The Innocence Project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and the UChicago Exoneration Project have asked a Cook County Judge to grant new trials for three men that new DNA evidence now links to a convicted rapist.
The new suspect was taken into custody this week on unrelated charges, but the prosecution has so far refused to vacate the other men’s convictions.
On November 19, 1991, a 14-year-old girl went missing, and her body was discovered 19 days later on a footpath in a residential neighborhood. She was raped and shot in the mouth. Nearly a year after the murder, the Illinois State Police interrogated Robert Lee Veal, a 15-year-old student from the same school. After 5 hours in police custody, Veal signed a written statement implicating himself, Robert Taylor (15), Jonathan Barr (15), James Harden (17) and Shainne Sharp (17). After 4 hours in custody, Taylor also signed a written confession. Two days later, after 21 hours in custody, Sharp did the same. In June 1994, before any of the teenagers were tried, the Illinois State Police crime lab identified a lone male DNA profile from sperm recovered from the victim’s body. Even though all 5 defendants were excluded as the source of the semen, the prosecution pushed forward rather than seeking the source of the semen recovered from this young victim.
In an article for the Chicago Tribune, Steven Drizin, legal director of the Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of youth, said “These DNA test results prove the boys’ confessions were false.”
Based on doubts about the truthfulness of the confessions, a juvenile court judge refused to charge Barr and Taylor in adult criminal court, a decision later reversed by an appellate court. Veal and Sharp pled guilty to first-degree murder and received a 20-year sentence exchange for agreeing to testify against Harden, Barr and Taylor. Over the next 2 years, all 3 were convicted, and each was sentenced to at least 80 years in prison. All subsequent appeals were denied, including a post-conviction request for DNA testing.
Two years ago James Harden, through the UChicago Exoneration Project, again sought DNA testing, a request later joined by Robert Taylor through the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and private attorney Jennifer Blagg as well as Jonathan Barr through the Innocence Project.
After a year searching for the evidence, it was finally located and tested. According to the Tribune:
[The] lab was able to isolate a single genetic profile from the swabs taken at the time of the murder and rape. When the Illinois State Police uploaded it into a database, it matched the DNA profile of a man who was 33 at the time of the 1991 murder. At the time, he had already been convicted of a sexual assault and recently paroled near where [the victim] lived, according to sources.
In court today, the judge gave prosecutors two weeks to respond to the defendant’s motion to vacate the convictions.
Read the full Tribune story