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Illinois Exonerees Discuss Roadblocks to Compensation

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February 13, 2008 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
CHICAGO --- A woman whose highly unusual murder charge and wrongful conviction attracted overwhelming national media attention will be among Illinois exonerees who will come together at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law to discuss the process and politics of receiving compensation for the harm they suffered.

The forum will take place at noon Thursday, Feb. 21, on the 8th floor of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the School of Law, 375 E. Chicago Ave.

"The exonerees have lost many precious years of their lives before being exonerated and released from prison," said Karen Daniel, assistant clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law and attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions. "Now they face delays in the pardon process. Under current law, a pardon based on innocence is the only way they can get compensation for their wrongful imprisonment."

The exonerees have petitioned the governor to give them a pardon that is based on actual innocence. They will tell their stories in a roundtable discussion that will focus on the mechanics of getting a gubernatorial pardon so that they can receive modest monetary compensation for the years they spent in prison. Proposed legislation that would give exonerees an option to go through the courts for compensation – which, it is hoped, would be a faster route than the pardon process -- also will be discussed.

The discussion will be led by attorneys Daniel and Jane Raley, assistant clinical professors of law at Northwestern University School of Law.

The exonerees who will participate in the forum, all of whom are clients of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and highlights of their cases follow:

Gordon "Randy" Steidl was the 18th person since 1977 to be exonerated and released after having been sentenced to death in Illinois. Steidl was convicted of the 1986 double murder of newlyweds Dyke and Karen in Paris, Illinois, based on the testimony of Deborah Rienbolt and Darrell Herrington (now deceased). They claimed to have been present when Steidl and his codefendant, Herbert Whitlock, repeatedly stabbed the victims and set their home afire. They recanted their claims in subsequent statements. In 2003, a federal court ruled that the outcome of trial probably would have been different had the jury known about new evidence that undercut the prosecution's case. Consequently, the charges against Steidl were dismissed, and he was released from prison in May 2003. Gov. Blagojevich has not acted on Steidl's pardon petition, which was filed in 2002.

Tabitha Pollock was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated battery based on a highly unusual charge that in essence meant that she should have known (not that she actually knew) that her live-in boyfriend posed a danger to the life of her daughter, Jami Sue. In 2001, the Center on Wrongful Convictions convinced the Illinois Supreme Court to hear the case, and in October 2002 the court unanimously reversed Pollock's conviction, holding that a defendant cannot be convicted on an accountability theory based on what he or she "should have known." Gov. Blagojevich has not acted on Pollock's pardon petition, which was filed in 2002.

Robert Wilson spent a decade in prison after being wrongfully identified by June Siler, the victim of a horrific slashing attack. Siler has since declared publicly and emphatically that she identified the wrong person. At the time of the crime when detectives showed Siler photos of the suspect, she picked the only man wearing a stocking cap, which the attacker wore. But after seeing another photo of Wilson, without a cap, she stated that he was too old to be the assailant. She was ignored. Years later when she was certain that she had made a mistake, she called Wilson's attorneys at the Center on Wrongful Convictions to help exonerate him. Wilson's request for an innocence pardon on the Siler case is unopposed; it has been pending for over a year.

Marlon Pendleton was convicted of sexual assault in 1993, but after DNA testing established his innocence, he was released from prison in November 2006. The prosecution's case against Pendleton had been based entirely on eyewitness testimony, and Pendleton repeatedly requested DNA testing. In 2006, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Stanley Sacks ordered the DNA testing that led to Pendleton's exoneration. Although Pendleton's pardon petition, filed in January of last year, is unopposed by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, the Governor has not acted on it.

Marcus Lyons, was just a year away from a bachelor's degree in computer science and a reservist with the U.S. Navy, when he was wrongfully convicted of criminal sexual assault. Sixteen years after serving his sentence, he was able to prove his innocence with DNA technology. In September of 2007, his conviction for sexual assault was vacated and the DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett stated, "If we make a mistake, we want to make sure we correct it. As far as I'm concerned, Marcus Lyons deserves to have his record cleared." Lyons is one of more than 200 people to be exonerated by DNA evidence over the last decade, and, as with the majority of those cases, was convicted because of witness misidentification. Lyons filed his pardon petition on January 30, 2007; it is unopposed by the DuPage County State's Attorney's Office.

Dana Holland, who received a gubernatorial pardon and compensation in 2005, was exonerated of two wrongful convictions, the first because of DNA technology that was not available at the time his conviction for sexual assault. His other conviction was for an armed robbery and attempted murder in which he became a suspect only because of his arrest for the sexual assault he did not commit. By the time of his release from prison, Holland had served more than a decade of his 118-year sentence. Holland was the 131st person in the nation, and the 19th in Illinois, to be exonerated since the dawning of the DNA forensic age in 1989. Holland waited from September 2003 to January 2005 for his pardon, and he waited six more months before receiving his compensation check.

Alejandro Dominguez was only 16 when he was wrongfully convicted of home invasion and criminal sexual assault based on witness misidentification. Years after his release from prison, Dominguez sought DNA testing, which positively excluded him as the rapist. His convictions were vacated in 2002 with the full support of the Lake County State's Attorney's Office. Dominguez, who requested a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence in 2003, had to wait until August of 2005 before receiving one. Dominguez then had to wait another year before receiving his compensation check.