A Chicago man was exonerated Wednesday after spending almost three decades behind bars for two 1994 murders — a conviction he and his lawyers claim was based on a false confession he signed after a “grueling, abusive” 14-hour interrogation by three Chicago detectives.
David Wright, 46, was arrested when he was 17 in August 1994 in the slaying of two friends, 16-year-old Tyrone Rockett and 26-year-old Robert Smith. They had been shot in Smith’s backyard after returning from a convenience store. But according to Wright’s lawyers, no forensic evidence linked him to his friends’ killings, and no eyewitness identified him as the perpetrator.
“I was 17. I was a kid. I still had a lot to figure out, and I still have a lot to learn,” Wright told reporters after his conviction was thrown out by Cook County Judge Carol Howard at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Wednesday. “But that don’t make me guilty of a crime.”
After a decade of litigation, Wright was released from prison in September 2022, weeks after his conviction was vacated and shortly before his 46th birthday. Since his release, Wright has been making up for lost time by spending time with his family and studying to take a GED test. On Wednesday, he said it felt good to be exonerated, but that he still has mixed feelings.
“People are going to sit in jail for another 30 years on the credibility of dirty police,” he said. “Now, I understand that everybody’s trying to do their job, I understand everybody is trying to do the best they can. … But unfortunately, their best is not enough when you got people in prison whose families have died and they can’t grieve.”
David Owens, a lawyer with the Exoneration Project, said he was assigned Wright’s case on his first day as an attorney over a decade ago. “It took a long, long way to get here and a lot of litigation,” he told reporters. “And we faced a lot of obstacles at every juncture.”
Lawyers from the Exoneration Project said in a news release that retired Chicago police Detectives James Cassidy, Kenneth Boudreau and John Halloran “have a well-documented pattern and practice of generating false confessions out of the innocent,” conduct that they say has tainted over 40 cases. “The numbers are staggering.”
According to the Exoneration Project, at least 25 people have had their convictions overturned and charges dismissed following convictions based on the three detectives’ conduct; at least 10 people who the officers claimed confessed were acquitted at trial; and in at least eight cases, charges were dropped before trial despite an alleged confession.
Boudreau’s alleged history of obtaining dubious confessions was detailed in a 2001 Tribune series. Over the years, he got confessions from defendants with mental disabilities, a man who was in custody at the time of the slaying and from inmates who were later cleared by DNA evidence.
In 2019, a Cook County judge granted Arnold Day a certificate of innocence for his 1994 conviction in a murder and armed robbery case. Day had long alleged that he was coerced into falsely confessing by Chicago detectives under the command of former police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who was convicted in 2011 after allegations that he and his crew tortured criminal suspects for two decades, coercing dozens of confessions.
The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission reported that, during Day’s interrogation, Boudreau stood by as another detective choked and threatened to throw Day out the window. Day was released after 26 years in prison when special prosecutors dropped charges against him in December 2018.
In 2017, the commission had found credible evidence that Chicago detectives had tortured five people sentenced to lengthy prison terms into confessing to murder. One of the men was Anthony Jakes, who was 15 when Boudreau and another detective allegedly punched and kicked him and threatened to throw him out a window during a 16-hour interrogation for a 1991 armed robbery and slaying, according to the commission’s report.
Without a parent or lawyer present, Jakes signed a four-page confession to the slaying. Jakes was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison and was paroled in 2017. He was present at Wright’s hearing Wednesday. Boudreau has repeatedly denied ever beating a single suspect he questioned over his lengthy career.
Testifying in a 2000 federal lawsuit, Cassidy denied that he threatened or coerced an 11-year-old boy into confessing the murder of an 84-year-old woman in 1993. The boy said years later he didn’t kill the woman and only confessed under duress.
Cassidy’s methods of interrogation have come under scrutiny since 1998 when he said two boys, ages 7 and 8, admitted throwing a rock and killing 11-year-old Ryan Harris. Murder charges against the two were later dropped after forensic tests linked the crime to Floyd Durr, a convicted sex offender, who later plead guilty to the murder.
Cook County will conduct an audit of investigations involving Cassidy, Boudreau and others stemming from the wrongful convictions of the Englewood Four — Terrill Swift, Harold Richardson, Michael Saunders and Vincent Thames — who were convicted of raping and killing a South Side woman in 1994 and cleared when DNA evidence linked the crime to a convicted killer.
A Cook County judge found that Halloran and another officer under Burge’s supervision tortured Marcellous Pittman in 2001, when he was 18, over a shooting that injured a police officer. Like Jakes, Pittman was present at Wednesday’s hearing where Wright was exonerated.
According to Exoneration Project lawyers, “appellate courts have recognized, again and again, that the mountain of evidence of systemic abuse by these detectives warrants relief” for people such as Clayborn Smith and George Anderson — who remain imprisoned.
Smith was convicted in the 1992 murders of his grandfather and great aunt, and in 2011 submitted a claim to the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, saying that his confession was false and the product of physical abuse at the hands of Boudreau, Halloran and another detective.
And just a few weeks ago, an Illinois appeals court ordered new trials for Anderson — who had been convicted of killing an 11-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl in 1991 — because they found his claims of being tortured into confessing were credible. Anderson accused Boudreau, Halloran and another detective of beating him into confessing to the slaying of the boy. Both Boudreau and Halloran have taken the stand to deny the allegations against them.
“Yet, the state of Illinois continues to stand behind these officers,” the Exoneration Project news release said. “The state could have confessed error in these cases long ago, but they drag on, causing further harm to those wrongfully convicted, the families of crime victims, and the taxpayers of Cook County.”
“This is why we’re not excited,” Owens, Wright’s attorney, said. “We’re not jumping up and down, having a party, because systemic change is impossible until they admit what happened.”
Exoneration Project lawyers have pointed out that the justice system has been undoing some of the harm caused by alleged misconduct of Chicago police, such as in the case of disgraced former Sgt. Ronald Watts and former Detective Reynaldo Guevara.
In an unprecedented move in August, judges overturned seven murder convictions in a single day — all tainted by Guevara’s alleged misconduct, which reportedly included manipulating witnesses and fabricating evidence. Similarly, in October, a judge threw out convictions of eight people with cases connected to Watts.
But it’s still not enough, lawyers from the Exoneration Project say.
“Meanwhile, the state stands behind the conduct of white detectives whose misconduct was arguably more pervasive,” the Exoneration Project news release said.
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Family of Robert Smith, one of the 1994 murder victims, was present in the courtroom Wednesday. Sabrina Morgan, his sister, drove from Wisconsin with her mother and another sister to attend the hearing. She said her mother had only been notified of the possible dismissal of charges Sunday night.
“They have every right to wonder what happened. Who’s the person who did this? That person is still out there,” Owens said. “That’s another trauma from the system, is that those families, their grief is incomplete.”
Friday marked the 29th anniversary of the double murder, Morgan said, which meant that a lot of feelings have come flooding back for her family.
“There’s no winners,” Morgan said. “Now what? (Wright) was sentenced to life in prison. Be that as it may, there’s no one being punished, no one serving time for my brother’s and Tyrone’s deaths.”
As for what’s in store for the three retired detectives, Owens said it’s hard to tell what will happen.
“Political winds have to change for them to be charged. And that’s essentially what it is: Is there political will for cleaning house when it comes to corrupt officers, or are you gonna be held hostage by the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police)? That’s a question for somebody else,” he said.
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