Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Man who spent 27 years in prison files wrongful conviction suit against police unit

Man who spent 27 years in prison files wrongful conviction suit against police unit

CHICAGO (AP) — Members of a police unit that is facing allegations of torturing innocent men to obtain convictions went on trial Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by a man who spent 27 years in prison before he was released and later pardoned.

Michael Evans and a second man were convicted in 1977 in the murder of a 9-year-old girl. A Cook County judge released both men from prison in 2003 after DNA evidence did not match either one. Gov. Rod Blagojevich later pardoned the men.

Evans has sued the city of Chicago, and 12 current and former members of the Area 2 violent crime unit.

He testified Tuesday that he was so young, unsophisticated and confused when Chicago police interrogated him that at one point he thought a prosecutor was his lawyer. Asked why he cooperated with police and tried to answer all their questions, Evans said officers told him he would be released to his mother if he did.

Evans, who testified he has a learning disability and could barely read or write when he was interrogated, said he also went along with police out of fear.

"I was afraid if I didn't cooperate they were going to use any type of brutality," Evans said.

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In opening statements earlier Tuesday, Evans' attorney said his client was the victim of overzealous police officers who were desperate to solve the case. Jon Loevy said that detectives fabricated and withheld evidence showing Evans was innocent. Loevy also accused the officers of offering a woman money to say what they wanted until she caved in and identified Evans as one of the two men she saw grab the girl.

The officers' attorney described Evans as the logical suspect in the slaying and said Evans even tried to intimidate the one witness who could put him at the scene of the crime.

Lawyer Andrew Hale said police did not withhold any evidence that would have exonerated Evans.

Hale dismissed Loevy's contention that police paid off the woman, saying the Cook County State's Attorney's office gave Judy Januczewski about $1,200 so she could move out of the neighborhood where she felt her life was in danger.

"There was nothing nefarious about that," he said.

Hale also pointed out that Evans was convicted twice in the slaying -- first by a judge and later by a jury -- and that there remains "ample evidence" Evans was involved with at least the girl's abduction.

Hale suggested that the DNA evidence that led to Evans' release from prison means only that he did not take part in a sex crime for which he was charged. It doesn't mean, he said, that Evans was not involved with abducting and killing the girl.

The trial, expected to last three to four weeks, is going on against a backdrop in which attorneys, exonerated suspects and City Hall are awaiting the release of a special prosecutor's report on the same police unit.

A Cook County judge appointed the prosecutor four years ago to look into allegations that homicide detectives in the 1970s and 1980s tortured 192 black men in interrogation rooms. The investigation has cost $5.5 million, and the special prosecutor says the report will likely be released by July 20.

All the defendants in Evans' lawsuit are white, and Evans is black.

Illinois' criminal justice system has been haunted by errors and wrongful convictions. The problems were so widespread that Gov. George Ryan, before leaving office early in 2003, commuted the sentences of everyone on the state's death row rather than risk executing innocent people.

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