Marcus Lyons will never give up the fight to clear his name
New DNA match in 1987 rape latest twist in wrongly convicted man’s long journey.
By: Christy Gutowski, Daily Herald: June 13th, 2010
Marcus Lyons made his point in dramatic fashion.
Two weeks after he was paroled from prison, Lyons stood outside the old DuPage County courthouse along Liberty Street in Wheaton holding a large wooden cross on a Thursday afternoon almost 20 years ago.
Dressed in his U.S. Navy reservist uniform, Lyons lifted a hammer and nailed his left foot to the cross, letting the world know authorities had crucified him. Police quickly intervened.
“It was to tell everyone I’m still here,” said Lyons, now 52. “I just had enough. Everything I had worked so hard for was gone. I knew I was innocent and no one was listening.”
He was telling the truth. But it would take decades for Lyons to prove he did not rape a neighbor in his Woodridge apartment building.
In the case’s latest twist, as allegations of police misconduct swirl in a federal lawsuit, authorities recently linked another man through DNA to the Nov. 30, 1987 crime. In a Daily Herald interview, he denied ever raping anyone. The statute of limitations to charge him expired long ago.
Still, Lyons said the revelations are another step toward clearing his name and, he hopes, finally being able to put the legal struggle behind him.
‘The perfect storm’
Lyons grew up humbly with four brothers in Gary, Ind. Later, though, he’d travel to such far away places as Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand while in the Navy.
In 1987, after seven years of military service, the reservist was engaged and taking college courses with the goal of achieving the rank of naval officer. Lyons recalls well the night police officers knocked on his door, as he was waiting to report for a midnight shift as an AT&T computer operator. At the time, he was 29 with a clean record.
A neighbor in Maple Lake apartments reported she had been raped by a black man who identified himself as “Mr. Williams from downstairs” and gained entry under the ruse of borrowing a plunger or coat hanger for his clogged bathroom.
The woman, also 29, worked with a police sketch artist to create a composite of her attacker. She described him as having “a large belly and hips,” weighing about 200 pounds. Her neighbor and an apartment manager identified Lyons as a possible suspect when police showed them the composite.
Lyons said he wasn’t surprised, since he was one of a few, if not the only, black man who lived in the building.
“I cooperated with whatever they wanted because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
The victim identified Lyons in photo and live lineups. Authorities said he did poorly on a lie-detector test. Some of his clothing, such as a blue jacket and brown polyester pants, loosely matched what the woman described as worn by her attacker.
Lastly, Lyons’ responses made police suspicious.
For example, when officers arrived at his apartment, Lyons’ first remark was that he’d been waiting for them. He explained he thought they were there to question him about snatching a friend’s mail in a dispute regarding a car loan he cosigned.
Instead, Lyons was accused of criminal sexual assault and unlawful restraint.
“It was just the perfect storm,” said DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett, whose boss back then assigned him to the Lyons prosecution team. “The evidence just matched up. I felt we had a strong case.”
Ironically, it would be Birkett who unwittingly played an important role in helping Lyons prove his innocence years later.
Lyons professed his innocence during his June 1988 trial, but jurors found overwhelming evidence of his guilt. At the time, DNA technology still was in its infancy.
No DNA evidence was presented. Instead, jurors said they were swayed by the victim’s certainty that Lyons was the perpetrator, his resemblance to the composite sketch and those brown polyester pants, though Lyons argued their 32-inch waistband was too small to match the attacker’s body type.
Lyons’ boss also testified that the usually punctual worker was late that night.
“There was not a lot of debate back and forth,” juror Robert Simkus of Carol Stream recalled. “No one on the jury thought he was innocent. It seemed ironclad.”
Kenneth Krauter was an alternate juror during the nearly weeklong trial. The Addison man said he and the other alternate would have convicted Lyons had they been part of deliberations.
“I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the crime,” Krauter said. “I don’t think he came across convincing enough to sway anyone. It may have been a lot of circumstantial evidence but, when you add in the positive identification, it builds and builds. The prosecution did their homework. I remember (Birkett), with tears in his eyes, said, ‘Don’t let him get away with it.'”
Lyons’ lawyers, Birkett said, “shifted gears and cross-examined the victim as if it was consensual. They essentially ridiculed her on the witness stand. As soon as they did that, I think they lost.”
Lyons was sentenced to six years in prison. Unbeknown to him, his new attorney failed to file his appeal. George C. Howard Jr. later would be disbarred for similar misconduct and neglect of his cases.
Lyons took college classes while behind bars and was released in March 1991 after serving half his sentence. He moved into an Aurora men’s shelter and registered with local police as a convicted sex offender.
As the years passed, technology advanced.
Two laws related to DNA would prove crucial in Lyons’ quest to clear his name. The first, which Birkett co-authored, allowed DNA analysis in convictions where the technology was previously unavailable.
After reading an article about a man convicted of a Lake County sexual assault who was later exonerated through DNA, Lyons convinced the attorney in that case to represent him and seek the testing. Lyons’ conviction was vacated in 2007 after DNA evidence from a semen stain on the victim’s bra didn’t match his genetic profile.
He was granted clemency, his record was expunged and the state doled out a small award as compensation for his wrongful conviction. His name was struck from the sex offender registry.
Lyons said his vindication came late and at a high cost. Living as a convicted sex offender was worse than prison, he said. Lyons lost jobs and relationships.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be totally exonerated,” he said. “They can’t give me back what was taken from me – all the years of hard work. My hopes, dreams, my desire to be a naval officer. I was engaged. She took off … More importantly, your name and reputation can never be back to what it was.”
Upon learning of Lyons’ exoneration, juror Simkus expressed remorse.
“It’s very surprising and I’m sorry about it,” he said. “It kind of makes you feel bad it happened. I wish they had the DNA then.”
One more twist
In 2008, attorney Aaron Mandel of the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy filed a federal lawsuit on Lyons’ behalf against Woodridge and police officers James Grady and Donald Janus, both of whom declined to comment.
Lawyers are due back in court later this summer. A trial date has not been set yet. The victim, a 52-year-old married mother who lives out of state, gave a deposition last summer but otherwise refused to talk publicly about her ordeal. She did not respond to Daily Herald requests for comment.
Birkett and his trial partner, Kathryn Creswell, now a DuPage County circuit judge, and Brian Telander, a former judge who approved charges against Lyons as criminal prosecutions chief, have immunity from such suits.
All three were deposed in the case.
Birkett was elected state’s attorney in 1996. He wrote another law requiring all convicted felons to submit a DNA sample in an effort to close unsolved crimes. In November, that law led to another revelation in the case.
Authorities identified Carl B. Anderson, 45, of Bolingbrook, as the man whose DNA matched semen evidence found on the victim’s bra and a pair of her underwear, according to police reports, court filings and Daily Herald interviews.
Anderson was required to submit a DNA sample after he was convicted of a 2008 drug arrest in Will County. As it turns out, in 1987, Anderson worked at a gas station next to Maple Lake apartments, now known as Windsor Lakes, off 75th Street and Woodward Avenue. His girlfriend at the time also lived in the complex. Anderson said he did not rape anyone.
“Being so long ago, I don’t remember every woman I slept with, but I never forced myself on any woman in my life, and there’s nothing in my background with this kind of behavior,” he told the Daily Herald. Anderson said it was too long ago to recall whether he knew the woman or if they were intimate, but he does not question the DNA results and says it must have been consensual sex. His memory was more clear when talking to police, though. He described a particular sexual encounter with a woman similar to the victim.
When pressed, Anderson told the Daily Herald: “The lady after the sex may have just freaked out or had second thoughts.”
Birkett said he investigated whether Anderson could be charged, but the statute of limitations expired.
Loevy’s Mandel, who represents Lyons, argues police wore blinders in a flawed investigation that included suggestive lineup procedures. Mandel also accused police of concealing and fabricating evidence to build their case.
For example, the victim’s stained bra was never submitted for forensic testing. Though DNA testing was in its infancy, Mandel said the garment should have been tested to at least uncover blood type information. He said Lyons could have been ruled out because his blood type differs from the victim and Anderson, who agreed to submit a blood sample after Loevy investigator Elliot Slosar tracked him down last winter.
Furthermore, there were two pairs of the victim’s underwear in evidence. She wore one pair after the assault, then showered and put on another pair when she went to the hospital where a rape exam was performed. Mandel said the initial underwear bearing Anderson’s semen was never tested even though everyone at trial stipulated that it had been, with negative results, while the other underwear that was actually tested, later went missing.
“We don’t think it was just an honest mistake,” Mandel said. “They focused on Marcus early and ignored all other possibilities. They didn’t even do the bare minimum investigation to see if there were any convicted rapists living in the area. It’s a tremendous injustice that this case was allowed to proceed.”
Police, he said, are required to reveal any evidence that may help a defendant’s case.
“We think they withheld evidence that could have ended this a long time ago,” Mandel said.
The officers’ attorney, James DeAno, said no evidence of a conspiracy exists. Police played a minimal role in the prosecution after the victim picked Lyons out of the initial photo lineup, he said, noting that afterward, the state’s attorney’s office took over the investigation.
“They didn’t do anything to conceal or fabricate evidence to intentionally convict an innocent man,” DeAno said. “They relied on the identification of the victim. Once they had probable cause, no further investigation was needed.”
Birkett also defended the police officers. He said the hospital rape kit came back negative for semen, which was consistent with the victim’s account that the attacker ejaculated on the outside of her body and forced her to clean up afterward.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Birkett said. “They’re trying to apply 2010 technology to a case that occurred in 1987. No one was hiding the ball. No one expected (DNA evidence) to be there.”
Lyons returned to Gary and works in water sanitation. He never married or had children. Lyons said he wants to put his long legal struggle behind him. Still, he can’t forget the sound of the cell door slamming closed or the opportunities he lost while forced to live as a convicted rapist.
“You are constantly watching over your shoulder,” Lyons said. “I’m still to some degree angry and somewhat bitter. It has eaten away at me, but I have faith and, hopefully, I’ll get past it.”