Johnnie Lee Savory

Johnnie Lee Savory (Photo: Center on Wrongful Convictions)

Johnnie Lee Savory (Photo: Center on Wrongful Convictions)

Johnnie Lee Savory believes that DNA testing proves him innocent

On August 6, 2013, a Peoria County judge ordered DNA testing in the case of Johnnie Lee Savory, a CWC client who languished behind bars for more than two-thirds of his life—from age 14 to age 44—before he was released on parole in 2006. In ordering the testing, Judge Stephen A. Kouri wrote that it “has the potential to produce new, materially relevant evidence” in the case, adding: “This is an opportunity the legal system . . . has to utilize today’s technologies to make sure justice was and/or is done.”

Savory was twice convicted of the murders of siblings James Robinson Jr., 14, and Connie Cooper, 19, who were found stabbed to death in their Peoria home on January 18, 1977. The first conviction rested almost entirely on an alleged confession that the Illinois Appellate Court threw out in 1980 on the ground that the confession had been involuntary.

In the face of the Appellate Court's holding, then-Peoria County State's Attorney John Barra was quoted by the Peoria Journal Star as saying that without the confession "there is no substantial evidence to tie Savory to the crime or the scene of the crime [and] I don't know how it would be possible to try him without it."

Barra soon changed his mind, however, deciding to try the case again based on statements attributed to Savory by three of his acquaintances—siblings Ella, Frankie, and Tina Ivy. The Ivys claimed that Savory had made statements to them indicating that he had committed the murders. The retrial was moved to Lake County, where Savory was convicted in 1981. Since then, the Ivy siblings have on various occasions recanted their testimony. Moreover, at a hearing following the second trial, one of the original prosecutors—Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Gibson—testified that prosecutors had chosen not to present the Ivys' testimony in 1977 because it was "too shaky."

The only evidence other than the illegally obtained confession and the Ivys' testimony was inconclusive. It included the alleged murder weapon—a knife found in Savory's possession bearing then-untestable trace amounts of blood; a pair of bloodstained pants several sizes too large for Savory seized from his home; and several hairs found at the murder scene said to microscopically resemble Savory's hair.

In 1998, shortly after the Illinois General Assembly enacted a law giving convicted defendants the right to test physical evidence relevant to claims of actual innocence, Savory's then-lawyers filed a motion for DNA testing of the bloodstained pants. The blood was of a type shared by Savory, the victims, and, importantly, Savory's father, Y.T. Savory, who had suffered an injury consistent with the positioning of the blood and who had testified he used the knife to undo the stitches.

The then-attorneys attempted to supplement the motion with a request to test fingernail scrapings from Connie Cooper. The scrapings previously had been thought to be of no evidentiary value. That request was rejected by the Peoria County Circuit Court, and the testing of the pants ultimately was denied by the Illinois Supreme Court, which held that the bloodstain was only "a minor part of the State's evidence."

Since then, however, advances in DNA technology have made additional DNA testing possible. After numerous requests, Savory was granted leave to conduct DNA testing in 2013, and based on the results, Savory has filed a petition requesting a new trial. On April 2, 2015, Savory's legal team, led by CWC attorney Josh Tepfer, began presenting evidence in support of this request.