Chicago Tribune

UPDATE:  On May 28, 2015, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly signed an order mandating Strong's release.  He has returned to his home in Tennessee.

Inmate who claims innocence in Lake County murder to get DNA test
Former girlfriend says she lied to satisfy police; two alleged accomplices in Carpentersville woman's slaying recanted incriminating statements

By Dan Hinkel, Chicago Tribune reporter
September 17, 2013

A man convicted of murder before authorities determined the victim's identity is focusing his push to clear his name in part on DNA, a forensic tool that has exonerated four men of rape or murder in Lake County since 2010.

First-term State's Attorney Mike Nerheim, who has tried to rid the office of its reputation for disregarding evidence supporting inmates' claims of innocence, agreed to the testing, saying it could be "very significant" in confirming or contradicting Jason Strong's guilt.

The testing will seek to identify genetic material on the sweatshirt or sweatpants Strong's alleged victim was wearing when she was found beaten to death in a county forest preserve in 1999. Strong's former girlfriend testified the sweatshirt was his, but now she says she lied.

The tests could find nothing, Nerheim noted. But if they point away from Strong or at someone else, it would add to the evidence his lawyers say discredits the case against him, an unusual one in that authorities didn't know the victim's name until years after Strong was found guilty of killing her. She was identified in 2006 as Mary Kate Sunderlin, 34, a mentally disabled Kane County woman.

Jason Strong
Jason Strong has gotten approval from the Lake County state's attorney's office to have DNA tested in the murder of Mary Kate Sunderlin, whose body was found in a county forest preserve in 1999. Strong was convicted of killing her but said that police coerced his confession. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune 2010 / August 18, 2010)

"You have to think that if a client authorizes DNA testing, knowing how accurate it is, that they're convinced that the DNA testing will be supportive of their claim of innocence," said his attorney, Thomas Geraghty, director of Northwestern University's Bluhm Legal Clinic.

Strong, 38, was sentenced to 46 years in prison and is not projected to be paroled until he's 70.

His lawyers said Sunderlin's identification led to information about her life that undermines the prosecution's case. And two alleged accomplices who blamed him for the slaying signed affidavits saying they lied, claiming they were coerced into implicating Strong to avoid lengthy prison terms.

Nerheim's willingness to reconsider the case represents a change for an office that was once publicly dismissive of Strong's claim of innocence. Nerheim has put his case before a panel of lawyers he set up to analyze innocence claims and root out other injustices like the ones that embarrassed Lake County under his predecessor, Michael Waller. The panel's assessment is on hold pending the DNA.

Prosecutors defending his conviction in court have noted that officers said he led them to where the body had been found earlier and confessed voluntarily, allegedly saying he hit her with a bottle and burned her with wax, actions said to be consistent with her injuries. State appellate judges cited those facts in affirming his conviction last year.

Strong maintains that police fed him the details of the crime, coerced a confession and led him to the body.

Judges also noted in denying Strong's appeal that his former girlfriend, Margaret Welch, testified the sweatshirt was his. She now says it was not. Welch, 18 at the time of the slaying, said police intimidated her, and she feared she'd face serious charges.

"I lied. I committed perjury," Welch, of Wadsworth, told the Tribune, saying guilt has plagued her since the trial of a man she now believes is innocent. "I hope that he would forgive me for being a coward."

Along with having the clothes tested, Strong's lawyers are pursuing his freedom in federal court and hope to persuade a judge to let them take sworn statements from law enforcement officials deeply intertwined both with Strong's case and the prosecutions that gave Lake County a reputation for punishing the innocent.

His lawyers want to depose former Assistant State's Attorney Michael Mermel, who retired amid controversy in 2011 after insisting on the guilt of inmates after DNA had indicated their innocence. Mermel helped try Strong and ridiculed his attorneys' post-trial arguments of innocence. When the Tribune asked him about Strong in 2010, he said the victim's identity had nothing to do with who killed her. He added: "The taxpayers don't pay us for intellectual curiosity. They pay us to get convictions."

Strong's lawyers also want to take sworn depositions from retired Waukegan Detective Lou Tessmann and current Waukegan Officer Domenic Cappelluti, police officials who helped take statements from the men who implicated Strong before they recanted and said they were coerced, according to police reports. Each officer helped take a confession from one of the murder suspects cleared by DNA.

Tessmann and Mermel declined to comment. Cappelluti could not be reached.

Strong was arrested in December 1999 after the body of a woman was found in a forest preserve along the North Chicago-Waukegan border. Authorities said leads pointed to Strong, who lived in a motel near Wadsworth, according to Tribune archives. He confessed to beating her.

At trial, prosecutors said Strong met the woman by the road, invited her in and then flew into a rage when he caught her picking through his belongings, beating her and bashing her over the head with a bottle before he and two alleged accomplices dumped the body.

Jurors found Strong guilty without knowing who they were convicting him of killing.

In 2006, investigators identified the victim as Sunderlin. No one has explained why Sunderlin, who lived in Carpentersville and didn't drive, would have gone of her own accord to an area some 40 miles away, Geraghty said.

Her identification also called attention to associates that defense lawyers consider potential alternative suspects. A private investigator hired by Sunderlin's family linked her to a mother-daughter pair who allegedly tried to distance her from her family. One of the women tried to get an ATM card in Sunderlin's name after she died, the investigator wrote in an affidavit.

Strong's lawyers also note that late in life she married a man with an arrest record and a history of mental illness. That man confessed to her murder, according to court records, though his statements were contradictory and, at points, clearly fanciful.

Now Strong's lawyers hope DNA could strengthen their argument that he is innocent.

DNA testing on the shirt and pants was not possible before the trial, and efforts to free him had not until recently centered on forensic tests, but Strong's attorneys think technological advances warrant an attempt to extract genetic evidence from the clothes, Geraghty said. Nerheim agrees, and he and Geraghty said they hope for results within six weeks.

Strong's onetime girlfriend, Welch, met him while working as a stripper at a club he patronized and living near him at the motel, she said. While he could be a "very dark type of person," he was never violent or threatening with her, she said. After the body was found, she said, police showed her grisly photographs, told her what to say and led her to believe she could be prosecuted if she didn't implicate Strong. So she did.

"I felt like I could go to prison and I thought, 'Oh my god, I'll do whatever you want,'" she said.

Welch is one of several people who implicated Strong but have since said they lied.

One alleged accomplice, Jason Johnson, said he helped dump the body, according to police reports. He didn't testify at trial, pleaded guilty to concealing a homicide and was sentenced to three years in prison. He has since died.

But he signed an affidavit in 2003 saying he blamed Strong because he feared authorities would seek more serious charges against him. Johnson accused police of threatening to beat him and telling him what to write. He had also tried to recant at his postarrest bond hearing, according to court records.

A second alleged accomplice, Jeremy Tweedy, has told conflicting stories, court records show. He testified at trial that he saw Strong and Johnson with the woman at the motel and later helped them carry the body to a van, according to Tribune archives. Tweedy pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and was sentenced to two years in prison.

In his most recent affidavit, signed in March 2012, Tweedy said detectives fed him details of the crime, threatened to beat him and promised harsher punishment if he didn't implicate Strong at trial. Tweedy is imprisoned in Wisconsin, court records show.

Officer Cappelluti's police reports acknowledge the men changed their stories during questioning but say they were treated well. Cappelluti testified that he did not threaten Tweedy, according to court records, and appeals judges have written that his recantation was not reliable.

Lawyers for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who represent Lake County in federal court, have previously fought Strong's efforts to clear his name. But now they've asked for a delay in court proceedings so they can "meet with (Strong's lawyers) to learn more about the case and then make a decision as where to go from there," Madigan spokeswoman Maura Possley said.

dhinkel@tribune.com


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