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PLN Exclusive: Illinois Prisoner Exonerated, Released after Ten Years

The lies of Chicago police officers, as well as the concealment of clearly exculpatory evidence, kept Jermaine Walker in Illinois prisons for ten years – but he never stopped proclaiming his innocence. Plainclothes officers contended that on February 21, 2006, at approximately 8:30 p.m., they saw Walker hand cash to another individual in an alley in what they said was an illicit drug transaction.

Walker maintained that a video security camera on a building at the site of the alleged drug sale had recorded his confrontation with the arresting officers, Eric Reyes and Sebastian Flatley, and would prove he had committed no crime. Police officials and an investigator with the State’s Attorney’s office, Thomas Finnelly, asserted there was no security camera; based on their statements, the court declined to appoint an investigator to help Walker prove the camera and video footage existed. At trial, prosecutors introduced photos of the alleged crime scene, taken by Finnelly, that were carefully staged to avoid showing the presence of any security camera.

In fact, during closing arguments the prosecutor told the jury, “If there was a camera, do you think this defendant and his brother would be stupid enough to deal drugs in front of it? Come on. Don’t you think that they would pick another alley? Get real.”

Convicted of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school and sentenced to 22 years in prison, Walker never gave up his quest to prove his innocence over the next decade.

He filed a motion asking the trial court to reconsider the judgment, again asserting there was a security camera that would prove his innocence and arguing that the police officers and investigator had lied under oath. His motion was denied, as was another motion to reconsider the judgment, a motion for a new trial and a direct appeal. The Illinois Court of Appeals noted that evidence presented at trial – the false testimony and staged photos – had established there was no security camera in the alley.

However, Walker’s persistence led the Cook County Public Defender’s office to push for his exoneration. Following evidence presented during a post-conviction petition, Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack – who was not involved in the original trial – admitted that the “security camera was, indeed, where Mr. Walker said it was,” and that “the pictures that were shown at trial were of a different part of the alley....”

The State’s Attorney’s office conducted an investigation into allegations that the police officers and investigator who testified at trial had lied under oath in order to wrongfully convict Walker. Based upon that investigation, and the efforts of Cook County Public Defender Ingrid Gill, who filed Walker’s post-conviction petition, his conviction was vacated during a court hearing on March 25, 2016. To its credit, the State’s Attorney’s office then moved to dismiss the charges.

 “[T]his is how cases should work, both the State and the attorney for the petitioner in any type of wrongful conviction. It should be a joint effort to seek the truth,” Gill stated.

Circuit Court Judge Catherine Haberkorn, a former prosecutor, expressed her disgust with the State’s Attorney’s investigator and police officers involved in Walker’s trial who had presented false testimony.

“Well, obviously, there were witnesses that were sworn under oath that testified and presented evidence corroborating their testimony. And when someone has taken an oath to tell the truth and testifies, there is a presumption they are going to tell the truth,” Judge Haberkorn stated, according to a transcript of the hearing.

“Obviously, we have found out that that does not occur. A severe injustice was done here.... and it is very disturbing and upsetting, especially as a judge, to be involved in a system where an officer, especially an officer of the court, would come in and swear under oath to something that was not true. That’s a terrible thing and very disheartening to find out that someone has done something like this,”

Addressing Walker, she added, “It’s really outrageous that police officers and an officer of the State’s Attorney’s office swore under oath here and actually backed it up with photographs that didn’t even fit the relevant situation that we had in your case, and you know, on behalf of the entire system, I am so sorry that this has happened to you, and we hope that this, you know, does not ever happen again.”

Walker was released directly from the courtroom; his prison clothes were given to the guards who had transported him to court. Judge Haberkorn also criticized state prison officials, saying, “we have been having difficulty with Illinois Department of Corrections in honoring any of my orders.... They need to honor the Court orders, which they have been acting like they don’t have to. They certainly do.”

Six days after his release, Walker, who had subscribed to Prison Legal News while incarcerated, contacted PLN and provided documentation regarding his wrongful conviction. According to a statement announcing Walker’s exoneration, the Cook County Public Defender’s office wrote, “This is why we have to keep fighting, now and forever.”

On April 13, 2016, Walker filed a petition for a Certificate of Innocence, which, if granted, will allow him to collect damages for his wrongful conviction and 10 years of imprisonment under Section 2-702 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure. According to the petition, not only did police officers Eric Reyes and Sebastian Flatley falsely testify at Walker’s trial, they also beat and kicked him when he was arrested, and planted drugs to validate the arrest. Walker is represented by the Chicago law firm of Orum & Roth, LLC. See: People v. Walker, Circuit Court of Cook County (IL), Case No. 06 CR 6288.

“It is sad that Mr. Walker has lost 10 long years of his life,” said his attorney, Mark Roth. “We are happy that his time in prison is now over, that he can finally lead a prosperous, productive life and that the truth will finally be heard.”

PLN contacted the Chicago Police Department, which confirmed that Reyes and Flatley are still employed; Reyes is assigned to the Bureau of Detectives while Flatley is assigned to the Bureau of Patrol. PLN also located the investigator for the State’s Attorney’s office, Thomas Finnelly, a former Chicago police officer who is now retired. Although he said he vaguely remembered the case and had been assigned to take photos of the alley, he could not recall other details and denied having testified at Walker’s trial. 

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Related legal case

People v. Walker