Stanley Howard

The Supreme Court found the evidence "overwhelming", but Governor Ryan found otherwise

Stanley Howard was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of Oliver Ridgell, who was shot to death three years earlier during an alleged armed robbery as he sat in a parked car on the south side of Chicago in the company of a woman with whom he purportedly was having an affair.

The conviction rested on a confession obtained by police officers working under Area 2 Commander Jon Burge, who would be fired nine years later based on an internal investigation concluding that he and various subordinates had systematically tortured prisoners, and on eyewitness identification testimony by Tecora Mullen, the woman who had been in the car with the Ridgell.

Howard, 21, was arrested six months after the crime as a suspect in an unrelated crime that occurred 14 months earlier — the armed robbery of two Chicago police officers. He was not questioned about the Ridgell murder until two days after his arrest when Area 2 officers noticed, or so they would testify, that he fit the description of the killer provided by Mullen. Until Howard's arrest, Mullen's husband had been the prime suspect.

After lengthy questioning by Area 2 detectives James Lotito, Ronald Boffo, and Robert Dwyer and Sergeant John Byrne, the felony watch coordinator, Howard signed a confession. The next day, Howard told a paramedic who examined him at the Cook County jail that the confession had been beaten out of him. The paramedic, Wayne Kinzie, noted bruises and abrasions on Howard's left leg and chest but could not say what had caused them.

A grand jury indicted Howard for both the murder of Ridgell and the earlier robbery of two Chicago police officers, Margaret Hall and Robert Hanley. The cases were tried separately before Circuit Court Judge John J. Mannion, himself a former Area 2 police officer.

First tried was the armed robbery case, which rested primarily on the testimony of an Area 2 detective, Daniel McWeeny, who claimed that Howard admitted robbing the officers, even though McWeeny made no record of the alleged confession.

The only other evidence against Howard was the testimony of a woman named Donita Washington, who claimed that Howard robbed her shortly before the officers were robbed. Howard was not charged with robbing Washington, but Mannion allowed her testimony ostensibly to show modus operandi. Washington's assailant took her car, which was similar to the car used by the man who robbed the officers. Also, her description of the man who robbed her and the officers' description of the man who robbed them were said to be similar, as was the handgun used in the crimes.

Although Washington was quoted in a police report as saying that she had not seen her assailant's face, she positively identified Howard in court and told the jury, "I can never forget someone who sticks a gun in my side." When Howard sought a delay to locate the officer who wrote the report, Mannion refused, and the jury did not hear about the contradiction. Howard was convicted, and Mannion sentenced him to 28 years in prison.

At the ensuing trial for the Ridgell murder, Howard moved to suppress his confession, asserting that he had been tortured, but Mannion denied the motion. Other than the confession, the only evidence against Howard was Tecora Mullen's identification testimony, which the defense contended she might have fabricated to protect her husband. The jury returned a guilty verdict and found nothing in mitigation sufficient to preclude the death penalty. Accordingly, Mannion sentenced Howard to death.

The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed Howard's conviction for robbery of the two officers, People v. Howard, 169 Ill. App. 3d 536 (1988), and the Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and death sentence for the Rigdell murder, People v. Howard, 147 Ill. 2d 103 (1991).

In the latter case, the Supreme Court held that constitutional error had occurred at the trial when the prosecutor told jurors they had heard nothing "from the witness stand" to contradict Howard's confession. However, the court said the error was harmless because "the evidence of the defendant's guilt was overwhelming."

On January 10, 2003, Governor George H. Ryan granted a pardon to Howard based on innocence in the murder case. However, Howard still stood convicted in the armed robbery case, for which he faces imprisonment until 2023.

Case Data

Jurisdiction: Cook County, Illinois
Date of crime: May 20, 1984
Date of arrest: November 1, 1984
Charge: Murder and attempted armed robbery
Sentence: Death
Release date: January 10, 2003
Months wrongfully incarcerated: 218
Date of birth: November 6, 1962
Age at time of arrest: 21
Gender: Male Race: African American
Age(s) of victim(s): 41
Gender of victim(s): Male
Race of victim(s): African American
Defendant's prior felony record: He had been convicted of a 1981 theft and sentenced to two days in jail. After his arrest on November 1, 1984, he was convicted of a series of crimes he steadfastly denied committing, including the armed robbery of two police officers and an aggravated kidnapping and rape.
Known factors leading to wrongful conviction: False confession (obtained by torture), erroneous eyewitness identification, and prosecutorial misconduct.
Did an appellate court ever affirm conviction? Yes.
Exonerated by: Gubernatorial pardon Compensation for wrongful imprisonment: Pending

— Rob Warden