DNA Evidence Casts Doubt on 1997 Convictions

Criminal convictions can be overturned, even decades later. Sometimes the convicted individual can prove that he or she was denied his or her constitutional rights during the trial process. Sometimes new evidence surfaces. For example, Instead of linking Nevest Coleman with the 1994 rape and murder of his acquaintance, recently-discovered DNA evidence indicates that a different person, a known serial rapist, may have been the culprit.

Several weeks after 20-year-old Antwinica Bridgeman attended her birthday party and subsequently disappeared, Mr. Coleman and his friend found her body in the basement of Mr. Coleman’s small building. After questioning, Mr. Coleman confessed to the crime and implicated two other men. One of them, Darryl Fulton, was also convicted of rape and murder in the same 1997 trial. Prosecutors based their entire case on the confession and the fact that the young woman’s body was found in Mr. Coleman’s basement. His attorney has argued that the confession was involuntary and that the abandoned basement was freely accessible from the outside and routinely used “for who knows what.” At the time of his trial, Mr. Coleman was a Comisky Park groundskeeper who had no criminal record. Years later, preliminary DNA testing revealed that the flesh under the victim’s fingernails belonged to an unidentified serial rapist who was active in that area at that time.

During a hearing, the judge, who sentenced Mr. Coleman to life in prison, refused to grant him bail while prosecutors conducted more tests because the victim was found in Mr. Coleman’s Englewood building.

Reopening Criminal Cases

In several recent posts, we have looked at some high-profile resentencing situations and emphasized that the attorney must not attempt to re-try the case, no matter how attractive this idea seems, because such an approach almost always fails. Reopening the case is a different ballgame that usually falls under Section 122 of the Illinois Code of Criminal Procedure. To re-open proceedings, the defendant must establish a “substantial” violation of constitutional rights. Generally, petitions based on new evidence must show two basic elements:

  • The newly discovered evidence might well change the outcome of the trial, and
  • The evidence was unavailable at the first trial.

Other grounds for new trial include verdicts which were unsupported by the evidence and improper conduct that prejudiced the jury against the defendant or otherwise affected the trial’s outcome.

Evidence in Criminal Cases

It is not easy to reopen cases if juries have already reviewed the evidence and rendered verdicts accordingly. So, the defense at trial must be as aggressive as possible because second chances in criminal court are few and far between.

Confessions are coerced if officers use excessive force or improper tactics in obtaining these confessions. Classic rubber hoses and hot lights torture cases are rare, but some relevant factors include:

  • Location: It is easier to intimidate suspects at the station house than it is in their homes, on the street, or in other places.
  • Miranda Warnings: Improper warning cases are rare, but they still pop up from time to time, largely in situations involving defendants with limited English proficiency. Lack of warning does not automatically invalidate the confession, but it comes pretty close.
  • Outside Contact: The old “one phone call” bit from the movies is not an absolute right, but denial of contact with friends, family, or an attorney is a factor in determining the confession’s voluntariness.
  • Who Started it: Here, we do not mean the fight. We mean who initiated the dialogue, because people who voluntarily come to police have a harder time proving coercion.

Other factors include the defendant’s age, health, and prior dealings with the criminal justice system.

Count on Tenacious Lawyers

At either trial or reopening, an aggressive defense is key. For a confidential consultation with an experienced criminal law attorney in Schaumburg, contact Glasgow & Olsson.

(image courtesy of Drew Hays)

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