Jason Strong was released from Illinois’ Menard Correctional Center on May 28, 2015, after 15 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. His release came after the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim agreed they had no objection to the granting of Strong’s federal habeas petition.
On December 9, 1999, the body of an unidentified young woman was found beaten to death in a forest preserve in Waukegan, Illinois. Ten days after the body was discovered, the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force questioned Jeremy Tweedy, Jason Johnson, and Jason Strong. The men confessed to beating the victim in Strong’s room and van. All three later recanted their confessions, and no physical evidence collected from the room or van ever connected them to the crime or the victim.
Strong’s conviction rested principally on the connection the State was able to draw between Strong’s false confession and incorrect assumptions made by the State’s forensic pathologist, Dr. Mark Witeck, who performed the autopsy on the victim. The State argued that the victim died from blunt force head injuries less than twelve hours before the body was found. Dr. Witeck also testified that the victim showed signs of having been burned by a hot liquid and whipped near the time of death. Strong, in his statement to police, claimed he inflicted some of these injuries with hot wax the night before the body was found. The State elicited additional testimony that Strong inflicted patterned, loop-shaped marks throughout the victim’s body with a fishing downrigger. Strong was convicted of murder in 2000 and sentenced to 46 years in prison.
In 2006 the victim was identified as Mary Kate Sunderlin, a developmentally disabled woman who lived in Kane County Illinois, 35 miles from where her body was found. Around the time of her disappearance it was known that Sunderlin had come under the influence of two women whom authorities had accused of exploiting the disabled. In 1999, under the influence of these women, Sunderlin cut ties to her family and married Gonzalo Chamizo. Chamizo was a friend of the women, and was mentally ill with a history of violence.
Tom Geraghty was appointed in 2007 by Judge Matthew Kennelly to represent Jason Strong on the issue of whether Strong should be allowed to file a late petition for habeas corpus. After being appointed, Tom and his students became aware of Strong’s innocence claim based upon the then newly discovered evidence regarding the identity of the victim. Faculty and students analyzed police reports and re-interviewed witnesses who testified at trial. In 2013, the Illinois Attorney General and the Lake County State’s Attorney agreed to re-investigate the case, leading to depositions of key state’s witnesses (who recanted their trial testimony) and the discovery of previously unexamined medical evidence regarding the Lake County coroner’s death investigation. Three medical experts retained by the Clinic and by the State analyzed the autopsy photos and tissue slides: Dr Shaku Teas, Dr. William Oliver, and Dr. Larry Blum. They found that the victim had died days before the discovery of her body and that many of her injuries were weeks or months old and consistent with chronic abuse. Thus, the new expert reports demonstrated that the “confessions” by Jason Strong and two other co-defendants were demonstrably false.
In December 2014, Strong’s attorneys made a detailed presentation of the new evidence of Jason Strong’s innocence to attorneys from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, attorneys from the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, and to members of the Lake County Conviction Review Panel. Clinic faculty member Maria Hawilo, who led the re-investigation of the forensic evidence, Judy Royal of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, clinic alumni David Luger, and Brian Nisbet, who began working on the case in 2008 when they were students at Northwestern Law, made presentations at this unprecedented meeting.
On May 28, 2015, following the unopposed grant of federal habeas relief, the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against Strong. Jason Strong was released from the Menard penitentiary later the same day.