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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

13 Going On 30: Illinois Man Becomes Youngest Person In The U.S. To Be Wrongfully Convicted And Exonerated

More than 16 years ago, 13 year old Thaddeus Jimenez was arrested for a street gang murder on Chicago's Northwest side. At the time, the judge sentenced him to 50 years imprisonment, describing Jimenez as a "little punk, probably too young to shave, but old enough to commit a vicious murder." The judge was wrong. On May 1, Jimenez became what his lawyers say is likely to be the youngest person in U.S. history to be wrongfully convicted of a crime and exonerated after Cook County Criminal Court Judge Joseph Claps vacated Jimenez's conviction and released him at the age of 30.

The murder for which Jimenez was convicted happened Feb. 3, 1993, when 19- year-old Eric Morro was gunned down as he walked east in the 3100 block of West Belmont with a 14 year-old friend. Jimenez was identified within hours as the one who fired the gun and was convicted twice of Morro's murder: in 1994 and in 1997In 2005, attorneys and students from the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions and attorneys from Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP began to reinvestigate Jimenez's case, and when two key witnesses recanted their statements that Jimenez fired the fatal shot, the group in August 2007 contacted the state's attorney's office, which opened its own investigation.

That investigation led to the arrest of suspected shooter Juan Carlos Torres, and, eventually, Jimenez's exoneration. But this was not the first time that the police, the prosecution, and the court were aware of Torres. Instead, at the time of Jimenez's convictions, "there was substantial evidence" that Torres had committed the murder with which Jimenez was charged. That evidence consisted of Torres' confession to a witness named Ezequiel (and may have also included Torres' tape recorded confession to the crime although I'm not sure when exactly it was recorded) The jury, however, never heard about those confessions at either trial.

Why? Well, let's look at the 1996 opinion of the Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, Fifth Division, in People v. Jimenez, 672 N.E.2d 914 (Ill.App. 1 Dist. 1996), which reversed Jimenez's conviction before Jimenez was convicted again in 1997. That court reversed Jimenez's conviction because "the trial court committed reversible error by refusing to ask prospective jurors whether defendant's gang affiliation would prevent them from giving defendant a fair trial." As part of that appeal, Jimenez also asked the court to deem Ezequiel's confession admissible on remand, but the court disagreed, noting that the confession was hearsay and that the court could not determine whether the confession qualified as a statement against interest.

The court began by laying out Illinois precedent on the statement against interest exception to the rule against hearsay, and, well, it is muddled. Basically, Illinois applies some version of Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3), which provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for

A statement which was at the time of its making so far contrary to the declarant's pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far tended to subject the declarant to civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid a claim by the declarant against another, that a reasonable person in the declarant's position would not have made the statement unless believing it to be true. A statement tending to expose the declarant to criminal liability and offered to exculpate the accused is not admissible unless corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement.

Exactly what version of this Rule Illinois courts apply is a matter of considerable uncertainty, as I noted in a post last July (The big problem is that Illinois does not have codified rules of evidence, but we're working on it. I just finished a 100 page document comparing each Federal Rule of Evidence to its counterpart in Illinois case law, statutes, etc. for the Supreme Court of Illinois, which is in the process of developing Illinois Rules of Evidence). But what is clear is that Illinois requires some type of corroborating circumstances to allow for the admission of a statement against interest, and that is where Jimenez ran into a problem.

Jimenez actually had a witness named Victor Romo (it's unclear whether he is related to Ezequiel) testify that Torres killed the victim, which the court found provided some corroboration for Torres alleged confession. But the problem for Jimenez was that his

offer of proof provided no details of the confession, except that Torres admitted the shooting. This confession may not incriminate Torres, if he also reported details that make the shooting constitute self-defense. The lack of detail concerning, for example, Torres' appearance, makes impossible the determination of the extent to which the alleged confession corroborates the testimony of the other eyewitnesses. Defendant in the offer of proof also gave no indication of the nature of the relationship between Torres and Ezequiel Romo, and Romo's unspecified questions may deprive the confession of spontaneity.

The court did find, though, that "[o]n remand, defendant may present in full the circumstances surrounding Torres' statements for an evaluation of their trustworthiness." Unfortunately, I haven't been able to track down anything after this opinion to see what Jimenez presented at his subsequent trial, so I can't say whether the judge acted correctly on retrial. 

-CM

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