After serving 10 to 27 years, all cleared by DNA tests.

By: Maurice Possley & Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune: January 7th, 2005

Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday pardoned four Chicago men of crimes ranging from rape to murder, calling their wrongful convictions “tragic.”

The four — Michael Evans, Paul Terry, Dana Holland and LaFonso Rollins — had each spent between 10 and 27 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. All were exonerated after DNA testing.

Evans and Terry were both 17 when they were convicted of the 1976 abduction, rape and murder of 9-year-old Lisa Cabassa on the South Side. Both had been sentenced to serve 200 to 400 years in prison.

In an article published in January 2003, the Tribune found that key testimony in the trial was altered. They were released 8 months later after DNA tests failed to link them to the crime.

The four men join a growing group both in Illinois and across the country whose wrongful convictions have been exposed by DNA testing. More than 150 defendants — many of them found guilty because of erroneous eyewitness identifications, coerced confessions or faulty crime-lab analysis — have been exonerated in the U.S., including 25 in Illinois.

“Serving time in prison — years in some cases — for a crime you didn’t commit is one of the worst things that could happen to someone,” Blagojevich said. “Thanks to DNA technology, these four men were exonerated. A pardon will help each of them rebuild their lives, and that’s why I granted them.”

The pardons clear the way for the men to obtain an award from the Illinois Court of Claims, which provides compensation for wrongly convicted defendants. The formula for award amounts is based on the number of years spent behind bars.

Rollins and Holland, who spent about a decade in prison, will each qualify for about $145,000 under the formula.

Even though Evans and Terry each spent about 27 years behind bars, they will only get about $160,000 because that is the maximum allowed, said Jeff Urdangen, attorney for Terry.

A spokeswoman for Blagojevich said his office would do whatever it could to expedite the compensation requests.

“This is the first official finding from a governmental authority that these men are actually innocent,” said Karen Daniel, an attorney at the Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions who helped free Evans, Terry and Holland.

“The pardons will make a huge difference in their lives,” Daniel said.

Holland served 10 years of a 90-year prison sentence for a 1993 rape on the South Side before DNA tests showed he did not commit the crime. He was released in June 2003 after he was acquitted in a retrial of a related charge of attempted murder.

Holland said in an interview that he was studying the Bible and preparing to speak to offenders at a halfway house in Downstate Rantoul on Thursday when Daniel called with the news that he had been pardoned.

It was what the 36-year-old had been waiting for. Since his release, Holland said he has struggled to find work and has supported himself by doing odd jobs. Potential employers still view him as a sex offender and will not hire him, he said.

The long gap in his resume — his time in prison — also hurts his employment chances.

“Nobody wants to take a chance,” said Holland.

The Tribune began investigating the case against Evans and Terry in 2002.

Lisa Cabassa’s body had been found in an alley the morning of Jan. 15, 1976, after she disappeared while walking home. More than a month later, a woman told police she had seen Evans and two others abduct the girl less than a block from her home.

At first the witness said she saw the abduction at 6:37 p.m., then changed her account to about 8 p.m. when she realized she didn’t leave work until then. When Lisa had failed to come home, her mother told police she left the house at 6:30 p.m., but by the time she testified at the 1977 trial, she said Lisa left at 8 p.m.

In 2002 the Tribune contacted the slain girl’s parents. Both said the mother changed her testimony to make it agree with an account given by the witness, raising questions about the integrity of the case.

Eight months later, with DNA tests in hand, prosecutors dismissed the case against Evans and Terry. No one else has been charged.

Evans said he had been hoping for the best but preparing for the possibility that he would not get a pardon.

Initially, the Cook County state’s attorneys did not support Evans’ bid for a pardon before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which makes recommendations to the governor on pardon petitions.

Despite DNA tests that cleared Evans, the office said it had not found any reason to “doubt the integrity” of the case against him and therefore it took no position on his request for a pardon.

After the Tribune obtained copies of prosecutors’ letter to the review board, the office submitted an additional letter emphasizing “the substantial insufficiencies in the evidence that led our office to drop the charges.” The letter, signed by State’s Atty. Richard Devine, said the office was changing its position to say “we do not oppose” Evans’ pardon request.

Still, Evans said Blagojevich’s decision was a big surprise. “I was always hoping for the best,” Evans said, “but I was trying to be patient and was preparing for the worst in 2005.”

Now 46, he has worked at a fast-food chicken restaurant for part of the nearly two years since he was released, but he has also struggled.

“After doing 27 years incarcerated for a wrongful conviction, it’s hard to find employment and get recuperated back to society,” he said.

Evans said he is enrolling in a GED course and has given thought to going to college “so I’ll be productive in society.”

He said the pardon also would dispel any lingering belief that he had anything to do with Lisa Cabassa’s murder. Even though his family stood by him, some people remain convinced of his involvement.

“[My family] always believed in me that I was always innocent,” he said. “But they were always praying for this great day to manifest.”

The years behind bars were particularly hard on Terry. Shortly after he was imprisoned, Terry began to deteriorate, and over the years he went from being a vital teenager preparing for a job interview to a man so debilitated by mental illness that he was virtually non-verbal.

Now living outside Chicago with relatives, Terry is not working and remains a cautious man. “I appreciate it,” Terry said in a telephone interview. “I hope this will really give me freedom.”

Urdangen, also an attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, said the pardon “will be a strong moral and psychological boost for a man strongly in need of one.

“His family will be thrilled. Paul will officially be considered what he is — an innocent man.”

Rollins was released last July after DNA tests exonerated him of the 1993 rape of an elderly Chicago woman. He had served 11 years of a 75-year sentence. At the time of his arrest, Chicago police said he confessed.

Rollins, who celebrated his 29th birthday Dec. 28, has been unable to find a job. “Every time I try to get a job, they ask about my background and when I say I just got out of prison, they look at me sideways. I’ve been trying. But I just can’t do nothing.”

The pardon, he said, will “give me the freedom to fulfill my dreams, to accomplish my goals.” His dream, he said, is to be a fashion designer. “I have 200 designs for women’s shoes and boots,” he said. “I want to design women’s clothes.”

“In a way, the ends of criminal cases are anti-climactic,” Daniel said. “Clients get exonerated, sentences get set aside and charges are dropped by prosecutors with no further comments.

“These pardons wrap up the criminal cases in such a meaningful way,” she said. “The highest elected official of the state offers closure to the long, devastating legal battles, finally saying, `You are innocent.'”