Chicago Tribune

`Always knew I was innocent'
Imprisoned in a 1992 sexual assault, Marlon Pendleton is told by his lawyer that new DNA tests show that he was not the assailant

By Maurice Possley
Tribune staff reporter
Published November 24, 2006

Hands folded in his lap, Marlon Pendleton sat calmly in an interview room at the Dixon Correctional Center on Thursday, displaying little emotion at the news that DNA tests had excluded him from the rape that sent him to prison more than a decade ago.

"It was no surprise to me," Pendleton, 49, said. "I always knew I was innocent."
Pendleton has been in prison since the mid-1990s after being convicted of raping a woman on Chicago's South Side in 1992 and being convicted in a separate assault case.

Marlon Pendleton
Marlon Pendleton

On Wednesday, Pendleton's lawyers learned that DNA tests performed this month excluded him as the source of the genetic evidence left by the rapist in the 1992 case.

The Cook County state's attorney's office said, in light of the test results, it will review both cases.

Pendleton has maintained his innocence all along, but now he says he has proof in the '92 case.

"The weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders," he said. "I give praise to Yahweh. It's been a long, hard fight, but I won't feel completely alive until I walk out of the gates."

The 1992 case involved a woman who was abducted at gunpoint as she walked to work near 74th Street and Maryland Avenue. She was sexually assaulted and robbed.

On Wednesday, Pendleton's lawyers, Karen Daniel and Jane Raley, from Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Conviction, filed a motion seeking to vacate his conviction in that case based on the DNA tests. That motion is set for Thursday before Criminal Court Judge Stanley Sacks.

On Thursday, Raley visited the prison to provide the news that all tests completed on the evidence excluded Pendleton and identified a genetic profile that can be submitted to the FBI's national database of profiles of convicted offenders.

Pendleton said the news was the result of hard work by his lawyers and "thousands of hours I spent in the law libraries" at the various state prisons where he has been confined. "I took a computer class and a typing class," he said. He also learned to research law and filed "hundreds of pages of motions."

"I spent 95 percent of my time trying to get out," he said. "I've been to the state Appellate Court twice, the Illinois Supreme Court twice. I filed post-conviction motions. I lost."

Finally, he said, "I got fed up" and filed a federal habeas petition on his own behalf. Describing that leg in his legal journey Thursday, Pendleton paused, trying to control his emotions.

"It was [U.S. District] Judge [Joan] Lefkow who allowed my case in," Pendleton said. "I got to thank Judge Lefkow. She gave me a chance. I know some things really bad happened to her [Lefkow's husband and mother were murdered in 2005.] She is a righteous, courageous lady--the fairest lady I know."

He ticks off the prisons where he has spent time since his conviction. "I was in Pontiac, Graham, Centralia, Menard, Shawnee, Big Muddy," he said. "In every institution, I spent most of my time in the law library."

The trim, fit Pendleton, who said he works out daily, kept mostly to himself in prison--out of a sense of self-preservation. "You are given more respect [among inmates] if you have taken someone's life," he said. "If you are in for what I was convicted of, you are the lowest form of life.

"Danger lurks everywhere--when you go to shower, when you go to eat, every time you wake up," he said. "I just disciplined myself to keep everything inside."

His mother died in 2003 and while his sister visited occasionally, he said, "I didn't have too many visitors. I understand. It is hard for her outside."

Pendleton said he became a Hebrew Israelite behind bars and that his faith helped him shake the bitterness and anger after he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the rape conviction.

"This was my worst nightmare--being convicted for something I did not do," he said. "Gradually, I let it go. I put it in the Creator's hands and I became at peace with my surroundings."

He also claims innocence in the other assault case, in which he was convicted of sexual assault and aggravated battery and sentenced to 12 more years. If the rape case is erased because of the DNA test results, he will be eligible for immediate release.

"I am going to be lost at first," he said. "I am going to need to find a job. I need to get schooling."

Pendleton was identified in a lineup by the victim of the 1992 attack, but only after the victim saw him being led to the lineup room in handcuffs--a procedure that eyewitness-identification experts say is highly suggestive.

He repeatedly demanded that DNA tests be performed on the evidence, but Chicago police crime lab analyst Pamela Fish said that there was insufficient evidence to be tested, according to her report. The expert who conducted the most recent testing, Brian Wraxall, said Wednesday that he believes that there was enough material at the time. 

The trial judge refused Pendleton's repeated requests for DNA testing, saying that the "crime lab didn't say that there was a match, they didn't say there was not. They said there is not sufficient material to do that. We're not going to spend a lot of
time checking other places."

At trial, the victim testified that her attacker weighed about 170 pounds--about 15 pounds less than her weight of 185 and that, if the man had not been armed with a pistol, "I'd kick his butt."

At the time, Pendleton weighed about 135 pounds.

She identified Pendleton in court as her attacker, saying, "I looked him in his face and ... at that point his face was etched in my mind."

On Wednesday, the victim, who no longer lives in Illinois, said, "I still stand strong. No one was in that dark alley with me but Jesus and this person. There is a certainty, sir, and I am standing on that."

Pendleton said he feels sorry for the victim and bears her no ill will. "Somebody did that to her and that was wrong," he said. "She believed it was me and she was wrong. I don't hold no [ill will] toward her."

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