Convicted of 1993 murder, he hit books and won acquittal
By: Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune: July 24th, 2014
A former gang leader who alleged he was framed by corrupt Chicago Heights police officers for a 1993 murder recalled Wednesday how years ago he asked his family to raise $1,000 to buy legal books, then taught himself the law and wrote the court filings that eventually won him a new trial.
With the help of attorneys from the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, Rodell Sanders, 49, returned home to his family hours after a Cook County jury acquitted him Tuesday night. He had spent 20 years in prison.
“I studied 10, 11 and 12 hours a day, 7 days a week,” said Sanders, surrounded by family. “I wouldn’t go on the yard…I told my family stop coming down on visits so much, and I just committed myself to the law.”
“I didn’t want to die in prison. I wanted to go back out there and make it to my children, make it to my family,” he told reporters at a press conference at the offices of attorney Russell Ainsworth, who represented him along with Steve Greenberg.
Sanders, who plans to file a petition for a certificate of innocence, was originally convicted by a jury of the murder of Phillip Atkins. Atkins and Stacy Armstrong, 19, were asleep inside a car in December 1993 when four men forced them out of the car at gunpoint. One of the men – identified by Armstrong as Sanders – ordered Atkins killed after he admitted he was a member of the Mickey Cobras street gang. Armstrong was also shot three times but survived and was the sole eyewitness.
Ainsworth alleged that two Chicago Heights police detectives cropped a photo of Sanders so his shoulders were cut out to make him look thinner. Armstrong, who had described the leader as thin, picked out Sanders’ photo and later identified him at trial as the man who had ordered the shootings, the lawyer said.
“This case is the embodiment of a shoddy police investigation,” said Ainsworth, who said the detectives saw the case as a shortcut in their fight against the Gangster Disciples street gang. Sanders was an assistant governor for the GDs, his attorney said.
Sanders contended he was playing cards with friends on the night of the slaying, but police attempted to use the murder charge to turn him on other gang members, according to Ainsworth. Authorities also cut a deal with the man Sanders’ attorneys believe committed the murder, allowing him to plead guilty to armed robbery and serve 5 years in prison in exchange for his testimony against Sanders, he said.
In 2013, Sanders’ attorneys filed a federal lawsuit again the officers and other members of the Chicago Heights police department as well as the village alleging they violated his civil rights. The case is pending.
Sanders said that before his original trial prosecutors had informally offered him a plea deal that Ainsworth said called for him to be sentenced to about 23 years in prison, but he never considered taking it. He ultimately was sentenced to 80 years in prison after his conviction.
“I’m not going to plead guilty to a crime I did not commit,” he said Wednesday. “If they’d allow me to walk out the same day I signed the paper, I wouldn’t of did it.”
A judge eventually awarded Sanders a new trial based on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Prosecutors appealed, but in 2011 an appeals court upheld the ruling. Last year his first retrial ended with a hung jury, with 11 voting to convict and a lone holdout, Greenberg said.
“That’s what makes this so scary,” Greenberg said. “But for that one juror a year ago, he’d have been wrongfully convicted twice.”