Until yesterday, I had never heard of the name Thaddeus Jimenez. I doubt any of you have either. He was tried in Chicago as an adult for murder when he was 13. The Cook County State's Attorney prosecuted the case. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
He was given a second trial due to errors during voir dire in the first trial. He was convicted the second time, but sentenced to 45 years.
The murder occurred in 1993. It appeared to be gang related. There was evidence linking a different person to the killing. The evidence was an audio recording of him confessing. The real murderer was 14. CPD detectives were given the audio recording. It was ignored.
TJ's trial judge ruled the recording was inadmissible. But it shouldn't have even gone to trial and been an evidentiary issue.
Not surprisingly, there was no physical evidence tying TJ to the shooting. The entire case was based on eyewitness testimony. As it turned out, it was perjured testimony.
Northwestern Law School has a Center for Wrongful Convictions. In 2005, it started looking into TJ's case. In 2007 they gave the information they put together to the State's Attorney's office. 2 witnesses recanted their testimony. One of them claimed the police threatened and coerced him into implicating TJ.
Armed with this new evidence and recanted testimony, a petition for post-conviction relief was filed with the judge who presided over TJ's second trial. It was dismissed as being "frivolous", and was given no hearing.
To its credit, the State's Attorney's office continued to investigate, despite the judge's ruling on the petition. And in May 2009, the SA's office joined a motion with defense counsel to vacate the conviction. A judge granted the motion. The prison doors opened. TJ walked out. 16 years older. Free at last.
Together with some private Chicago attorneys and, I am sure, hundreds of hours of help by law students, authorities were somehow convinced they had prosecuted the wrong man...errr I mean boy.
Here is a nice brief summary of the case. Watch the video about "TJ's" exoneration. It's compelling stuff.
Imagine being sent to prison at 13 and then being released when you're 29. Those 16 years are gone. Think about all the fun and crazy stuff you did during those same 16 years in your life. Who would you be if you were TJ? Would you even be able to function in free society?
TJ spent 16 years in prison and now the authorities have finally charged the likely real killer. And guess what? It's the same person the police were told did it back in 1993. For 16 years that person thought he had gotten away with murder, literally. But for the effort of lawyers, not cops, he would have. I am proud to be a member of the same bar.
This is the kind of stuff I am butting my head up against. Once the police think they have the right guy, it's done. The detectives cherry-pick and bend facts around their theory of the case. However, the theory has to develop around the facts, not the other way around.
You can read written witness statements and tell the story was fed by the police. How do I know? The language in the statements is a dead giveaway. It's all canned police talk. The words in the statement are not the words of the witness. Normal people don't say or write "subsequent to the incident, I observed the offender flee eastbound on 1st Street." That's cop talk. The only people that talk like cops, are cops.
The above quoted sentence is a detective making a statement that the witness will sign as his own. I am often offended that they think they're so smart and that no one will really work up the file. Again, they are playing the odds. They know most can't afford private counsel and the PD's office is too overworked to mine through every case.
Once the police have the case where they want it, anything potentially favorable to the suspect is ignored.
You have to appreciate how public perception works. When a horrible crime makes the news the public sometimes goes into shock. And as soon as an arrest is made, there is relief. The story stops being covered by the media and is quickly forgotten. But no one ever asks if the right person was arrested.
I have yet to see one article with a title such as: Man arrested for July 2001 murder of Englewood gang member found not guilty. Why?
No one cares. Really. They don't.
The list of people being exonerated is growing yearly. And many are freed from death row. We, as defense attorneys, need to prevent the wrongful conviction in the first place.
It's our job to make sure the police and prosecutors do their job. To aid us, we have discovery, cross-examination, and hopefully acute attention to detail coupled with critical thinking.
I don't know if this is true across the country, but here the presumption of innocence is a myth. Once the case is clear/closed for prosecution (meaning there was an indictment or probable cause finding), that suspect is guilty as far the government is concerned. I have yet to see one case the grand jury didn't indict.
I would really like to know if a prosecutor ever tells a detective to re-open the case because they got the wrong person. I doubt that it ever happens. Once the case passes felony review, it's the State's job to prosecute the case. There is no looking back.
Well, unless you force them to look back. And I applaud TJ's lawyers for forcing them to do so. Must have been a Herculean effort.
I hate to have to mention it, but this case is yet one more example of problems with the death penalty. Two trials. Two convictions. A judge that wouldn't grant a hearing though faced with exculpatory evidence. And a later "Oops, we go the wrong guy."
The system fails. In TJ's case the error was eventually corrected, but his case is rare. I have a feeling it got a lot of attention because he was 13 and tried as an adult for murder. That fact made someone want to dig a little deeper. Not too many cases get this kind of treatment.
I wonder how many innocent people are sitting in prison right now with life sentences or on death row?
Knowing what I know, the thought makes me shudder.