Keith Harris

Mistaken eyewitness and ineffective defense cost him 25 years of his life

On December 4, 1978, two armed African-American men invaded a filling station in Caseyville, Illinois near East St. Louis, and demanded all the cash on hand. After the attendant, Mark Resmann, gave them about $200, one of the robbers began firing. Resmann suffered seven gunshot wounds, but survived.

In the ensuing weeks, police showed Resmann seven photo arrays. From the seventh, he identified Keith Harris, of Belleville, as the man who shot him. By the time Harris was arrested on January 19, 1979, however, it had become rather obvious that the crime was but one of a series of such crimes in the vicinity — seven in all. The only thing that distinguished the Caseyville crime from the others was that the victim survived. Not only was the modus operandi the same, but ballistics tests showed that Resmann and the six victims who died all had been shot with the same weapon.

Harris’s family paid $5,000 to a private lawyer who met with him the first time on the eve of the trial. Had the lawyer done an investigation, he would have discovered that the crime spree had not stopped with Harris’s arrest. There had been four additional murders, bringing the death toll to ten. Nonetheless the trial proceeded, Resmann identified Harris in court, and the jury deliberated only minutes before finding him guilty. St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge John J. Hoban sentenced him to 50 years.

What Harris would not know for years to come was that the authorities had ample reason to doubt his guilt before his trial. In 1979, Richard Holman and Girvies Davis confessed to all of the murders and the Ressman crime. Harris did not learn of the confessions until two decades later when a former Illinois State Police investigator, Alva Busch, brought the case to the attention of the Downstate Innocence Project. Based on the project’s reinvestigation of the case, Governor George H. Ryan granted Harris a pardon based on innocence in 2003.

— Rob Warden