Lloyd Eldon Miller Jr.

Prosecutorial misconduct led to Lloyd Miller's wrongful conviction for the murder of a child

Lloyd Eldon Miller Jr., a 29-year-old cab driver with no prior criminal record, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1956 in Hancock County, Illinois, for the murder the previous year of 8-year-old Janice Elizabeth May, whose battered body was found in an abandoned rail car near her home not far from Burlington tracks in the town of Canton. Miller faced seven execution dates — coming within eight hours of execution once — before he was exonerated 15 years later.

The conviction rested primarily on a confession that prosecutors persuaded the trial judge had been voluntarily signed. Miller claimed he signed the confession, which had been written out by a police officer, because police threatened him with the death penalty if he refused to sign it. No one seriously questioned the veracity of the confession, which seemed to have been corroborated by ample physical evidence. The most crucial piece of evidence was a pair of undershorts that Miller supposedly admitted were his and that the prosecution said were stained with blood.

Appellate lawyers hoping only to save Miller from execution soon discovered troubling facts about the prosecution case. Initially, they noted, the confession was inconsistent with known facts of the crime — an issue that Miller's trial counsel had neglected to explore. Miller's landlady, who had not testified at the trial, told the appellate lawyers that Miller had been asleep at home when the crime occurred, and it turned out that the jockey shorts were too small for Miller.

The bombshell, however, was that the stain on the shorts that the prosecution had allowed the jury to believe was blood actually was paint. Moreover, the police and prosecutors had known all along that the stain was paint because the state crime laboratory had so reported.

After Miller won a federal writ of habeas corpus, essentially exonerating him, the prosecution dropped all charges in 1971.

The Illinois State Bar Association, which at the time handled attorney disciplinary matters, undertook an investigation of prosecutorial misconduct in the case. However, the association found no grounds for action. Its report noted that the prosecution had not actually said that the stain on the shorts was blood; rather the stain had been referred to in Miller's so-called confession as blood. By remaining silent on the issue, the prosecution merely allowed the jury to assume that the stain was blood. "The presence or absence of blood on the shorts," said the disciplinary committee, "was not a material question in the case."