Saturday, April 7, 2012

More records indicate that inmate was in jail when 1992 double murder occurred

Chicago Tribune
Steve Mills

State attorney general begins inquiry into conduct of Cook County prosecutors in case

The Illinois attorney general's office has opened an in-depth examination of how Cook County prosecutors have handled the trial and nearly two decades of appeals in a controversial 1992 double murder case that sent a teenager to prison for life, even though records showed he was in a Chicago police lockup when the crime occurred, according to court documents and interviews.
At issue is whether prosecutors failed to turn over key information to defense lawyers that would have helped the case of Daniel Taylor, whose defense at trial seemed ironclad: that he had been arrested on unrelated charges before the murders occurred and was not released until after.

Taylor's case, in turn, casts doubt on the entire criminal investigation, since eight suspects in all confessed and implicated each other.

A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that included Judge Richard Posner recently found Taylor's claims were worth pursuing and took the unusual step of granting his request to file a second appeal in federal court — a move that could lead to a new trial. And that was before the attorney general's office began digging deep into the case and uncovered additional documents it said were not turned over to Taylor.

"When combined with the testimony of (a) newly revealed witness and the newly disclosed police reports," the judges wrote in an order late last year, "this is strong proof that Taylor's participation in the crime was physically impossible. In contrast, the circumstances surrounding the non-videotaped confession are suspect."

The case against Taylor and the seven other defendants was the focus of the Tribune's 2001 investigation "Cops and Confessions." Five of the eight defendants were convicted and sent to prison, and Taylor was sentenced to life without possibility of parole. The Tribune has continued to investigate the case. Among the subsequent revelations: A Taylor co-defendant said he and several other men committed the murders and that Taylor and the others who were arrested are innocent.

In some cases, crucial documents or witnesses that can turn a prosecution upside down do not surface for years. That it is happening in a case that has received such scrutiny may raise questions about who in the prosecutors' office had knowledge of the documents and why they were allegedly withheld.
The failure to turn over material that can help a defendant's case at trial is among the most serious violations a prosecutor can commit.

The current inquiry began as the attorney general's office took over the federal appeal from Cook County prosecutors, a routine job for litigators in the office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

As lawyers dug deeper into the case and began to review the state's attorney's files, they found additional documents that, under the law, they believed should have been turned over to Taylor's trial attorney but had been withheld, according to filings in federal court and correspondence between the attorney general's office and Taylor's current attorney.

Those documents would have bolstered Taylor's defense at trial, the court filings say.

"It's simply unacceptable that this evidence has remained hidden for 19 years," said Karen Daniel, an attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University law school and Taylor's lawyer. "The correct thing for the state's attorney to do now is to go into court immediately and have the conviction set aside. ... Daniel has been locked up for more than half his life, for a crime he didn't even commit and without the benefit of a fair trial. Any further delay only magnifies the injustice."

Dan Kirk, chief of staff for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, said prosecutors were cooperating with the attorney general's office. He said they were studying the case file as quickly as possible to determine if prosecutors had an obligation to turn over the documents and whether they were withheld.

"We don't know at this point whether they were turned over or not. But we're going to find out," said Kirk, who described the effort as a challenge because of the age of the case. "I don't feel comfortable taking anybody's word for it until we ourselves do an exhaustive review."

Sally Daly, Alvarez's spokeswoman, put a finer point on the issue, saying the office considers the claim "an unsubstantiated allegation."

"We're working with the attorney general," Daly said. "We're also reviewing the entire case file, to analyze the matter and to review the notes that have been raised in the context of the totality of the entire case. We're trying to do this as quickly as possible."

Taylor was 17 and living mostly on the streets when he and the others were charged with the November 1992 shooting deaths of Sharon Haugabook and Jeffrey Lassiter. According to the confessions, the shootings stemmed from a dispute between Lassiter and one of the suspects, Dennis Mixon. Mixon later admitted he and at least two other men, one of them now in prison for another murder, committed the crime.

Taylor was questioned by police about two weeks after the murders. But after police obtained a statement from him, Taylor remembered he had been locked up on the night of the arrests, and he told detectives. They then began to investigate his claim and found records that showed Taylor was, in fact, behind bars. Police then said they found evidence that undercut that claim and supported Taylor's confession.

At trial, prosecutors told jurors that Taylor's confession tied him to the crime; indeed, all eight suspects implicated all the others in their confessions. Seven of the eight — all except for Mixon — have maintained their innocence. Prosecutors at trial were Thomas Needham — who became a top aide to former Mayor Richard Daley, then a top Police Department lawyer and now is in private practice — and Jeanne Bischoff, who is still in the prosecutors' office.

Needham and Bischoff could not be reached for comment.

Taylor's lawyer, Nathan Diamond-Falk, showed jurors an enlarged arrest report and bond slip showing Taylor was arrested two hours before the 8:45 p.m. murders, taken to the now-shuttered Town Hall police station at Halsted and Addison streets, and was not released until 10 p.m.

Police officers from the station testified in Taylor's defense, but the testimony was less than robust in part because Taylor's lawyer did not have all of the documents generated in the case. Prosecutors undermined the officers' testimony, too, suggesting they were covering up for breaking police rules by releasing Taylor early.

The issue of what prosecutors turned over to the defense has been simmering in the case for some time. In the Tribune's investigation, documents were found that were not turned over to Taylor's trial attorney. Those showed police were trying to find a man who shared a lockup cell with Taylor. That man told the Tribune that once police found him and he said he remembered being locked up with a young black man, the police lost interest in him and never contacted him again. Had Taylor's trial lawyer had the reports, he could have called the man as a witness to try to bolster the alibi that he was behind bars.

That was the issue the federal appeals court recently ruled on and said bolstered Taylor's claim he could not have committed the crime.

The new documents are handwritten notes of interviews of the officers working at the station the night Taylor was arrested. They were prepared by David Styler, a prosecutor who now works for Aon Corp., who made the grand jury presentation in Taylor's case. In the notes, several of the officers are certain Taylor was in the lockup when Taylor and the records say he was. One officer, James Gillespie, is quoted saying "he's convinced" that Taylor was there at 10 p.m., words that are stronger than his trial testimony. A sergeant is quoted saying Taylor was in the lockup when he left work at 9 p.m.
Styler and Gillespie could not be reached for comment.

Other officers working in the station that evening, according to the notes, also provided information that supported Taylor's alibi.

In court filings and correspondence, the attorney general's office says these notes should have been given to Diamond-Falk before trial but it believes they were not. The office says the notes are important because they "arguably memorialize potentially exculpatory conversations with police officers tending to corroborate (Taylor's) alibi defense."

Officials at the attorney general's office declined to comment.

Those notes go to the heart of Taylor's defense and would have allowed Diamond-Falk to question the police officers more effectively as well as fend off prosecutors' attempts to undermine Taylor's alibi. It is the second time documents have surfaced that likely hindered Diamond-Falk's ability to defend Taylor, who is being held at Menard Correctional Center.

Diamond-Falk declined to comment, saying he was likely to become a witness as Taylor's appeals continue in federal court.

"The statements of the police officers supported (Taylor's) defense. They did not support the prosecutors' suggestion at trial that the police lockup records were falsified or inaccurate," said Daniel, Taylor's attorney. "Prosecutors are required by law to disclose this type of evidence."

Taylor's case now is in both federal and state court, and he said he remains hopeful he can finally prove his innocence and win his freedom.

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