "I'm simply not going to disclose details of the investigation to the public," DiVito said. "And what I bill a client is not something I should talk about."

 DiVito said there was a "mountain" of documents on the case to read.

 County vouchers show that DiVito and an associate, who is paid a slightly lower hourly fee, have billed the county for nearly $47,000 through the end of November. The vouchers do not detail the work he has performed. Instead, they simply say "for professional services rendered." The county has not received vouchers for December.

 DiVito was hired shortly after Cook County agreed to pay a record $36 million to settle lawsuits filed by the Ford Heights 4, four men who had been wrongly convicted of the 1978 murders of a south suburban couple. Their lawsuits alleged that sheriff's officers framed them by manufacturing evidence of guilt while burying evidence pointing to the real killers.

 Shortly after the settlement was reached, the U.S. attorney's office also agreed to launch an investigation of the conduct of police and prosecutors in the case. Defense attorneys had accused prosecutors of improperly concealing evidence favorable to the defendants, and the Illinois Supreme Court reversed one defendant's convictions based upon a finding that prosecutors allowed a key witness to lie.

 Although the U.S. attorney's office has had some contact with a few lawyers involved in the case, the federal investigation's pace and scope has likewise rankled the Ford Heights 4 and some of their attorneys. They have said that any investigation needed to be performed expeditiously because the case is becoming so old that the statute of limitations might bar criminal charges. The underlying murders occurred 22 years ago, and almost four years have passed since the defendants were cleared by DNA tests.

 Lawrence Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor who represented Ford Heights 4 member Willie Raines, said neither he nor Raines has been contacted by DiVito or the U.S. attorney's office.

 "Certainly one would have thought that the lawyers who called for a special prosecutor--the lawyers who have information that never made the public record--would have been contacted. Nobody said 'boo' to me nor to Willie," Marshall said.

 Attorney Jeffrey Urdangen, who represented Ford Heights 4 member Kenny Adams, said that "much to my dismay," he also has not heard from DiVito or the U.S. attorney's office.

 Williams' attorney, Peter King, expressed disappointment at the county's response to the allegations against police and prosecutors.

 "I thought somebody would take a close look at this to make sure it doesn't happen again," King said. "I get the impression the county is glad it's over and doesn't want to worry about it."

 Bill Cunningham, a spokesman for the Cook County sheriff's police, said the office was not conducting any inquiry into its handling of the Ford Heights 4 case. The state's attorney's office told them there was no need to because they had done nothing wrong, Cunningham said.

 "Our position on it was that we wanted it to go to trial, if only because the story finally would have been told," Cunningham said of the Ford Heights 4 lawsuits.

 Cunningham said two of the five officers sued in the case still are with the department, and neither has been contacted by DiVito or the U.S. attorney's office.

 Of the 13 cases in Illinois where a Death Row inmate has been exonerated since capital punishment's reinstatement, eight were tried in Cook County.

 Cook County defendant Ronald Jones, who in May became the state's 12th exonerated Death Row inmate, also had a case in which allegations of misconduct by law enforcement officers figured prominently. Jones alleged before and during his trial that he confessed to a 1985 murder and rape only because Chicago police beat him "until I just couldn't take it no more."

 Jones, who served eight years on Death Row, was vindicated by DNA tests. No action has been taken against the officers involved in the case, and Jones' attorney, Richard Cunningham, said that neither he nor Jones has been contacted as part of any investigation into Jones' brutality allegations.

 On Jan. 18, Steve Manning became the latest Death Row inmate to have charges against him dropped.

 In 1993, Manning stood trial in Cook County for the murder of a suburban trucking firm owner. Assistant State's Attys. Patrick J. Quinn and William Gamboney secured a conviction with the testimony of Tommy Dye, a jail-house informant with a history of spinning lies. Dye claimed Manning confessed to him while they shared a jail cell, but secret tape recordings of their conversations revealed no such admission.

 Manning's appellate attorney, Raymond J. Smith, alleged in court papers that the prosecutors committed misconduct by allowing Dye to provide testimony they knew, or should have known, was false. The state's attorney's office dropped the charges against Manning on the day that a hearing on those allegations was scheduled.

 Benjamin said the state's attorney's office has concluded prosecutors did nothing improper and plans no further review of their conduct.

 In a different case tried one year after Manning's, Quinn was found by the Illinois Appellate Court to have committed the same kind of misconduct alleged in Manning's case, according to court records. Quinn helped prosecute and win a conviction against Umberto Perkins, a former Cook County Jail guard accused of official misconduct for helping an inmate escape.

 In 1997 the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Perkins' convictions, saying two prosecution witnesses, both inmates when the escape occurred, did not tell the truth when they denied receiving any benefits for testifying. By not correcting testimony that was either "substantially misleading or outright false," the court wrote, Quinn and his trial partner knowingly used perjured testimony to secure Perkins' convictions.

 The appellate court has also reversed the convictions of at least two other defendants because Quinn employed improper trial tactics, court records show. In one case Quinn unfairly presented evidence suggesting the defendant committed other crimes, and in the other Quinn engaged in improper cross-examination and final argument, according to court records.

 Quinn, who did not return calls seeking comment, is now a judge on the Illinois Appellate Court, the same court that issued the rebukes in cases he prosecuted.


 
 
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