Woman previously freed by Medill Justice Project investigation to sue alleged conspirators


Annabel Edwards/Medill Justice Project

Jennifer Del Prete smiles minutes after being released from prison in 2014. Del Prete is now suing prosecutors of her initial 2005 conviction.

Ben Pope, Summer Editor

Attorneys representing Jennifer Del Prete filed a civil lawsuit Thursday against the village of Romeoville, Illinois and numerous other parties for their actions in Del Prete’s 2005 conviction on first-degree murder charges.

Del Prete, now 46, was released from prison in 2014 and her conviction was reversed in 2016 by federal judges partially because of the results of an investigation by The Medill Justice Project into the case, which found a letter that had not been admitted as evidence in the original trial.

The letter, written by one of two primary police investigators in the case, said a medical examiner had questioned whether the actions of Del Prete, then a daycare worker, actually led to the eventual death of the infant she was charged with killing.

Thursday’s lawsuit alleges that the two Romeoville officers, an officer from Plainfield, Illinois and a primary medical witness in the case — Dr. Emalee Flaherty, a retired physician and a former professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine — conspired to frame Del Prete for the infant’s death.

“Although they knew there were natural or accidental causes (for the death), Defendants fabricated false medical evidence and reports implicating Plaintiff in violently shaking the child,” reads the lawsuit, which was filed by three Chicago attorneys.

According to the lawsuit, the Romeoville officers ignored the advice of several physicians, who said the infant’s health problems were likely preexisting and not caused by Del Prete, and instead worked with Flaherty to label the incident as a case of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Also according to the lawsuit, the Plainfield officer, who attended an autopsy that cast into doubt the cause of the infant’s death, tipped off the Romeoville officers about the autopsy’s findings — allowing the officers to withhold medical evidence from a doctor at the coroner’s office — and then suppressed evidence of the conversation.

Additionally, the lawsuit accuses Flaherty of operating with an ulterior motive. Flaherty was then part of a child protection task force that “target(ed) babysitters and caretakers” and wrote a report on the infant’s death without examining the infant and with knowledge that the claims made in her report were false, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Del Prete suffered damages as a result of her nine-year imprisonment and emotional stress and accuses the officers — for whom their respective municipalities are liable — and Flaherty of violating due process, undergoing malicious prosecution and committing civil conspiracy, among other wrongdoings.

“The Village (of Romeoville) is confident that its officers acted lawfully and appropriately and that they will be exonerated in the litigation,” Romeoville assistant village manager Dawn Caldwell told The Daily in a statement. “Due to the pendency of the suit, the Village has no further comment.”

Plainfield community relations director Amy De Boni said Plainfield could not comment because it has not yet received the lawsuit.

Flaherty did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and a receptionist at her former Feinberg office said she had retired several years ago.

Del Prete’s prison release and eventual exoneration has been considered one of The Medill Justice Project’s seminal accomplishments.

The letter that members of The Medill Justice Project found, sent from the Romeoville officers to Flaherty after the tip from the Plainfield officer, said that the coroner had questioned the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Prior to 2014, Del Prete’s lawyers had not been aware of the letter.

Last year, a circuit court judge threw out Del Prete’s previous conviction and ordered a new trial.

At a press conference Thursday in Chicago, Del Prete said she hopes the lawsuit will lead to justice for all involved in the initial case.

“Nothing can compensate for the tragedy we all went through, but I’m hoping that we can get some justice,” Del Prete said, according to The Medill Justice Project. “Although we can’t get our time back that we missed, I would just like to feel like I was acknowledged.”

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