James Harden

Co-defentants’ false confessions implicated him in rape-murder

James Harden and four co-defendants—known collectively as the Dixmoor Five—were falsely convicted of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, even though DNA testing had eliminated each of them as the source of semen recovered from the victim before they were convicted.

After serving a total of 95 years behind bars, all five were exonerated in 2011 after the DNA profile of the semen recovered from the victim was run through the National Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and the source was identified as Willie Randolph, who, at the time of the crime, was 33 years old, lived in the victim’s neighborhood, and was on parole after serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery.

In June 2014, with Randolph still at liberty and not charged, the Illinois State Police settled civil rights cases brought on behalf of the Dixmoor Five for $40 million—an Illinois record. The state police had investigated the case with the Dixmoor Police Department, against which civil claims remained unresolved.

The 14-year-old victim in the case, Cateresa Matthews, had been missing for 20 days when her body, naked from the waist down, was found on December 8, 1991, on a path running along I-57 in Dixmoor. She had been raped and shot in the mouth with a .25-caliber weapon.

State and local police had no significant leads in the case until 10 months after the crime, when 15-year-old Keno Barnes allegedly reported that an acquaintance, Jonathan Barr, had confided that he had seen Cateresa getting into a car with Robert Taylor and Robert Lee Veal. Barr, Taylor, and Veal were all 14 at the time of the crime.

On October 29, 1992, police brought Veal in for questioning. After more than five hours of interrogation outside the presence of his parents or counsel, he signed a handwritten statement implicating himself, Taylor, Veal, and two other youths—Harden and Shainnie Sharp, both 17—in the rape and murder. Later the same day, Taylor signed a handwritten statement, also outside the presence of his parents or counsel, implicating himself and all four of the others in the crime. Two days later, fter more than 21 hours in custody, Sharp also signed a handwritten statement implicating himself and the others.

In June 1994, while the five awaited trial, the state police crime laboratory identified a lone male DNA profile from sperm recovered from Cateresa’s body that matched none of the five. Nonetheless, police and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office proceeded with the prosecution based on the three confessions—even though the confessions contradicted each other regarding material facts about the crime.

Doubting the veracity of the confessions, Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Arthur Rosenblum denied a prosecution motion to transfer the cases of Barr and Taylor to adult court, only to be reversed in March 1995 by the Illinois Appellate Court, with an opinion written by Judge David Cerda holding that Rosenblum had abused his discretion in denying the motion.

Veal and Sharp pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received 20-year sentences — with parole available after seven years — in exchange for agreeing to testify against Harden, Taylor, and Barr.

Harden and Taylor were tried together before Judge Paul Nealis, convicted, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Barr was tried separately before Nealis, convicted, and sentenced to 85 years. All of their appeals were denied, including a post-conviction request for additional DNA testing.

In August 2009, Harden, Taylor, and Barr’s pro bono attorneys— Tara Thompson of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project for Harden; Joshua Tepfer, Steven Drizin, and laura Nirider of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth for Taylor; and Chicago attorney Jennifer Blagg together with the New York-based Innocence Project for Barr—renewed the effort to obtain new DNA testing.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Michele Simmons ordered the testing, but for more than a year the Dixmoor police claimed that they were unable to locate the evidence. They finally found it—but only after Judge Simmons ordered them to allow the defendants’ attorneys to inspect the department’s evidence storage areas and log books.

In March 2011—after the new testing, which produced the profile that led to the identification of  Willie Randolph as the probable killer—Judge Simmons vacated the convictions of Harden, Taylor, and Barr. On November 3, 2011, the State's Attorney's Office dismissed all charges against all of the defendants.

Harden, Taylor, and Barr were released that day. Veal had been released in 2002, after serving his prison term, and was living in Minnesota. His conviction was vacated on December 12, 2011. Sharp's conviction was vacated on January 4, 2012, but he was in prison in Indiana as a result of a drug conviction until he was paroled in February 2012.

All of the defendants except Sharp applied to the Circuit Court for certificates of innocence, which were granted, qualifying each for approximately $200,000 in compensation under the Illinois Court of Claims Act.

—Rob Warden