Law School investigations prompt four pardons

Helena Oh

Gov. Rod Blagojevich pardoned four Chicago men on Thursday — about a year and a half after the wrongfully convicted men were exonerated with the help of Northwestern law professors.

NU School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions represented three of the four men, who were exonerated of their crimes in 2003.

“I congratulate the governor, and it’s wonderful for once (in these men’s lives) that someone in authority is telling the world that they’re innocent,” said Karen Daniel, NU law professor and a senior staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions has been involved with exonerating 30 individuals, 11 of them from death row.

“We’ll never have the perfect system, but all of us need to take it upon ourselves to help (the exonerated) get back on track,” Daniel said. “The governor did what he could.”

Blagojevich’s pardons officially declare the men — Paul Terry, Michael Evans, LaFonso Rollins and Dana Holland — innocent and will allow them to transition back into society, said Gerardo Cardenas, a spokesman for the governor.

“By pardoning, (we’re) offering (the men) the chance to rebuild their lives,” Cardenas said. “We’re terribly sorry that they were wrongfully imprisoned.”

The men had served 10 to 27 years in prison before they were released in 2003. Lawyers at the Center on Wrongful Convictions represented Terry, Evans and Holland when the men appealed to the Illinois Circuit Court, and they also applied for the men’s pardons.

Evans and Terry were sentenced together in 1977 to 200 to 400 years for the 1976 rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.

Rollins was sentenced in 1993 to 75 years for rape, and Holland was sentenced in 1993 to 90 years for rape.

The pardons qualify the men for up to $160,000 in monetary compensation each, according to Cardenas.

But the compensation is still well below the poverty line considering how many years they were in prison, said journalism Prof. David Protess, founder of the Medill Innocence Project. The program investigates several cases each quarter of prisoners who may have been wrongfully convicted.

Evans, Terry and Holland may get more money because they have filed civil lawsuits against the police for arresting them without probable cause in the first place, Protess added.

Protess said Illinois should do more to address the problems that the men will face in trying to rebuild their lives in the free world.

“The pardon is a wonderful move that will lay the groundwork to be compensated but this (should be) the beginning of a long-term effort to rehabilitate their lives,” said Protess, who has reported on 10 exoneration cases. “The state locked these men up, so it must provide resources for possible transition back to society. It can’t just rely on people like me to do that.”

The Nation Institute, a group committed to independent press, awarded Protess the $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship in 2003.

Protess is still in the process of using the award money to create a program that will provide services such as job training, counseling and job search assistance for individuals who had been exonerated of wrongful convictions.

Blagojevich has pardoned 53 individuals since January 2003, and these are the only four cases where DNA evidence was used to confirm innocence so far, spokesman Cardenas said.

Evans and Terry were convicted of their crimes 13 years before DNA testing was first used as evidence in court in 1989. It was not until about 20 years later that all criminal cases in Illinois were automatically entitled to DNA testing.

“Generally, DNA testing is essential (to prove innocence) in cases of sexual assault,” said Don Hays, senior counsel with the state attorney appellate prosecutor.

Illinois legalized the death penalty about 18 months after Evans and Terry were convicted at the age of 17, said Rob Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Given the horrendous nature of the case, Warden added, they would have been put to death.

“These guys would have been at the end of the line,” Warden said, “so sheer serendipity saved their lives.”

Reach Helena Oh at [email protected].