Recently the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) played an integral part in yet another exoneration of youth who were wrongfully convicted through false confessions. Robert Taylor, James Harden and Jonathan Barr, all of whom were teenagers at the time they were convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of 14-year-old suburban girl, had their convictions vacated on November 3.
DNA testing linked a serial rapist to the rape and murder and as a result a Cook County Circuit Court judge set aside the convictions of the three men, who were convicted of the crime by false confessions. The State’s Attorney’s Office plans to soon file papers to vacate the convictions of Robert Lee Veal and Shainne Sharp who were also wrongfully convicted of the crime.
In June 1994, before any of the teenagers were tried, the Illinois State Police crime lab identified a lone male DNA profile from sperm recovered from the victim’s body. Even though all 5 defendants were excluded as the source of the semen, the prosecution pushed forward rather than seeking the source of the semen recovered from this young victim. Over the next 2 years, all 3 were convicted, and each was sentenced to at least 80 years in prison. All subsequent appeals were denied, including a post-conviction request for DNA testing.
“It is abundantly clear that overly aggressive police interrogation techniques can cause adults to falsely confess to serious crimes – and when it comes to juveniles, it can happen at a truly alarming rate,” said CWCY project coordinator and staff attorney, Joshua Tepfer. “These techniques don’t only hurt those wrongfully convicted, but as we saw in this case, they allow the real perpetrators to go free and commit other crimes. Hopefully this case will lead the way for much-needed reforms like requiring that all police interviews and interrogations be videotaped in full.”
Taylor was represented by Tepfer, Laura Nirider, and Steven Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth as well as private attorney Jennifer Blagg. James Harden was represented by Tara Thompson of the UChicago Law School Exoneration Project. Barr was represented by Co-Director Peter Neufeld and Staff Attorney Craig Cooley of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.
Through outreach, advocacy, education, and litigation, the Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth seeks to implement policies and practices that will ensure that the evidence used against youth is reliable.
Photo: Center on Wrongful Convictions