Prosecutors dropped charges after — months after DNA linked a reputed drug dealer’s murder to someone else
After more than seventeen years behind bars for a murder he did not commit, Chicagoan Alprentiss Nash was exonerated in 2012 based on DNA testing of a ski mask worn by the killer and abandoned near the crime scene.
A search of the Illinois DNA database determined that skin cells on the mask came from Demetrius Loggers, a recidivist felon who currently is nearing completion of a 2009 sentence for possession of cocaine; he will be eligible for release in November 2012. Despite the DNA evidence, he has not been charged with the murder.
The victim, Leon Stroud, a 53-year-old reputed cocaine dealer and cigarette bootlegger, was shot to death in his home on the south side of Chicago on April 30, 1995. An eyewitness, Paul Harris, told police that a man in a ski mask burst into the house, demanding money. When Stroud resisted, the man fired a shot into the floor, grabbed Stroud's wallet, and darted for the door. Stroud pursued him. Harris said he heard a gunshot, but did not see the shooting. The gunman fled, discarding the ski mask on a nearby fence post, where police recovered it.
Matthew Rollins, a neighbor of Stroud's, reported seeing two men enter the house shortly before the shooting. Rollins said that he had seen the men in a gangway down the street a little earlier, and that he knew one of them — Alvin Wyatt. Police promptly arrested Wyatt, who, after briefly claiming that he was not involved in the crime, confessed to participating — and named Nash as the masked gunman.
Wyatt said he and Nash had planned the robbery, thinking that Stroud would have a large amount of cash. Nash, 20, was arrested later the same day. He was carrying $200 in cash. Rollins identified him in a lineup as the man he had seen with Wyatt in the gangway before the crime. Harris, who claimed that he had gone to Stroud's house to buy one cigarette because he had only 25 cents, identified Nash by his voice.
After charging Wyatt and Nash with murder, armed robbery, attempted armed robbery, and home invasion, prosecutors offered Wyatt a deal under which he would be sentenced to ten years in prison if he would plead guilty to attempted armed robbery and agree to testify against Nash. With day-for-day good time and credit for time served, Wyatt would be eligible for release in three years. He took the deal.
In January 1997, Nash went on trial before a jury and Cook County Circuit Court Judge Ralph Reyna. Rollins, Harris, and Wyatt testified for the prosecution. There was no physical evidence linking Nash to the crime. Two bullets had been recovered at the crime scene — the one that killed Stroud and one that the gunman fired into the floor — but they were of no evidentiary value because no weapon was recovered. Although forensic DNA testing had been in use for more than eight years by the time of the trial, the mask was not tested for DNA.
Nash testified, professing innocence. He said that the $200 he was carrying came from the sale of drugs earlier that day — to none other than the prosecution witnesses. At the time of the crime, he said, he had been shopping at the Maxwell Street open-air market, where he bought some clothes, but he had no receipts to corroborate his alibi.
On January 17, 1997, the jury found Nash guilty, and on March 12 Reyna sentenced him to 80 years in prison — consecutive terms of 60 years for murder and 20 years for armed robbery and home invasion. Nash had prior convictions for drug offenses and violating probation, but he had no record of violence. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the conviction with an unpublished opinion in 1998.
While that appeal was pending, the Illinois General Assembly passed and Governor Jim Edgar signed a law establishing the right of convicted persons to obtain post-conviction DNA testing in cases where test results would be materially relevant to a claim of actual innocence. Nash, however, did not learn of the law until years later. In 2007, he filed a pro se motion in the trial court asking that the ski mask be tested.
Because Judge Reyna had retired, the case was assigned to Judge Nicholas Ford. Although the law guaranteed the right to the testing when relevant, as it was in Nash's case, prosecutors under then-Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine opposed the motion — and Ford denied Nash's motion.
Nash appealed, the Appellate Court assigned a lawyer to represent him — David Harris, of the Office of the State Appellate Defender, who prepared a petition clearly laying out the law on DNA testing, building on Nash's credible pro se work. In response, the Appellate Court ordered the requested testing, noting that the evidence against Nash at trial had been "substantially impeached” and that a favorable test result would "significantly advance" Nash's claim of innocence.
After the DNA testing excluded Nash as the source of skin cells recovered from the mask, Kathleen Zellner, a veteran defense lawyer, entered the case. She requested additional DNA testing, which prosecutors, under State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, did not oppose. The result not only was exculpatory of Nash — it also established that skin cells came from Loggers, who had been paroled from prison shortly before the crime.
Even then, prosecutors under Alvarez continued to insist for months that the DNA results did not clear Nash. In June 2012, Zellner was quoted by Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Dan Hinkel as complaining,"They've got an exclusion. They've got the profile of the real killer. And they're horsing around with it." On August 30, prosecutors finally agreed to vacate the conviction and drop all charges. Nash was released from custody the next day.
— Maurice Possley and Rob Warden