Chicago Tribune

City will pay $9 million in false jailing

DNA test freed man in rape case after 11 years

By Maurice Possley and Gary Washburn, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune reporter Steve Mills contributed to this report

January 28, 2006

The City of Chicago announced Friday it would pay $9 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a man wrongly convicted of rape and will open an investigation into the police officers and crime lab analysts who handled the case.

Chicago Police Supt. Philip Cline and City Corporation Counsel Mara Georges said they would investigate the crime lab analysts and five detectives who handled the case of LaFonso Rollins, who was said to have confessed to raping an elderly woman. Rollins spent 11 years in prison before being exonerated in 2004 by DNA testing.

The decision to settle the case and launch the investigation was an abrupt turnaround by officials prompted by the discovery of documents damaging to the city's case. The documents were in the possession of a former crime lab analyst who now works for the Michigan State Police crime laboratory.

The issue of police obtaining false confessions from innocent suspects as well as shoddy crime lab work have dogged Chicago police in other cases in recent years and have resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements of lawsuits brought by other wrongly convicted defendants.

In announcing the settlement, Georges said the city recently learned "there might have been a problem with how the old Chicago Crime Lab handled the case," referring to the lab that, in 1996, was taken over by the Illinois State Police.

City officials declined to say specifically what the problem was.

Robert Fioretti, a lawyer for Rollins, said in a separate news conference Friday that at the time of Rollins' arrest, a blood sample was taken from Rollins to compare with evidence found at the scene of the rape. Fioretti said, "Either they did not run it or, if they did, they did not disclose the results."

When asked if the documents showed that crime lab tests had excluded Rollins as a suspect before he was convicted, Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the corporation counsel, declined to answer.

Cline said the Police Department would focus on whether the crime lab handled evidence in the case properly and also on the conduct of detectives in the case.

"At this time," Georges said, "we really have more questions than we have answers."

Fioretti said the prosecution of Rollins was marred by improper police lineups, shoddy crime lab work and coerced false confessions.

"This case stinks at every level," he said. "It's time for the city to take a hard look at the crime lab."

Rollins filed a $10 million civil rights lawsuit last April alleging that Chicago detectives obtained his confession through threats and coercion. Since then, the city had been offering $3 million, but Rollins' lawyers had refused to budge from a demand of $9 million.

Fioretti described Friday how the city suddenly changed its position.

"On Wednesday, Mara Georges called at 4:10 p.m.," Fioretti said. "She wanted to discuss settlement. ... She said, `We've got documents that are pretty bad.'"

Fioretti said Georges met with him and co-counsel Lonny Ogus shortly afterward.

He said that Georges noted that Rollins' lawyers had sought to take the deposition of Joel Schultze, a Chicago police crime lab analyst, who had worked on Rollins' case before it came to trial in 1993.

City attorneys had interviewed Schultze first, however.

Fioretti said Georges told him: "We found out he has documents and these documents are pretty damning, and you will call an immediate press conference after you see them."

Georges upped the city's offer to $6 million, Fioretti said. "We said we were sticking with $9 million. And that's what happened. They agreed to $6 million now and another $3 million in January 2007."

Hoyle said Georges would not comment on Fioretti's account because she considers the conversation private. Hoyle added, "In terms of Mara's conversation with him--some of the remarks being attributed to Mara--that's not true. ... She did not say they would call a press conference."

Don Hubert, an attorney for Schultze, said, "He has no comment to make. The matter is under review, and the review process will take its course."

Hubert said Schultze left Chicago for Michigan "for another job. He was not disciplined or fired."

Cline said the department would conduct an internal investigation into the conduct of the five detectives--two of them still working--who were assigned to the 1993 rape case that was closed with a written confession from Rollins, who was then 17.

Rollins, in fact, was accused of several sexual attacks on elderly women at the Campbell housing complex on the South Side in 1993. Police said he signed confessions in four of them, though he was only prosecuted in one case.

A special education student who had completed only the 9th grade, Rollins was linked to the crimes after two of the victims identified him in lineups conducted at a police station.

In addition, a manager of a CHA building where a sexual assault occurred said that a composite drawing of the attacker matched Rollins. He was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to 75 years in prison.

Rollins was set free in 2004 after DNA testing exonerated him. At the time, Cook County prosecutors said they believed his confessions were false.

Fioretti said he demanded that the city and Police Department investigate the case immediately after Rollins was exonerated, but "nothing ever came of it."

Rollins, 30, is jobless and said he hoped to use part of the money to launch a clothing design business. He said he signed the confessions after an officer struck him. "I was scared to death," he said.

Referring to the fact that Rollins was wrongly convicted and the rapist still may be on the street, Cline said, "As a cop, that troubles me."

Cline also said that he has discussed with Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine the possibility of using DNA technology on physical evidence in old cases, where appropriate, when convictions were obtained before DNA testing was available.

While such an effort may reveal more wrongful convictions, inmates in Illinois have been allowed under the law to seek post-conviction DNA testing for several years. More than two dozen of the more than 170 DNA exonerations nationwide have been in Illinois.

The Chicago police crime lab has been a target of frequent criticism for the quality of its work, and lawsuits against the city by wrongly convicted inmates have led to millions of dollars in settlements.

In 1992, Chicago police crime lab analyst Pamela Fish testified that tests in the rape case brought against John Willis were inconclusive. Willis was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison.

After serving more than 8 years in prison, Willis was exonerated by DNA evidence and released. The city and Cook County paid him $2.5 million and the state $100,000 to settle his lawsuit after lawyers found a single sheet of paper containing Fish's lab results. It showed she did not find Willis' blood type in semen recovered from the crime scene.

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