Madison Hobley

Madison Hobley (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Madison Hobley (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Pardoned based on innocence in concocted confession case

Madison Hobley was one of 14 African American men sentenced to death based on confessions — alleged or acknowledged — obtained by a group of Chicago police officers later shown to have engaged in systematic torture of suspects in criminal cases.

Four officers claimed Hobley admitted setting a fire that claimed the lives of his wife, infant son, and five other persons early the morning of January 6, 1987, at an apartment building in the 1100 block of East 82nd Street in Chicago.

When the fire broke out, Hobley, 26, escaped the flames without shoes and wearing only underwear. He consistently maintained his innocence, alleging that the officers tortured him and — when that failed — fabricated a confession.

In addition to Hobley's wife, Anita, 21, and their 15-month-old son, Philip, the fire victims were Schalise Lindsey, 7, Shelone Holton, 23, Johnnie Mae Dodds, 34, Anthony Bradford, 36, and Robert Stephens, 40.

The alleged confession

The morning after the fire, two Area 2 police detectives, Robert Dwyer and James Lotito, found Hobley at his mother's home about a mile from the fire scene. Dwyer and Lotito claimed that Hobley voluntarily went with them to Area 2 headquarters and then to central police headquarters at 1121 South State Street — where, they said, he confessed.

Hobley denied not only that he confessed but also that he had any choice about going with Dwyer and Lotito. He claimed that Dwyer handcuffed him to a wall ring at Area 2 and beat him, after which he was taken downtown, where he was handcuffed to a chair and kicked by Sergeant Patrick Garrity. Then, according to Hobley, Dwyer, Lotito, and Detective Daniel McWeeny suffocated him with a plastic typewriter cover until he blacked out.

The officers' testimony

At Hobley's jury trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Christy Berkos in 1990, the prosecution case rested primarily — although not entirely — on the testimony of the four officers, all of whom denied abusing Hobley in any way. They claimed that Hobley had twice been advised of his right to remain silent and to consult a lawyer but that he elected to waive his rights and proceeded to confess.

According to the officers, Hobley related that he went to a filling station with a can, bought a dollar's worth of gasoline, went home, emptied the can into the hallway outside his third-floor apartment and down the stairwell, ignited the gasoline with a match, and threw the can down in the second-floor hallway. This he did, it was alleged, that he might start a new life with a woman with whom he had recently had an affair.

There was no record of the purported confession. Dwyer said he took notes on Hobley's confession, but threw them away after something was spilled on them. "Quite frankly they were soaking wet," he testified. "You know, ink was running on them." Garrity testified that he also took notes, but they indicated only that Hobley made "admissions."

The alleged gasoline purchase

The prosecutors — Assistant Cook County State's Attorneys George Velcich and Paul Tsukuno — presented two witnesses purporting to link Hobley to the purchase of a dollar's worth of gasoline, in a can, at an Amoco station in the 8300 block of South Cottage Grove Avenue less than an hour before the fire.

Andre Council, a customer at the station, testified that he stood five feet from the man as he pumped the gasoline. After the man paid for the gasoline and left, Council said he visited with the attendant, Kenneth Stewart, for 30 to 45 minutes before fire trucks went roaring past.

A little later, Council said he went to the fire scene, about half a mile from the station, where he saw the man whom he had seen buy the gasoline. The next day, Council continued, he saw a photograph of Hobley on television and recognized him, whereupon Council called the police.

Steward, the station attendant, testified that a man had bought a dollar's worth of gasoline while Council was at the station. At a lineup the day after the fire, however, Stewart initially failed to identify Hobley. After officers pressed him to identify someone, Stewart responded that Hobley "favored" the man who bought the gasoline, but added that he was not certain.

Purported physical corroboration

To corroborate Hobley's alleged confession and other aspects of the prosecution theory of the crime, Velcich and Tsukuno introduced into evidence a two-gallon gasoline can that another Chicago Police Detective John Paladino testified he discovered at the fire scene.

Detective Virgil Mikus, a Chicago police detective who testified as an arson expert for the prosecution, told the jury that a burn pattern on the floor in front of the Hobley apartment indicated that gasoline had been poured there. Mikus acknowledged that tests showed no traces of gasoline in the area — but claimed it must have been washed away by water firefighters used to extinguish the fire.

Sentence and appeals

When the jury found nothing in mitigation sufficient to preclude imposition of the death penalty, Berkos sentenced him accordingly and, in 1994, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Hobley's conviction and death sentence, calling the evidence "overwhelming." People v. Hobley, 159 Ill. 2d 272 (1994).

The following year, Hobley's appellate attorneys — Professor Andrea Lyon, of the DePaul University College of Law, and Kurt H. Feuer, of Ross & Hardies — filed a petition for post-conviction relief in the Circuit Court alleging that the authorities had illegally withheld a forensic report stating that the gasoline can introduced into evidence at the trial had been examined for fingerprints and that Hobley's were not on it. During the trial, Velcich and Tsukuno had denied the existence of such a report.

More important, Lyon and Feuer alleged that the authorities had withheld a group of reports showing that police had recovered a second gasoline can at the scene of the fire and had destroyed it. The implication of these reports was not only that the fire had been set by someone other than Hobley but that the can introduced at the trial had been planted to corroborate Hobley's alleged confession.

Circuit Court Judge Dennis J. Porter, however, drew no such inference. He denied Hobley's petition without a hearing.

In 1998, the Supreme Court found the new evidence sufficiently troubling to reverse Porter and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing. "At defendant's trial, the defense theory was that another person had started the fire," said the court. "The negative fingerprint report and the existence of a second gasoline can found at the fire scene certainly would have offered concrete evidentiary support to that defense theory." People v. Hobley, 182 Ill. 2d 404 (1998).

The evidentiary hearing

On May 31, 2002 — two years and two days after the Supreme Court ordered the evidentiary hearing — Judge Porter complied.

The hearing dragged on intermittently for more than two years, during which, in addition to documenting the withheld exculpatory evidence, Lyon and Feuer showed that Andre Council, the principal witness who linked Hobley to the purchase of gasoline before the fire, had himself been a suspect in an arson that occurred on March 17, 1987.

At this point, former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge was commander of the department's bomb and arson unit. He issued an order waiving a fingerprint check for Council and releasing him on a personal recognizance bond. This was six years before Burge would be fired for torturing suspects while working in various capacities at Area 2.

Evidence was presented indicating that the jury had been intimidated. A group of jurors having dinner while sequestered reported that they were taunted by other diners, "You know he's guilty," "Give him the death penalty," and "Hang the motherfucker." Also, during deliberations, the jury foreman, a suburban police officer, placed a revolver on the jury table and proclaimed, "We'll reach a verdict."

The evidence supporting the claim that the gasoline can introduced at the trial had been planted was presented by an arson expert retained by the defense — Russell Ogel, of Packer Engineering, Inc. He testified that the can bore no signs of exposure to extreme heat that destroyed other items in the area where it purportedly had been found; not even the plastic cap on the can had been damaged.

Ogel also testified that — contrary to the prosecution expert's contention at Hobley's trial — there was no evidence of burn patterns on the third floor of the building. Rather, said Ogel, tests showed that the fire started in a stairwell lower in the building.

Porter found the new evidence unpersuasive. On July 8, 2002, he denied Hobley a new trial saying, "There is no showing the favorable evidence could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict."

Pardon based on innocence

Lyon and Feuer appealed and filed a petition seeking a full pardon based on innocence with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which conducts hearings on such requests and makes confidential recommendations to the governor.

On October 18, 2002, the board heard Hobley's petition, and on January 9, 2003, Governor George H. Ryan granted the pardon. "Madison Hobley was convicted on the basis of flawed evidence," Ryan said. "He was convicted because the jury did not have the benefit of all existing evidence, which would have served to exonerate him."

Case Data

Jurisdiction: Cook County, Illinois
Date of crime: January 6, 1987
Date of arrest: January 7, 1987
Convicted of: Seven counts of felony murder, one count of arson, seven counts of aggravated arson
Trial judge: Christy Berkos
Prosecutor(s): George Velcich, Paul Tsukuno
Sentence: Death
Release date: January 10, 2003
Months wrongfully incarcerated: 204
Date of birth: July 7, 1960
Age at time of arrest: 26
Gender: Male
Race: African American
No. of victims: 7
Age(s) of victim(s): See below
Gender of victim(s): 4 female (ages 7, 21, 23, 34), 3 male (ages 15 months, 36, 40)
Race of victim(s): African
Defendant's prior felony record: None
Known factors leading to wrongful conviction: Alleged confession, police misconduct (Brady violation), junk science, use of incentivized witness, ineffective assistance of counsel, jurors subjected to outside influences
Did an appellate court ever affirm conviction? Yes
Exonerated by: Gubernatorial pardon
Compensation for wrongful imprisonment: Pending

— Rob Warden