Sammie Garrett

After his murder conviction, forensic evidence emerged showing that the victim had committed suicide

After a bench trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, Sammie Garrett, a 21-year-old black man, was convicted in 1970 of the murder of Karen Thompson, a 28-year-old white woman with whom he had been having an affair. He was exonerated six years later based on evidence that Thompson had committed suicide.

Garrett and Thompson, both of whom were married with children, began their affair in August 1969 after meeting in an evening class at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights. The following November 9, Garrett appeared at a City of Chicago police station, saying that the night before he and Thompson had checked into the Ford City Motel under phony names. They smoked marijuana and drank alcohol until he fell asleep. When he awoke in the morning, Thompson was lying in a pool of blood, a shotgun by her side, although he had not heard a shot.

The motel was in the jurisdiction of the Cook County Sheriff's Police, who were notified immediately. Within minutes, sheriff's officers were at the motel, where, in Room Five, they found Thompson's body and a note saying, "I killed myself, Karen." There was no shotgun, but Garrett directed officers to it, saying he had hidden it in panic. When asked where the shotgun had come from, he claimed to have found it in an alley shortly before his rendezvous with Thompson. The claim seemed dubious, but it was corroborated by several witnesses; perhaps, in retrospect, it was simply too preposterous to have been made up.

The day after the body was found, Edward J. Shalgos, a pathologist in the Cook County Coroner's Office, performed an autopsy. Two days later he wrote a report saying that Thompson had died of a shotgun wound to the head and that, because there were no powder burns on the body, the shot had to have been fired from at least four feet away. Thompson, therefore, could not have committed suicide and prosecutors accordingly charged Garrett with murder and armed violence.

When the case came to trial in April 1970 before Judge Philip A. Romiti, the prosecution conceded that Thompson had signed the suicide note but theorized that Garrett had fired the fatal shot. Shalgos, the pathologist, testified — unequivocally — repeating his assertions in the autopsy report that death resulted from a shotgun wound to the head and that there were no gunpowder burns. He then added that he had removed Thompson's palate and tongue — "merely because of a desire for ultra thoroughness" — and sent it to a state toxicologist, Frank F. Fiorese, for analysis. Fiorese's analysis, Shalgos said, was consistent with the opinion he had just expressed regarding the fatal wound.

Seymour D. Vishny, Garrett's privately retained lawyer, had not sought an independent expert opinion and either failed to read, or failed to understand, Fiorese's report, which in fact contradicted Shalgos's testimony. Instead, the report indicated that Thompson had died from a shot fired through the roof of her mouth, exiting through her skull. The mode of death, thus, was consistent with suicide. Fiorese, however, was not called to testify, apparently because Garrett's lawyer somehow was led to believe that the toxicology results fortified Shalgos's opinion.

When the prosecution rested, Vishny made a perfunctory motion for a directed verdict of acquittal, which Romiti quickly denied. Vishny then rested the defense case without calling a single witness. Romiti proceeded to find Garrett guilty and sentence him to 20 to 40 years for murder and one to five years for armed violence, the terms to be served concurrently.

In 1972, two years after the conviction, Cook County Public Defender James J. Doherty and a top assistant, Matthew J. Beemsterboer, read Fiorese's report and, realizing its ramifications, filed a petition asking Romiti to set aside Garrett's conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Romiti denied the petition without a hearing. After a series of drawn-out appeals, however, the Illinois Supreme Court on November 26, 1975, remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing and ordered Garrett freed on bond pending the hearing.

After the Supreme Court denied a request to reconsider on January 11, 1976, denied a request to reconsider, prosecutors dropped the charges against Garrett, thereby avoiding a hearing at which Doherty and Beemsterboer would have had an opportunity to explore the circumstances behind Shalgos's apparent perjury for the prosecution.

Garrett filed a federal civil rights suit seeking damages for malicious prosecution, but it was dismissed in 1980. He received no compensation from the state, and there was no investigation into official wrongdoing in the case.

— Dolores Kennedy and Rob Warden