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$9 Million Settlement for Illinois Man Wrongly Imprisoned for Murder

by Matt Clarke

In October 2017, a $9 million settlement was reached in a lawsuit brought by an Illinois man who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The suit alleged law enforcement officials fabricated a false murder scenario, coerced false confessions and witness statements, and withheld exculpatory evidence.

Jason Strong was convicted of killing a woman and dumping her body in a forest preserve near North Chicago in 1999; he was sentenced to 46 years in prison. Strong steadfastly maintained his innocence before evidence surfaced that led to his exoneration.

The prosecution’s case fell apart when new evidence revealed that law enforcement officers’ account of the murder was inconsistent with the physical evidence and could not have occurred, and former prosecution witnesses admitted they were coerced into giving statements that had been fed to them by police. Due to those revelations, the Lake County State’s Attorney dropped all charges against Strong and did not oppose his petition for a certificate of innocence, which was granted by the court.

According to court documents, 14 law enforcement officials from 10 local government agencies and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office – members of the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force – conspired to convict Strong of the murder by coercing him and others into giving false testimony. However, when the autopsy was reviewed by expert pathologists during federal habeas corpus proceedings, it was determined the victim had been dead two to four days before the scenario envisioned by law enforcement officers.

Aided by attorneys from Chicago’s MacArthur Justice Center and the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University School of Law, Strong filed a federal civil rights suit against the police, local government entities, sheriff’s office and task force members, alleging they had violated his constitutional rights and state laws. The case settled when the City of Waukegan agreed to pay $6 million and the villages of Vernon Hills, Round Lake Beach, Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire, Libertyville and Barrington Hills, as well as Lake County and the cities of North Chicago and Park City, agreed to pay $333,333.33 each for a total of $9 million. See: Strong v. Tessman, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:16-cv-04885.

Since 1986, seven other people convicted in Lake County of rape, murder or armed robbery have been released from prison after DNA evidence proved they were innocent. In each of those cases, Waukegan police detectives fabricated evidence and false reports; in most, they also coerced witnesses into giving false testimony and hid exculpatory evidence. Yet the officers were never disciplined for their actions. Instead, they were promoted and thus able to create a culture of falsifying evidence at the police department.  

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Related legal case

: Strong v. Tessman