After languishing for 17 years as murder convicts, four Chicago Black men will be granted a new trial and, for some, a new shot at freedom, after DNA evidence pointed toward another suspect and a judge threw out their convictions.
The men, Michael Saunders, 32, Harold Richardson, 33, Terrill Swift, 35, and Vincent Thames, 34, were all just teenagers when they were convicted of the murder of 30-year-old Nina Glover on Chicago's South Side in 1994 after being coerced to admit guilt. The DNA evidence found on the victim’s body pointed to another man, now deceased, who had been connected to a series of violent assaults and murders.
The judge’s decision to overturn the convictions was not only a victory for the men, but has helped to shine a national spotlight on wrongful convictions — a serious issue that has become an endemic problem in Chicago, say advocates. According to the attorney for the men, more false confessions leading to documented wrongful convictions happen in Chicago than anywhere else in the nation.
Although the issue is one that affects Chicago more frequently, African-Americans nationwide suffer disproportionately from wrongful convictions. Overall, in the U.S., of the 273 people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence after a wrongful conviction in the U.S., 61 percent have been African-American, according to the Innocence Project. Many of them were convicted on the basis of eyewitness misidentification.
Still, although the men were unfairly convicted, they are grateful for Wednesday’s ruling, even if it comes seventeen years later.
Swift, who is enrolled in school, told the Associated Press, that the decision was " a step in the right direction," and Thames said he was "just full of joy,” attributing his lack of bitterness to his faith in God.
"We've only seen the tip of the iceberg on DNA exonerations in Chicago — and those are just a tiny fraction of the wrongful convictions," said Bernard Harcourt, a University of Chicago law professor. "The vast majority of wrongful convictions aren't accompanied by DNA evidence. The fact is, our criminal justice system today can only survive on forced pleas and intense coercion. It should not be surprising to anyone that many innocent people are coerced to confess or plead guilty, sadly."
Hartcourt’s sentiments ring true in light of recent events. Wednesday’s exoneration of the four men comes just two weeks after five Black men were cleared of a 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl from the Chicago suburb of Dixmoor. Cook County prosecutors threw out the convictions of the five after DNA linked a convicted rapist to the crime.