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Jail alibi doesn’t outweigh confession

Published: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 9:45 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Daniel Taylor was 17 when he confessed to slayings in 1992, but records show he was in police custody on disorderly conduct charges when the crimes were committed. He is shown in August 2010 in Chester, Illinois.

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Even before Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez formed her Conviction Integrity Unit one year ago to deal with potential wrongful convictions, the case of Daniel Taylor had presented prosecutors with a particularly thorny problem: how to resolve a case in which Taylor, plus seven other young men, confessed to a double murder though records show he was in a police lockup when the crime occurred.

Twenty years after his arrest, Taylor’s confession carries the day for prosecutors. Though much has been learned about why teenagers sometimes falsely confess — Taylor was 17 when arrested — prosecutors point to his long and detailed confession as the most powerful piece of evidence in the case.

For Taylor’s attorneys, who returned to court two weeks ago seeking the right to continue to appeal his case, mounting evidence that shows he was in the Chicago police lockup at the old Town Hall precinct underlines their contention he could not have committed the slayings at 8:45 p.m. on Nov. 16, 1992, as prosecutors charged.

The records show Taylor was arrested for disorderly conduct at 6:45 p.m., booked into the lockup at 7:25, had his charges approved at 9:45, and was released on bail at 10.

Others have taken note of Taylor’s case. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has expressed concern about the case, noting Taylor’s powerful claim of innocence and questioning his confession. The Illinois attorney general’s office has written of its concern that, for nearly two decades, prosecutors failed to turn over documents to the defense that buttress Taylor’s alibi, an allegation the prosecutors deny.

That concern did not translate into immediate action, however. Instead, it has led Taylor, now 37 and having spent more than half of his life behind bars, back to Cook County Circuit Court, where prosecutors have suggested that the records showing Taylor in jail somehow are wrong.

In many ways, Taylor’s case shows how difficult it is for a prisoner to win his freedom when DNA or other scientific evidence is not at play; indeed, even cases in which DNA is involved can be tough for inmates, particularly when confessions are at issue.

Taylor’s case also has raised questions about the Conviction Integrity Unit, which Alvarez announced last February amid criticism over how her office handled potential wrongful conviction cases. Announcing the unit in a speech, Alvarez said it represented a “shift in philosophy” for the office and pledged to be more open to the possibility that police and prosecutors had sent an innocent person to prison.

Alvarez, in her announcement, said the state’s attorney’s office was “about always seeking justice,” not simply “racking up convictions.”

“These cases are something that she takes very seriously,” said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez. “She listens and expects a full accounting of the facts when these cases are being reviewed. She’s committed to taking objective open-minded looks, and her record has shown that.”

Taylor’s attorney said his case, with its unusual but seemingly ironclad alibi, challenges Alvarez’s claims.

“The evidence that prosecutors typically rely on — police officer statements, police reports, records — demonstrate that Daniel couldn’t have committed the murders,” said Karen Daniel, who is Taylor’s lawyer and an attorney at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

“Conviction integrity means not putting innocent people away, but also making sure that there’s a fair and constitutional process. If these records weren’t turned over to the defense, then Daniel Taylor’s trial wasn’t fair and constitutional, and Daniel’s conviction has no integrity.”

In its first year, the Conviction Integrity Unit has had more than 150 cases referred to it by defense lawyers, defendants, their families and even people who walk into the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Daly said.

The unit has four prosecutors who also handle other post-conviction cases and investigators to do the legwork that often is crucial to sorting out innocence claims. The unit currently has dozens of cases under active investigation, Daly said.

It has exonerated two men, Alprentiss Nash and James Kluppelberg, though Kluppelberg’s case already was in the works, Daly said.

“It’s a labor-intensive process, but we are hard at work. We’re moving ahead as fast as possible with the manpower we have,” she said. “Since Anita has been state’s attorney, more cases have been dismissed than ever before. She has not been reticent about doing that.”

Daly said prosecutors will view Taylor’s new petition with “an open mind.”

Taylor and seven others were charged with murder in the shooting deaths of Sharon Haugabook and Jeffrey Lassiter in an apartment near Clarendon Park, on the city’s North Side. According to police and prosecutors, four suspects went into the apartment while the other four acted as lookouts. All eight, police said, confessed and implicated each other — meaning to undermine one of the confessions undermines them all.

Taylor was taken into custody more than two weeks after the shootings. After he was charged with the murders, Taylor remembered that he had been arrested on the night they occurred and told the detectives who had been questioning him. The police found lockup records supporting Taylor’s account, and in fact his attorney at trial presented those records as well as the testimony of some of the police officers.

Prosecutors argued that the records were inaccurate, and a jury convicted Taylor. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.

The Chicago Tribune investigated the case as part of its December 2001 series “Cops and Confessions” and uncovered additional evidence of Taylor’s innocence. That prompted then-State’s Attorney Richard Devine to reinvestigate the case; last year the Tribune reported on that investigation’s failure to interview either the detectives or prosecutors who took Taylor’s confession or the officers working in the lockup who could support his alibi.

The petition Taylor filed Jan. 31 adds to the information that supports documents showing he was in the station’s lockup. Two employees — one a sworn officer, the other a civilian aide — who worked in the station said in sworn affidavits that, although they do not remember Taylor specifically, the records are clear that he was in the lockup. One said he would have gone to Taylor’s cell himself to verify that he was there. What’s more, both of them say it is far-fetched to believe officers in different shifts could let somebody out earlier than records show, then engage in a cover-up.

It brings to five the number of current and former police employees who have sworn the records accurately show Taylor was locked up.

The petition also asserts that a prosecutor’s notes of interviews with police officers — which also buttress Taylor’s claims — and other documents were not turned over before trial as the law requires. The attorney general’s office, in correspondence with Taylor’s attorneys, said it believed the information had not been provided.

“It’s further evidence that Daniel was absolutely in police custody,” Daniel, his attorney, said during an interview. “It would have required a large number of people to have gotten together and decided to falsify police records. And we just received this information 20 years after the fact.”

In addition, one of the men arrested and convicted with Taylor reiterated in a sworn affidavit what he has told the Tribune: that he went to the apartment with three other men who committed the murders and that Taylor and his other co-defendants had nothing to do with them.

Indeed, the man, Dennis Mixon, said in the affidavit that he did not know Taylor or most of the others — he had met one of them once, and then only briefly, he said — but he implicated all of them at the urging of the detectives and because he thought he might “improve my situation.”

Taylor’s previous efforts in state court have been unsuccessful. If this effort is unsuccessful as well, he will return to federal court, where the appeals court already has determined Taylor should be allowed to file another appeal because of information about a man who was in a lockup cell with Taylor. The appeals court determined the information had not been given to Taylor’s trial attorneys and could have helped Taylor’s defense.

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