preservation of evidence
The government has a duty to preserve certain types of evidence it collects during criminal investigations and prosecutions. This duty exists in order to protect a defendant’s rights to due process and a fair trial under the 6th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The government has a duty to disclose evidence it will use against the defendant at trial, as well as any evidence that is favorable to the defendant. The duty to preserve evidence begins once any state agency or actor has gathered and taken possession of evidence as part of a criminal investigation.
the "ford heights four"
In 1978, on an early May morning, a recently engaged couple was abducted from a gas station in the predominantly white Chicago suburb of Homewood. The next day, their bodies were found across town in Ford Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood. Both victims were shot, and the female victim Carol Schmal had been raped. A man who lived near the murder scene named Charles McCraney reported a tip, leading to the arrest of four African-American men who later came to be known as the Ford Heights Four. Verneal Jimerson, Dennis Williams, Kenneth Adams, and Willie Rainge were all in their early twenties at the time they were accused of this horrendous crime. Paula Gray, a 17-year-old, was also brought in for questioning.
The Cook County Sheriff's officers held Paula Gray for two days without a lawyer, and she eventually confessed that she was at the scene of the crime. In her confession, Gray also placed the four other suspects at the crime scene, stating that all four of them had raped Schmal and that Williams shot both victims with a .38 caliber pistol.
However, when the trial began Gray recanted her testimony at a preliminary hearing, claiming that she was drugged by the police officers who showed her around the crime scene and told her what to say. Jimerson's case was then dismissed but the prosecution of the other three men continued. Gray was also charged with murder and perjury following her testimony. Paula Gray was sentenced to 50 years, Adams was sentenced to 75 years, Rainge was sentenced to life, and Williams, the alleged shooter, was sentenced to death.
Four years later in 1982, Willaims and Raign won new trials on the basis that they shared a lawyer with Gray. However, the prosecutors made a deal with Gray, promising her release if she testified again against Williams and Rainge and also if she testified against Jimerson whose case had been dismissed in a previous trial. Jimerson was sentenced to death, Williams and Rainge were once more sentenced to death and life in prison, respectively.
A key piece of evidence that was used to convict the Ford Heights Four in their second trial was the testimony of jailhouse informant, David Jackson. However, in 1994, David Jackson submitted an affidavit recanting his testimony. Along with Gray, prosecutors offered Jackson a deal on the charges he was facing at the time, leading to his false testimony.
With a complete lack of credible evidence against Jimerson, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed his convictions and the state attorney's office agreed to DNA testing. Around the same time, journalism students from Northwestern University found a police file during their investigation. A witness who lived near the crime scene came forward to the police, stating that they had arrested the wrong men. He heard shots, saw the four men running from the crime scene, and also saw them selling the victims items the next day. This report was filed within a week of the crime, yet it was never turned over to defense and it was never followed through by the police.
By this time, nearly two decades later, one of the men implicated by the witness was already dead, and the other three actual perpetrators eventually confessed to committing the crime. The DNA evidence that was preserved and later tested, corroborated the perpetrators' confessions and the Ford Heights Four were released in 1996. They were later awarded a 36 million dollar settlement, which was at the time the largest civil settlement in US history.
The DNA testing conclusively established the innocence of these four men. As DNA technologies improve, the opportunities to restore justice to the wrongfully convicted has improved as well -- but only if the evidence is properly preserved and available for retesting. It is estimated that nearly 20 percent of all exonerations are made possible with DNA evidence and without DNA evidence, it is possible for innocent people to spend decades behind bars because of the carelessness and misconduct of others. Visit our page on prosecutorial misconduct to learn more about this justice issue. Also, check out some of the resources below to learn more about the preservation of evidence.