Dana Holland

Dana Holland (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Dana Holland (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Exonerated after serving 10 years of a 118-year sentence for two wrongful convictions

By the time of his release — June 6, 2003 — Dana Holland, 35, had served more than a decade behind bars as a result of wrongful convictions for two separate crimes. One of the crimes was a rape, of which he was absolved by DNA. The other was an armed robbery and attempted murder in which he became a suspect only because of his arrest for the rape he did not commit.

The crimes occurred two weeks and a block apart in an alley on the south side of Chicago in 1993. Holland received sentences totaling 118 years — consecutive terms of 30 years for each of three counts in the rape case and 28 years in the armed robbery and attempted murder case.

The armed robbery and attempted murder

Shortly before 4 a.m. on February 8, 1993, Ella Wembley — bleeding from slash wounds to her face and neck — flagged down a police squad car near 79th Street and Ashland Avenue. She was taken by ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital, where her wounds were closed with stitches.

Wembley, 38, told police she had been picked up by two men in a car near 76th and Halsted streets around 3:30 a.m. and taken to an alley off 78th Street near Paulina Avenue, where the men tried to rape her. When she resisted, she said, both men beat her, and one slashed her with a box cutter.

The rape case

Two weeks later, early the morning of February 22, police were summoned to an alley off 77th Street near Paulina, where a woman was being raped. When officers entered the alley, a noticeably pregnant woman jumped out of a 1981 white Oldsmobile and ran toward them. A man jumped out of the car and ran the opposite direction. One of the officers gave the victim a coat and seated her in the back of the Oldsmobile.

The other officer chased the fleeing man, but lost sight of him. The officer then followed footprints on the snow-covered ground to an apartment building at 7821 S. Paulina, where he saw Dana Holland putting some things into a garbage can. Inside the building, police found a pair of wet gym shoes that appeared to match the footprints in the snow.

Holland was taken into custody. The victim, Dionne Stanley, 22, initially said Holland was not the man who attacked her, but minutes later said he was the man after all. As a result, he was charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault.

Police impounded the white Oldsmobile, in which an officer found a cloth wallet belonging to Ella Wembley the following day. The car was owned by Gordon Bolden, Dana Holland's uncle, but was registered to Jerald Bolden, another nephew of Gordon Bolden. All three of the men lived at 7821 S. Paulina.

On March 6, 1993, Wembley identified Holland, 25, and Gordon Bolden, 31, as her attackers. Both men then were charged with armed robbery and attempted murder.

The armed robbery and attempted murder trial

Twenty-three months later, in February 1995, Bolden and Holland waived a jury and went on trial together before Cook County Circuit Court Judge David A. Erickson for the armed robbery and attempted murder of Ella Wembley.

Wembley testified that, as she waited for a bus near the corner of 76th and Halsted at about 3:30 a.m. on February 8, 1993, two men pulled up in a car. Wembley said the passenger in the car got out and forced her into the front seat, holding a box cutter to her throat. When they stopped in the alley near 78th and Paulina, she escaped from the car. The men caught her, however, and beat her in an effort to force her back into the car. When she continued to resist, the man with the box cutter slashed her face and neck.

Despite her injuries, Wembley got away and ran three blocks to 79th and Ashland, where she hailed the squad car and was taken to the hospital. Both in the March 6 lineup and at the trial, she identified Bolden as the driver and Holland as the passenger with the box cutter.

Bolden did not testify, but Holland took the stand and denied having anything to do with the Wembley attack, which he said had been committed by Bolden and someone else. Holland pointed out that he had become a suspect in the Wembley attack only because of his arrest two weeks later for raping Dionne Stanley. He claimed that semen recovered from Stanley was not his, but rather was Bolden's.

In closing, the prosecution argued that the evidence purporting to connect Holland to the rape corroborated Wembley's identification. There was nothing, however, to corroborate her identification of Bolden. As a result, Judge Erickson found Bolden not guilty and Holland guilty, saying:

"[W]hen you have a case such as this, and there's only one witness . . . the Court must look to corroboration to then substantiate whether or not the evidence against the defendant, single witness testimony, can be corroborated by other facts and circumstances. [T]he only evidence that lies against Mr. Bolden is the testimony of [Wembley] . . . and it stands with no corroboration, either circumstantial corroboration or hard evidence, factual corroboration."

In convicting Holland, Judge Erickson said: "I find there's considerably more corroboration for the case against Mr. Holland than there was against the case of Mr. Bolden. The circumstances of the arrest of . . . Mr. Holland lead circumstantially and add circumstantial corroboration to [Wembley's] testimony that this man, Mr. Dana Holland, was the one that was in that car. . . . [F]ound in that vehicle is the wallet that was . . . taken from [Wembley], and that completes the circle. [T]hat certainly adds circumstantial evidence, the circumstance web around Mr. Holland.

Holland protested that Bolden could "clear me out of this," pleading with Bolden to speak up. On advice of counsel, however, Bolden stood mute. As deputies led Holland from the courtroom, he continued to plead with Bolden. "This is my life," said Holland. On March 24, 1995, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison for the armed robbery and attempted murder of Ella Wembley.

Deceitful forensic report by Pamela Fish

Seven months after Holland was sentenced in the Wembley case, Pamela Fish, a Chicago police crime laboratory analyst, filed a report stating that the quantity of the semen recovered from Dionne Stanley was insufficient for DNA testing.

The material, however, was suitable for testing with 1993 DNA technology, known as PCR (for polymerase chain reaction). PCR already had resulted in the exoneration and release of 15 innocent men in the United States, including two in Cook County — Gary Dotson and Steven Linscott, both of whom were convicted of crimes they did not commit as a result, in part, of forensic deceit.

Holland's rape trial

Holland waived a jury and went on trial for rape before Circuit Court Judge Themis N. Karnezis in April 1997. After Karnezis denied a defense request for a delay to obtain private DNA testing of the seminal evidence, Fish's false contention that the sperm sample was too small to test was introduced at the trial by stipulation.

Dionne Stanley, who after the crime gave birth to a healthy child and moved to Milwaukee, was a reluctant witness. Because she would not appear voluntarily to testify against Holland, prosecutors had her arrested and jailed as a material witness to compel her testimony. By the time she finally testified, she had been in custody 30 days. Conceding that she initially had said Holland was not the man, Stanley proceeded to identify him in court as the man who raped her three times.

By now, the prosecution of Gordon Bolden for the rape was barred by the statute of limitations, then three years but since eliminated in DNA cases. No longer in jeopardy, Bolden now provided the testimony that he had been advised by counsel not to provide in the Wembley case two years earlier. On the stand, Bolden stated that he had had sex with Stanley, although he claimed it was consensual. He also testified that the wet gym shoes police found immediately after the crime were his.

Holland testified that he was awakened about 6 a.m. on February 22, when Bolden came into the apartment building. Holland gathered up some garbage in his room and took it outside, where police spotted him and took him into custody.

The prosecutor, Assistant State's Attorney Lauren Freeman, branded Holland's and Bolden's testimony "absolutely preposterous" and accused them of making a "mockery of this court."

After finding Holland guilty, Karnezis sentenced him to 30 years in prison on each of the three counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault. Karnezis directed that the sentences be served consecutively, beginning upon the completion of the 28-year-sentence imposed in the Wembley case two years earlier.

Center on Wrongful Convictions accepts case

After his convictions and sentences were affirmed by the Illinois Appellate Court without published opinions in 1999 and 2002, Holland wrote to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law asking for help.

After an investigation by a team of Northwestern law students — Annie Jerris, Anne Hunter, Brian Dunn, John Capone, Greg Swygert, Steve Heiser, Ashley Brandt, Erin Smith, and Jacquie Johnson — Center staff counsel Karen Daniel filed a motion seeking DNA testing.

On July 30, 2002, Judge William S. Wood entered an agreed order for the testing, to be performed by Orchid Cellmark of Germantown, Maryland.

DNA exonerates Holland of the rape

Orchid Cellmark DNA analyst Kristin D. Koch reported on September 23, 2002, that she had excluded Dana Holland as the source of the sperm sample recovered from Dionne Stanley.

Koch's report refuted Pamela Fish's 1995 claim that the seminal sample had been too small to test.

By now false forensic testimony by Fish had been exposed in several other cases in which DNA led to exonerations. Her most notorious fabrication was largely responsible for the wrongful convictions of four youths — Marcellius Bradford, 17, Omar Saunders, 18, Larry Ollins, 16, and Calvin Ollins, 14 — in the 1986 rape and murder of Chicago medical student Lori Roscetti.

On January 30, 2003, after additional DNA testing established that Gordon Bolden was the source of the biological material recovered from Dionne Stanley, prosecutors belatedly conceded Holland's innocence in the rape case and Circuit Court Judge James B. Linn vacated that conviction. On February 11, Linn granted Holland a new trial in the Wembley case. Prosecutors refused to drop the charges, even though the only evidence against Holland was Wembley's uncorroborated identification testimony — which Judge David Erickson had held insufficient to support a guilty finding against Gordon Bolden in 1995.

Holland was the 131th person in the nation, and the 19th in Illinois, to be exonerated since the dawning of the DNA forensic age in 1989.

Bolden says Holland not involved in Wembley crime

Meanwhile, Gordon Bolden provided an affidavit to the Northwestern team saying he had been the driver of the car involved in the Wembley case and that Dana Holland was not involved. In the affidavit, dated November 8, 2002, Bolden said his companion in the crime had been a man named Darrell, whose last name he believed to be Tate. Subsequently, in an interview with Assistant State's Attorney Mark Ertler and others, Bolden said the name was Darrell Taylor.

Taylor, it turned out, was by now in jail in Indiana, where a colleague of Ertler's interviewed him. Taylor denied participating in the Wembley crime and denied even knowing Gordon Bolden. In a subsequent interview with a defense investigator John Rea, however, Taylor while still denying the crime, admitted knowing Bolden.

Ertler arranged for Wembley to view a lineup in which Taylor was included. Ertler later testified that he did not tell Wembley the purpose of the lineup. Rather, he said, she was asked only whether she recognized any of the men. She said she did not. Ertler also testified that neither he, nor anyone else from the State's Attorney's Office, sought to question Taylor about the crime, despite Taylor's admission to Rea that he had lied about knowing Gordon Bolden.

Motion to suppress the identification testimony

Daniel filed a motion asking Linn to suppress the identification, given that it stemmed from Holland's arrest for the rape that DNA proved he did not commit.

On April 30, 2003, Daniel called Dionne Stanley to testify at a hearing on the motion. Stanley, now 32, testified that, after initially stating that Holland was the wrong man, she said otherwise after officers told her that his shoes matched the footprints the rapist left in the snow. She continued that she did not want to testify at Holland's trial because she thought he was innocent, but agreed to do so after she was arrested and held as a material witness.

Stanley alleged that before the trial the prosecutor, Lauren Freeman, showed her photographs of Holland and Bolden, and that she told Freeman that it had been Bolden — not Holland — who raped her. Thereupon, said Stanley, Freeman told her that DNA tests left no doubt that Holland was the rapist, adding that DNA had implicated him in other rapes as well.

Linn denied Daniel's motion, saying he did not believe Stanley.

A few hours after Linn ruled, the prosecution asked to supplement the record by calling Freeman to rebut Stanley's testimony. At the reopened hearing on May 2, Freeman denied both showing Stanley a photograph of Bolden and telling her that DNA had implicated Holland.

Freeman claimed that she could not have shown Stanley a Bolden photograph because "he was never even mentioned until he testified for the defense" at the rape trial. Linn accepted Freeman's representation, even though Holland had flatly asserted at the trial of the Wembley case two years earlier that it was Bolden who had raped Stanley. Moreover, Bolden's name was on the witness list for the rape trial.

When Freeman finished testifying, Linn said: "Okay. I will incorporate this testimony into the motion that was already heard. This fortifies the court's finding that Ms. Stanley was not a credible witness at the motion, particularly regarding that which happened in preparation for trial. I find Ms. Freeman to be far more credible."

Wembley's testimony at the retrial

Holland's retrial for the Wembley crime opened on June 4, 2003, before Linn. The prosecutor was Assistant State's Attorney Walter Hehner. Holland was represented by Karen Daniel, of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and Thomas Geraghty, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern School of Law.

Ella Wembley testified on direct examination that at the time of the crime she lived near 48th Street and Elizabeth Avenue. On the afternoon of February 7, 1993, she went to a baby shower near 76th Street and Parnell Avenue, where she fell asleep on a couch and did not awaken until about 3 a.m. on February 9. Because she had to get home to get ready to leave for work at 5:30 a.m., she walked to the nearest all-night bus stop at 76th and Halsted. She was employed as a telephone receptionist at the Board of Education.

At about 3:30 a.m., two men whom she did not know pulled up in a beige car. The man on the passenger side asked if she would like a ride. When she declined, the passenger got out, ostensibly to use a public phone behind the bus stop. Moments later, he grabbed her from behind and, holding a box cutter to her throat, forced her into the front seat of the car. He climbed into the backseat, still holding the box cutter to her throat. They drove into the alley paralleling Paulina off 78th Street, where the driver pushed her head into his lap and declared, "You're a bitch. We're going to rape you."

With the box cutter no longer at her throat, she managed to kick open the passenger door and escape from the car. The men caught her and began beating her. The passenger threatened to cut her throat unless she got back into the car. She refused, and the passenger slashed her with the box cutter. She finally managed to get away, and ran to 79th and Ashland, where she flagged down a police squad car and was taken to Holy Cross Hospital for treatment of the wounds to her face and neck.

She described her attackers as African Americans, adding that the passenger, whom she identified in 1993, in 1995, and now in court as Dana Holland, had lighter skin than the driver, whom she identified in 1993 and 1995 as Gordon Bolden. She said the sun was just coming up as she struggled with the men, and she got a good look at them.

On cross examination, Geraghty asked if she recalled testifying in 1993 that, "We was in a dark alley." She said she did not recall. Geraghty also asked if she had told police at the time of the crime that she was unemployed, was on public assistance, or that she had been using the public phone at 76th and Halsted rather than waiting for a bus. She denied ever having said such things.

Officer contradicts Wembley

Marshall Raymond, one of officers whom Wembley flagged down at 79th and Ashland, testified that Wembley described the man who slashed her as having a medium complexion and weighing 160 pounds. Raymond continued that she said the other participant in the crime, the driver of the car, had a darker complexion and was heavier. Raymond also said that Wembley said the car involved was a brown Chevrolet.

On cross examination by Daniel, Raymond testified that, contrary to Wembley's testimony, the sun was not coming up — it was dark. Also, Raymond said she told him she was unemployed, contrary to her later claim that she worked as a telephone receptionist the Board of Education.

Motion for directed verdict

When the state rested, Daniel asked for a directed verdict of not guilty, pointing out that Wembley's descriptions of the attackers called her identification of Holland into serious question.

Most significantly, both originally and in the testimony she had just given, she said the driver — Boland — was the darker and heavier of the attackers. In fact, Holland's and Boland's complexions were similar — if anything, Holland was the darker of the two — and Holland outweighed Boland by 24 pounds at the time of their arrest.

Additional doubt was cast on the accuracy of her account by her descriptions of the car used in the crime — she initially described it as a brown Chevrolet and had just testified that it was beige, but it unquestionably was a white Oldsmobile — and by her assertion that the sun was coming up at the time of the attack, which occurred before 3:40 a.m. in February.

Linn denied the motion for a directed verdict.

The defense case

The first defense witness was the defendant, Dana Holland, who asserted his innocence, as he had done at the first trial. Holland also testified that he knew Darrell Taylor, the man with whom Gordon Bolden claimed to have committed the Wembley crime. Taylor had lighter skin that Bolden and, because Taylor was taller, appeared slim in comparison, according to Holland.

On cross examination, Walter Hehner asked whether Holland was employed at the time of the crime. Holland said he was employed but could not recall exactly where, or the name of the company, or the name of his supervisor. Holland said that after his arrest, he had told his lawyer that he might have been at work when the Wembley crime occurred, but the lawyer checked and determined that he had not been at work. The point of Hehner's line of questioning was not apparent, since Holland had not asserted an alibi defense at either trial.

The only other witness called by the defense was Gordon Bolden, who after avoiding prosecution for the Wembley and Stanley crimes went on to commit a series of felonies, including vehicular invasion and armed robbery.

Bolden testified that, shortly after his arrest for the Wembley crime in 1993, he told his lawyer that he had committed the crime not with Holland but with "a person named Darrell." Because Bolden was on trial himself for the crime, however, he followed his lawyer's advice not to testify, even though his innocent nephew was in jeopardy of being convicted of a crime he did not commit.

According to Bolden, he and Taylor saw Wembley not waiting for a bus but rather talking on the public phone at 76th and Halsted. They stopped and asked if she was "dating" and, after she responded affirmatively, she got into the front seat of the car. They then bought some crack cocaine, over which they got into a dispute in the alley. When she jumped out of the car, said Bolden, he and Taylor both beat her and Taylor slashed her with the box cutter.

On cross examination, Hehner hammered away at the fact that Bolden initially had given the last name of his cohort in the crime as Tate, rather than Taylor. Bolden responded that Tate and Taylor were one and the same.

Near the conclusion of Bolden's testimony, the court reporter's machine malfunctioned. As a result, Linn adjourned court for the day.

When the trial resumed the next day, June 5, Daniel read a stipulation that Wembley had testified at a preliminary hearing in 1993 that the car involved in the crime was dark colored, and the defense rested.

In rebuttal, Hehner recalled Wembley to the stand, whereupon she denied both being a prostitute and using narcotics.

Closing statements

In closing, Daniel basically repeated the points she had made in support of the motion for a directed verdict, emphasizing that Holland had to be innocent if, as Wembley had consistently stated, the man who slashed her was the lighter of the attackers, in skin tone and in weight.

Hehner argued in closing that Bolden's testimony was a belated attempt to help his guilty nephew, when the statute of limitations barred prosecution of Boland for the crime he was purporting to admit. Hehner also contended that Boland's testimony corroborated Wembley's account and therefore — somehow — corroborated her identification of Holland. In conclusion, said Hehner, "lightning struck once" when Holland was exonerated of the rape of Dionne Stanley. For Holland also to be exonerated of the Wembley crime would be tantamount to lightning striking twice. "Lightning does not strike twice," he said.

The acquittal

Judge Linn ruled from the bench, beginning by saying that there was no doubt in his mind that Wembley was attacked in the manner she described. He almost immediately signaled where his soliloquy was heading by noting that the case against Holland was one of those known in the vernacular of the criminal courts as "a single finger," meaning that the prosecution relied solely on the testimony of one witness.

While Wembley had been a compelling witness, Linn continued, "from my own eyes I cannot say" that Holland is lighter skinned than Bolden. Holland had been "a reasonably good witness," said Linn, but Gordon Bolden "was a difficult person to accept."

Linn continued that it was "bordering on the reckless" for the Northwestern attorneys to present Dionne Stanley's claim that Laurie Freedman had lied to her.

In pointedly blaming Stanley, and only Stanley, for Holland's conviction in both cases, Linn ignored the role of Pamela Fish, the Chicago Police forensic analyst who originally declared the seminal evidence in the rape case insufficient for DNA analysis. In fact, Linn seemingly absolved Fish of responsibility by stating — incorrectly — that the technology that exonerated Holland of the rape was not available at the time of the wrongful conviction.

Linn announced the verdict of acquittal shortly before 1:30 p.m. For the next three hours, Holland's lawyers, several of the students involved in his case, various members of his family, and a sizeable media contingent awaited his release from the Cook County Jail.

Shortly after 4 p.m., the media learned that Holland's release had been delayed because the Cook County Department of Corrections claimed not to have received official notification of his exoneration in the rape case the previous January 30.

As a result, Holland was forced to spend one more night — his 3,756th — behind bars for a crime he did not commit.


            On January 6, 2005, Governor Rod Blagojevich granted Holland a pardon based on innocence and four months later the Illinois Court of Claims awarded Holland $138,000 for his wrongful imprisonment—roughly $37 for each day he languished behind bars for crimes he did not commit.

            Holland filed suit against the city of Chicago and the police officers who arrested him—Timothy Cullinan and Nancy Piekarski—for malicious prosecution, but U.S. District Court Judge James B. Zagel dismissed the case on November 2, 2009, granting a defense motion for summary on the ground that the officers had probable cause to arrest Holland.

            At Holland’s behest, the Center on Wrongful Convictions took on the representation of his former cellmate, Christopher Coleman, who was exonerated in March 2014 after serving nearly two decades behind bars for an armed home invasion and related crimes in Peoria County.

— Rob Warden