News & Politics

20 Years In Prison For a Rape and Murder Committed By Someone Else -- Courts Ignore Exonerating DNA Evidence

Nine young black men were convicted of two heinous crimes. DNA evidence points to their innocence, but many of the men are still in jail.

In the movies or on TV, the crucial piece of DNA or physical evidence that points to another culprit makes the wrongfully accused and their counsel sigh in relief, high five, leave the courtroom free of shackles. They wouldn't have to wait 20 years to see justice served.

In real life, even after so much time, that kind of exonerating DNA evidence may not make things so simple--particularly in a justice system that can be so often unjust toward the disenfranchised.

In each of two older cases currently being revisited in Cook County, Illinois, five teenagers were arrested for murder-rapes and confessions were extracted after interrogations.

But in each, those confessions were recanted and later DNA evidence pointed directly to other men, known criminals who didn't appear to be connected to the convicted young men.

Here's one case, as described in a story from the Chicago Tribune. Five teenagers were arrested, four convicted:

[In the 1990s] the four were convicted of the murder and rape of Nina Glover, 30, largely on the basis of confessions they made to police and prosecutors, even though primitive DNA testing at the time excluded them as the source of semen evidence. But new testing links Johnny Douglas to Glover's rape and murder, according to court papers filed this week in Cook County Circuit Court.

And here's the other, eerily parallel story, also from the Tribune's reporter Steve Mills, about five other teenagers, three of whom are still in prison:

[20 years ago] Five teenagers were convicted of the rape and murder of 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews, and three of them are still serving long prison sentences for the crime. DNA does not connect any of the five to the rape and murder, according to their lawyers.
The convicted rapist linked to the case by DNA was taken into custody this week on unrelated drug charges, but he has not been charged in connection with Matthews' murder and rape, according to sources.

The Tribune acknowledges that the two cases, both in the same system and both being revisited because of new DNA evidence, "bear striking similarities" to each other. Each involved five young men without remarkable criminal records, many of whom claimed their confessions were coerced. In both cases, many of the convicted men remain in jail.

Both cases have been seen in a new light thanks to demands for DNA testing. Recently uncovered DNA evidence in both cases pointed to men whose names or records were already in the criminal justice system for similar crimes (including one who was a suspected serial killer).

And yet, the state's attorney's office has, according to the Tribune, "downplayed" the importance of the new DNA evidence. There has been no signal of immediate action.

Not unsurprisingly, these two cases -- dubbed the "Englewood Five" and the "Dixmoor Five" -- have inspired a good deal of activism, including a widely circulated petitition from the organization ColorofChange. The petition, sent out over email and social media, targets the office of state's attorney Anita Alvarez, asking her to overturn these convictions.

I was troubled to learn that despite DNA results proving that all of the teenagers arrested for murders in the Dixmoor and Englewood, Cook County cases are innocent, your office has not corrected these injustices by agreeing to overturn the convictions of these men--some who have been wrongfully incarcerated for nearly 20 years. 

As you know, not a trace of physical evidence connects any of these men to the respective crimes. The only evidence against the teenagers is the confessions extracted by police--confessions which have now been proven false. Sadly, coerced false confessions play a part in almost a quarter of all wrongful convictions and teenagers are particularly susceptible to falsely incriminating themselves during questioning from police. 

In their email sent out to supporters, the team at ColorofChange.org explains the bigger underlying issues these two cases highlight, most specifically police tactics that lead to forced or coerced confessions from juveniles, whose relationship with authority is particularly fraught.

"Police work that involves harsh interrogation tactics against black teens and children is not in the service of public safety or crime reduction," said ColorOfChange.org executive director Rashad Robinson. "Every day, law enforcement officials treat black youth as criminals and deny them their right to due process. The consequences are life-threatening. Correcting this gross injustice in Cook County would send a message to officials everywhere that they can't get away with forcing teenagers to confess to crimes they didn't commit."

The ColorofChange email goes on to say:

The thread that connects both these cases? The teenagers were incarcerated as a result of confessions we now know were forced by police. Eight of the 10 teenagers confessed to police during intense and coercive interrogations, and six of the now grown men are still in custody...
Coercive interrogation practices must come to an end. Ensuring the release of these men wouldn't just help correct a gross injustice — it would send a message to law enforcement that they can't get away with forcing teenagers to confess to crimes they didn't commit, and that this practice compromises the entire public's safety.

Learn more at Colorofchange.org, theCenter on Wrongful Conviction of Youth, and the Innocence Project.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.
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