DNA links rapist to crime; 5 others convicted as teens
By: Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune: April, 15th 2011
Cook County prosecutors said Thursday that they have reopened their investigation into the rape and murder of a suburban girl 20 years ago, after defense lawyers said DNA testing done last month linked a convicted rapist to the crime.
Five teenagers were convicted of the rape and murder of 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews, and three of them are still serving long prison sentences for the crime. DNA does not connect any of the five to the rape and murder, according to their lawyers.
The convicted rapist linked to the case by DNA was taken into custody this week on unrelated drug charges, but he has not been charged in connection with Matthews’ murder and rape, according to sources.
Prosecutors said they are not yet prepared to throw out the convictions of the five men, who were teens when they were charged with Matthews’ rape and murder.
A hearing is scheduled for Friday at the county courthouse in suburban Markham.
In a recent interview, Robert Taylor, one of the three men still in prison for Matthews’ murder and rape, said he was cautiously optimistic that he would be cleared of wrongdoing and released from state prison. James Harden and Jonathan Barr also hope to be freed.
“I’m not used to feeling happy,” Taylor, who was 14 when the murder occurred and is now 33, told a reporter inside Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. “But all these years I’ve been saying the same thing, I didn’t do this, and nothing ever came from it. Right now I’m happy. I haven’t felt like that in 20 years.”
Matthews disappeared after leaving her grandmother’s home in Dixmoor on Nov. 19, 1991. Almost three weeks later, she was found dead from a single gunshot to her mouth in a field near Interstate Highway 57.
The murder went unsolved for nearly a year. In late October and early November 1992, authorities arrested the five — three of whom were then 14, the other two 16. Three of them confessed, implicating the others in the crime, prosecutors said.
But the confessions were marked by inconsistencies, according to their lawyers. What’s more, DNA tests on semen evidence did not match any of the five. However, two of the suspects, Robert Lee Veal and Shainnie Sharp, agreed to plead guilty and testify against the other three in exchange for reduced 20-year prison sentences. Each served about 10 years in prison, according to records.
Their testimony was crucial in convicting the other three at trial. Two of the teens were sentenced to 80 years in prison; the third received an 85-year sentence.
Last year, central figures in the case recanted their testimony. Veal told defense lawyers that, during his interrogation, he repeatedly told the police he was not involved in the murder but signed a confession because he believed it contained those denials. Veal had severe learning disabilities, according to his attorney, Stuart Chanen.
“He did not have the ability to read what was being put in front of him,” Chanen said.
Veal, who is unemployed and lives in Minnesota, testified against the others on the advice of his lawyer, who thought it was the best option for him in the face of a lengthier prison sentence if he tried to recant before trial, according to Chanen.
Veal recently met with prosecutors and explained the circumstances of his cooperation against the others.
Another man who police said provided information that touched off the arrests has recanted as well.
But Sharp insisted he and the others were guilty when authorities interviewed him recently at an Indiana state prison, where he is serving a 10-year sentence for a 2009 drug conviction. Sharp did not respond to a recent interview request from the Tribune, according to Indiana prison officials.
In a new round of DNA tests last month, a lab was able to isolate a single genetic profile from the swabs taken at the time of the murder and rape. When the Illinois State Police uploaded it into a database, it matched the DNA profile of a man who was 33 at the time of the 1991 murder. At the time, he had already been convicted of a sexual assault and recently paroled near where Matthews lived, according to sources.
Prosecutors plan to review the case but oppose defense efforts to throw out the convictions.
“There has been new evidence that has come to light in this case, and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office is aware of this information and is continuing its review of the case,” said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the office. “We are not in a position to agree to any motions by the defense at this time.”
Steven Drizin, who represents Taylor, was critical, saying it was the “second time prosecutors have ignored the power of DNA evidence” in the case.
“These DNA test results prove the boys’ confessions were false,” said Drizin, legal director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth.
Other defense attorneys noted that the man linked to the murder by DNA is some 20 years older than the five defendants and not an acquaintance.
“I can’t understand why they would not agree that this is meaningful,” said Tara Thompson, an attorney at the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project, which represents Harden.
Daly emphasized that prosecutors had not yet finished their investigation. “We’ll respond at the appropriate time,” she said.
Taylor, who also confessed to the murder, said the failure of the original DNA testing to clear him of the charges left him dumbfounded and distrustful of the criminal justice system. In fact, he fled before trial because he felt he had no chance of being acquitted. The trial went on without him and he was convicted.
He recalled that he was at home when police first picked him up. He said they told him they wanted to question him about drug dealing. Once in an interview room, they told him he was under suspicion for murder.
“I thought they were joking at first,” he said.
He said he denied any role but police did not believe him.
“They got to telling me, ‘We already know what happened. We want your side.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,'” Taylor said. “They kept on telling me, ‘Just tell us what we want to know.’
“Me being in that room by myself — there was no getting out of that room,” he said.
He signed the confession.