Law School's Exoneration Project helps free wrongly convicted man

After DNA testing linked a serial rapist to the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old southwest suburban Chicago girl, a Cook County Circuit Court judge on Nov. 3 set aside the convictions of three men who were convicted of the crime by confessions now known to be false. James Harden, Jonathan Barr and Robert Taylor, all of whom were teenagers when arrested, are represented respectively by the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth with private attorney Jennifer Blagg.  

In court, the State’s Attorney’s Office noted that it would be filing papers soon to vacate the convictions of Robert Lee Veal and Shainne Sharp, who also were wrongfully convicted of the crime.

Tara Thompson

Tara Thompson

“This is one of the most tragic miscarriages of justice that we’ve seen in this state, and perhaps the nation,” said Tara Thompson, lecturer in Law at UChicago and staff attorney at the Exoneration Project. “Even before they were convicted, the state had DNA evidence proving that the confessions were false, yet it chose to go forward with the prosecutions, in spite of this evidence and over the objections of a juvenile court judge.

“This destroyed the lives of these young men while the real perpetrator was allowed to go free, destroying even more lives during a 20-year crime spree.”    

On Nov. 19, 1991, Cateresa Matthews, a student at Rosa Parks Middle School in Dixmoor, Ill., went missing. Her body was discovered 19 days later on a footpath in a residential neighborhood near Interstate 57 in Dixmoor. She had been raped and shot in the mouth.

Nearly a year after the murder, the Illinois State Police interrogated Veal, a 15-year-old student from the same school. After five hours in police custody, Veal signed a written statement implicating himself, Taylor, 15; Barr, 15; Harden, 17; and Sharp, 17. After four hours in custody, Taylor also signed a written confession. Two days later, after 21 hours in custody, Sharp did the same. 

A long road to the truth

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 five 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. 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 that an appellate court later reversed.

Veal and Sharp pled guilty to first-degree murder and received 20-year sentences (they were eligible for release just seven years from the date of their pleas) in exchange for agreeing to testify against Harden, Barr and Taylor. Over the next two years, all three 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. 

In August 2009, 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. For more than a year, the Dixmoor Police Department claimed that it was unable to locate the DNA and was threatened with contempt of court for failing to respond to a subpoena.

Eventually Judge Michele Simmons ordered the Dixmoor police to allow counsel to view the evidence storage areas and log books for themselves. In short order, the department informed the lawyers that they had finally located the evidence. DNA testing uncovered a full male profile that was entered into the national DNA database of criminal offenders, matching serial violent offender Willie Randolph.

At the time of the crime, Randolph, 33, lived in the victim’s neighborhood and had recently been released on parole after serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery. Authorities apprehended him on April 12, 2011. Police questioned Randolph, whose semen had been found in the victim’s body, about the murder, and he denied having sex with Matthews. Subsequently, defendants’ attorneys located another woman who says that Randolph raped her at the same location.  

“It is abundantly clear that overly aggressive police interrogation techniques can cause adults to falsely confess to serious crimes — and when it comes to juveniles, it can happen at a truly alarming rate,” said Joshua Tepfer with the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. “These techniques don’t only hurt those wrongfully convicted, but as we saw in this case, they allow the real perpetrators to go free and commit other crimes. Hopefully this case will lead the way for much-needed reforms, like requiring that all police interviews and interrogations be videotaped in full.” 

‘Classic example of tunnel vision’

Barr and Harden are brothers and were just 14 and 16 when Matthews was murdered. Neither Barr nor Harden confessed to the crime and have always maintained their innocence. Their father, James Harden Sr., provided an alibi at each of their trials, testifying that he was home with the boys on the alleged day the victim was murdered. Barr and Harden’s mother and father both passed away while they were incarcerated.    

Taylor was also just 14 at the time of the murder. After a relentless interrogation, he signed a written statement confessing to the crime. He recanted soon thereafter but was convicted at trial based on his statement and the testimony from Veal and Sharp. Taylor plans to live with his father, Robert Taylor Sr., who has stood by him throughout his two-decade fight to clear his name.  

“After months of offering up disingenuous arguments to delay justice, we’re relieved the State’s Attorney’s Office has finally seen the light. This is a classic example of tunnel vision. Five teens supposedly confessed to a rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, yet they didn’t recover any DNA from the five teens, they offered no evidence that the girl had a boyfriend at the time and they recovered semen from an unknown male,” said Craig Cooley, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “These facts should have sent up a red flag 20 years ago, and there was certainly no reason to delay justice once Randolph was identified last spring.” 

In court on Nov. 3, Judge Simmons vacated the convictions of Taylor, Harden and Barr. The State’s Attorney’s Office stated that it would be filing a motion soon to vacate the convictions of Veal and Sharp. Veal is now living in Minnesota; Sharp is in prison in Indiana on a drug charge. 

James Harden is represented by Thompson of the Exoneration Project. Robert Taylor is represented by Joshua Tepfer, Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University as well as Blagg. Barr is represented by Co-Director Peter Neufeld and Staff Attorney Craig Cooley of the Innocence Project. 

Adapted from a joint news release by the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and the Innocence Project.

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James Harden new
Exoneration Project

A Cook County judge on Nov. 3 vacated the conviction of James Harden, who was one of five teenagers convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Dixmoor, Ill. The University of Chicago's Exoneration Project helped Harden earn his freedom.

Courtesy of Eva Nagao for the UChicago Exoneration Project

Along with James Harden (center), Jonathan Barr (left) and Robert Taylor had their convictions vacated on Nov. 3. The State’s Attorney's Office stated that it would be filing a motion to vacate the convictions of the other two teenagers charged.

Courtesy of Illinois Department of Corrections

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