He says officers’ lies sent him to prison for 10 years
By: Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune: July 8th, 2016
As he languished in prison for years, Jermaine Walker maintained that a security camera in a North Side alley where he was arrested in 2006 on a crack cocaine charge would prove his innocence.
At his trial, an investigator for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office had testified no such camera existed — and produced photos he had taken to support his account.
One Chicago police officer said he wasn’t aware of a camera in the alley, while a second officer said he didn’t believe one was there.
But Walker’s persistence finally led an assistant public defender to take an interest in his case, prompting prosecutors to have another look at the evidence.
Workers at a former single-occupancy hotel confirmed in sworn statements that a closed-circuit camera mounted at the mouth of the alley was working at the time of Walker’s arrest. The video feed was not recorded, but employees at the front desk monitored the footage and could have been called to testify at Walker’s trial.
Faced with the new evidence, prosecutors moved in March to dismiss the charges, leading Judge Catherine Haberkorn to throw out the conviction and order Walker immediately released after about a decade in prison.
Saying she was “sickened” by “this miscarriage of justice,” the judge found that the investigator and two officers had testified falsely.
On Thursday, Walker, now 39, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Chicago police had planted the drugs on him and perjured themselves and that the state’s attorney investigator intentionally didn’t photograph the security camera to cover up the wrongful arrest.
In moving to dismiss the charges in March, a prosecutor maintained that Thomas Finnelly, then an investigator for the state’s attorney’s office, had been given the wrong location to photograph.
But on Thursday, Sally Daly, the chief spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said the office is continuing to investigate if criminal charges are warranted by the “inconsistent” trial testimony.
A recent Tribune investigation found more than a dozen examples over the past few years in which judges had concluded that police officers had given false or questionable testimony, but few, if any, repercussions resulted. A notable exception came last summer when three Chicago police officers and an officer from suburban Glenview were indicted on perjury charges after a police dashboard camera video revealed they had allegedly lied about a drug stop while under oath during a hearing before Haberkorn.
What was so unusual in Walker’s case, according to his attorney, Russell Ainsworth, was his willingness to contest the charges — he passed up an offer of one year in prison to plead guilty — and his ultimate success in proving the testimony to be false.
Before his tainted conviction for drug delivery, Walker had twice done time for felony convictions for armed robbery and forgery, records show.
But Ainsworth said he had turned around his life and was attending Fisk University in Tennessee on a full scholarship, majoring in computer science and studying superconductivity.
At Walker’s trial in 2006, two tactical officers and a sergeant all testified that an undisclosed tipster stopped them while they were on patrol Feb. 21, 2006, and said two black males in a white Oldsmobile with Tennessee plates were dealing drugs in a stretch of the Uptown neighborhood that police said was a common spot for narcotics sales.
The officers drove around for about 10 minutes before spotting Walker’s car parked in an alley near Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue.
According to Walker’s lawsuit, he and his brother stopped about 8:30 p.m. to make a purchase at a J.J. Pepper’s food store on Sheridan Road while on their way to a family gathering at their sister’s house. As he pulled out of the parking lot, Walker said he noticed lights flashing from a police car behind him and pulled into an alley by the 1000 block of West Lawrence Avenue.
Walker said an officer testified that he found a small amount of crack cocaine and marijuana sin Walker’s sock when he was processed at the district lockup.
While lying in the alley during the alleged beating, Walker said he looked up and saw the security camera mounted on a wall of the Lawrence House pointed in his direction.
Finelly was later dispatched to the scene in part to measure whether the location as less than 1,000 feet from a school, an aggravating factor under the state’s drug laws.
Finelly, himself a former Chicago police officer also took photographs of the alley.
The surveillance camera became the central issue at Walker’s trial. Walker, who was representing himself, contended the camera would show he never threw anything out of his car.
At trial, Finelly repeatedly testified that no cameras were in the alley, transcripts show.
According to the suit, a prosecutor emphasized during losing arguments that there was no camera in the alley, questioning whether Walker “would be stupid enough to deal drugs” in front of one.
“Come on. Don’t you think that they would pick another alley?” the prosecutor said.
A jury convicted Walker of possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver within 1,000 feet of a school, a Class X felony, and possession with intent to deliver more than 5 grams of a controlled substance.
Prosecutors had sought a 15-year prison term, but Haberkorn appeared bothered that Walker’s life of crime had continued even after he won a college scholarship, according to a transcript of the sentencing. She sentenced him to 22 years in prison.
“With all those convictions, you still were given chance after chance after chance to succeed in life,” she said. “I think it’s very sad that this scholarship … (was) wasted on somebody who still chooses to deal drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.”
Walker’s post-conviction efforts all failed — until he drew the interest of his court-appointed lawyer, who obtained the affidavits from two Lawrence House employees — Ann Marie Scott and Joanne Johnson. Both swore that on Feb. 21, 2006, the closed-circuit camera mounted on the building by the mouth of the alley was providing a live feed to a monitor located behind the front desk where they both worked.
“The monitor is plainly visible at the side of where I (sit) behind the front desk,” the identical affidavits said.
In throwing out Walker’s conviction in March, Haberkorn, who presides at the Skokie courthouse, noted that the affidavits contradicted the testimony at trial that there was no security camera.
“There’s no words that can explain how sorry I am that the justice system failed in this case,” the judge said. “… It’s really outrageous that police officers and an officer of the state’s attorney’s office swore under oath here and actually backed it up with photographs that didn’t even fit the relevant situation that we had in your case.”
Prosecutors contended at the hearing in March that Finnelly had mistakenly photographed the wrong alley.
“We felt this was the right thing to do in light of what occurred, the mistakes that were made,” Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack said at the time of the office’s move to dismiss the charges.
But the lawsuit alleged that Finnelly took nine photographs that intentionally excluded the security camera from view.
Neither officer could be reached for comment Thursday, and Finnelly, now retired, declined to speak.
Last April Finnelly said he didn’t remember Walker’s case but denied ever lying on the witness stand. He said he wouldn’t have looked for a security camera unless prosecutors had asked him to do so.
“We would never try to cover something up at the state’s attorney’s office,” said Finnelly, who was a Chicago police officer for 28 years, most of them in gang crimes, before becoming a state’s attorney’s investigator in 1992.
Walker’s sister, Krista, a juvenile detention officer in Texas, said her brother’s wrongful conviction left a hole in the family. He missed the deaths of grandparents, uncles and a cousin, she said.
Walker said he stayed focused during the decade in prison, making a schedule each week of his activities, studying the Bible, lifting weights, running 3 miles at a time in the yard at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center, spending time in the law library, watching Chicago sports teams on TV and serving as a jailhouse lawyer for other inmates.
“I didn’t let the time have an effect on me,” he said in April after a judge granted him a certificate of innocence, enabling him to have his conviction expunged from the record and become eligible for up to $170,000 from the state for the wrongful conviction.
At times he regretted his decision not to have taken a plea deal early on, but he said he was confident the truth would win out. He had no idea, of course, that it would take a decade to happen.
He has spent the time since his release trying to get caught up with the outside world — learning to use a smartphone and to text, finding a place to live.
He said he wants to become a lawyer, maybe start a family of his own. But he can’t help but think at times of the life he might have led.
“Dreams were shattered man, no question,” Walker said.