Rape conviction gone, stigma isn't
20 years later, DNA clears man of crime
By Gerry Smith
Tribune staff reporter
October 22, 2007
Two weeks after his release from prison in March 1991, Marcus Lyons arrived at the DuPage County Courthouse carrying a wooden cross.
As police tried to intervene, Lyons stepped onto a small platform attached to the bottom of the 8- by 6-foot crucifix, lifted a hammer and drove a nail into his foot.
It was a cry for help. Lyons had just served 3 years in prison for a rape he said he didn't commit.
"I needed someone to listen," he said in a recent interview.
A few years ago, someone finally did. A new attorney took his case, and last month, after DNA evidence from the 1987 crime proved his innocence, Lyons' conviction was dismissed by DuPage County State's Atty. Joseph Birkett -- the same prosecutor who tried the case.
Lyons' exoneration is another illustration of the impact DNA technology has had on the criminal justice system, shedding new light on cold cases that often hinged on witness identifications.
But beyond the legal ramifications lies a deeper, more personal story of frustration and redemption, of the extreme measure one man took to vindicate his tarnished reputation and his bitter 20-year wait.
'A perfect storm'
In 1987, Lyons was a slim 29-year-old Navy reserve officer engaged to be married. He lived in west suburban Woodridge, took courses at the College of DuPage and worked as a computer operator at AT&T.
On weekends, he spent time with his four brothers, roller skated with friends and rode his motorcycle along the lakefront. He looked forward to returning to active duty, perhaps being stationed at Pearl Harbor.
"Everything was going great," Lyons recalls.
But on Nov. 30, a 29-year-old white woman who lived at the Maple Lake Apartments told police she had been raped. She described a black man who knocked on her door, identified himself as "Mr. Williams from downstairs" and asked if he could use her bathroom, according to police records.
A composite sketch of the attacker was shown to two other women who lived in the apartment complex. They said it looked like one of their neighbors -- Marcus Lyons.
Lyons wasn't surprised that he resembled the attacker.
"I was the only black male in the apartment complex," he says.
In addition, the victim pointed out Lyons in a police lineup and in a photo array. Although Lyons maintained he was home at the time of the incident, he gave police conflicting accounts of his whereabouts earlier in the day. And the victim's description of the attacker's clothes, which included a pair of brown polyester pants, matched garments that Lyons owned, Birkett said.
Lyons was arrested and charged with criminal sexual assault.
"It was the perfect storm for the type of case that may result in a conviction," Birkett said in a recent interview.
Lyons says his brown polyester pants were a size 32 and could never have fit the victim's description of the attacker, who she said weighed 200 pounds and had a "large belly and hips." In addition, the victim requested to view the police lineup a second time, although police records do not indicate why.
The all-white jury deliberated for less than three hours after a four-day trial, according to one of the jurors, who asked that her name not be used.
In the end, the jury was swayed by Lyons' resemblance to the composite sketch and the demeanor of the victim, who was "shaking like a leaf" on the stand and "really gave the appearance that she was scared of this guy," the juror said.
Lyons was sentenced to 6 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections and was appointed a new lawyer, George C. Howard, to appeal his conviction. But Howard never did.
"While I was in jail, I was asking him what was happening," Lyons said. "He said he was working on it."
Lyons did his time without incident. But just two weeks after he was released early on parole, facing a future as a registered sex offender, he was frustrated. And desperate. Hoping to get the U.S. Navy to hear his plight, Lyons dressed in his reserves uniform, carried a cross on his back and tried to crucify himself outside the courthouse where he was tried and convicted.
The stunt, which cost Lyons a $100 fine for disturbing the peace and a week in an Elgin mental health facility, showed the depths to which the wrongfully convicted will go to clear their names, said Vanessa Potkin, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project, which investigates such potential cases.
After losing their freedom, Potkin said, they enter society devoid of things they once took for granted, such as relationships and possessions.
"All they have left is their word," she said.
In search of a new life
Pushing 50 now, his hair speckled with gray, Lyons looks different than the man who went to prison two decades ago. He lives in Gary and rarely sees his brothers, who are scattered across the country. He combats bouts of depression with prayer.
Though he became a certified biomedical engineer through courses he took in prison, Lyons says finding work has been nearly impossible. And so he has found jobs with employers who were less selective, such as working at a sewage treatment plant.
His personal life also suffered. After his conviction, his fiance left him. Other relationships fizzled as fast as he could tell his story.
"You tell a woman you're a convicted sex offender and she's gone," Lyons said. "Can you blame her?"
Lyons is one of more than 200 convicts to be exonerated by DNA evidence over the last decade. About 75 percent of those cases involved misidentification by witnesses.
At the time of Lyons' conviction in 1987, DNA technology was still in its infancy. But in 2002, Lyons read an article about a case in Lake County involving a man who was convicted of sex assault and later exonerated by DNA evidence. Lyons contacted the man's attorney, John Curnyn, who agreed to take his case.
Curnyn found that two key pieces of evidence -- rape kits and cutouts of the victim's garments -- were missing from a laboratory 15 years after the crime. Birkett said missing evidence is not unusual in cases in which an appeal was not filed.
However, one garment that had never been tested for DNA was still there, what Curnyn calls "a fluke of chance." Last month, Birkett vacated Lyons' conviction after DNA evidence found that a semen stain on the victim's bra didn't match his sample.
"If we make a mistake, we want to make sure we correct it," Birkett said. "As far as I'm concerned, Marcus Lyons deserves to have his record cleared."
Birkett said Lyons has no other criminal record in DuPage County, and a check of Cook County records showed no record for him there either.
Upon learning of Lyons' exoneration, the juror, who now counsels victims of rape and sexual assault, said, "I just feel bad."
"I wish they had DNA back then," she said.
After the proper motions are filed, Birkett said, Lyons' name will be struck from the sex offender database. This spring, Lyons will seek clemency, a necessary step toward possible compensation for the three years he was incarcerated, Curnyn said.
Meanwhile, the DNA sample taken from the victim's garments remains on file, and if a match ever registers, that person will be investigated, Birkett said.
But for Lyons, the scars remain.
"Imagine, for 20 years, trying to tell the world you didn't do it," Curnyn said. "He's going to carry this baggage for the rest of his life."
Lyons said he is ready to move on now, find a better job, perhaps a wife. But he says he may never forgive his accuser or the prosecutors who argued to put him in prison -- a place that still haunts him two decades after his conviction.
"You never forget the sound of a cell door closing on you," Lyons said. "It wakes you up at night, and you wonder if this is all still just a bad dream."