Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson  (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Robert Wilson (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Father of three spends a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit

Following a jury trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Kenneth J. Wadas, Robert Wilson was convicted of the attempted murder of June Siler, a 24-year-old white woman, at a bus stop near 29th Street and King Drive the evening of February 28, 1997. For no apparent reason, the man stabbed Siler in the face and neck with a box cutter. She described the man as a black male in his twenties with a mustache and a medium complexion who stood about five feet seven inches and wore black Velcro shoes.

Wilson was arrested the next day at the bus stop where the attack occurred. Although he was 41 years old — almost double the age Siler had estimated — Wilson otherwise fit the general description Siler had provided. At the police station, Wilson was photographed and, from an array of five photographs, Siler identified him. Despite a search of his home, however, police found no black Velcro shoes and no other physical evidence linking him to the crime.

After some 28 hours of intermittent interrogation, Wilson signed a written confession prepared by Assistant Cook County State 's Attorney William J. Healy. According to the confession, Wilson was smoking a cigar when he encountered Siler at the bus stop. “Those things cause cancer,” she told him — a seemingly innocuous remark that somehow offended him, provoking the attack. Based on the confession and Siler's identification, Wilson was charged with the crime.

In the two weeks following Wilson's arrest, within a mile-and-a-half radius of the bus stop where the attack occurred, there were five slashing attacks on white victims by a black man matching the description of the man who attacked Siler. The last of the attacks occurred on March 15, when the slasher was caught by police fleeing the scene. He was identified as Jerryco Wagner, a 21-year-old African American who stood five feet seven inches and — unlike Wilson — was wearing black Velcro shoes. Under questioning, Wagner confessed to the five attacks, saying that God had ordered him to attack the victims because they were white.

It would have been logical, of course, for police to have asked Wagner about the Siler attack, but they apparently did not — or at least there was nothing in the record to suggest that they did. During his confinement, he stabbed a fellow prisoner with a ballpoint pen. Ultimately, he was found unfit for trial and committed to a mental institution. Before Wilson's trial, prosecutors moved to exclude evidence concerning Wagner on the ground that it was irrelevant, despite the similar modus operandi and the fact that he was arrested wearing black Velcro shoes. Judge Wadas, himself a former prosecutor, agreed that the evidence was irrelevant and refused to allow the jury to hear anything about Wagner.

At Wilson's 1999 trial, Healy, the assistant state's attorney who took the confession, testified that it had been voluntary. Wilson, however, took the stand and testified that he had been threatened with beatings by Detective James O'Brien, one of the arresting officers, and that police had refused to give him medication for high blood pressure. Wilson said the story about the cigar smoke was a fabrication by Healy. Healy and O'Brien were called to testify in rebuttal, and both denied any wrongdoing. The jury found Wilson guilty, and Wadas sentenced him to thirty years in prison.

The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the conviction with an unpublished opinion on March 21, 2002. After the Illinois Supreme Court denied leave to appeal, Wilson filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief before Wadas, who dismissed it without a hearing. On June 16, 2005, the Appellate Court affirmed Wadas's denial of the petition, and the Supreme Court denied leave to appeal the following September 29.

Center on Wrongful Convictions staff attorneys Jane Raley and Karen Daniel, assisted by law students Luis Pinedo and Negar Tekeei, filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus on Wilson's behalf on January 13, 2006. The petition argued principally that Wadas erred in refusing to admit the evidence concerning Wagner. In response, the prosecution argued that the evidence of Wilson's guilt was “overwhelming” and, therefore, even if the exclusion was improper the error was harmless because it would not have affected the jury verdict.

In a 42-page opinion granting the writ, Judge Ruben Castillo held on October 20, 2006, that “the error cannot be considered harmless,” and ordered Wilson 's release within 90 days unless the State's Attorney's Office initiates proceedings to retry him.

When Siler learned of the federal court’s decision and the information about Wagner, which had been withheld from her before trial, she immediately recanted her identification of Wilson. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan elected not to appeal Castillo’s decision, and the Cook County State’s Attorney dropped all charges. On December 4, Presiding Cook County Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel Jr. vacated the conviction, and Wilson was released later in the day from the Logan Correctional Center. "I feel blessed; it's one of the happiest days of my life. I'm free from the penitentiary. I can't ask for anything better," Wilson, 51, said after his release.

Attorneys Raley and Daniel, assisted by law student Brian McLain, next filed a clemency petition on Wilson's behalf. On October 30, 2008, Governor Rod Blagojevich granted Wilson a pardon based on innocence.

Judge Castillo's Opinion (pdf)

Chicago Tribune article about June Siler's recantation

Chicago Tribune article about Wilson's Release