Here’s what passes for “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a gang murder case

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The late Sydney J. Harris, a renowned syndicated newspaper columnist, sometimes wrote about things he learned while looking up other things.

In that vein, I am writing about a murder case I ran across while researching something only tangentially related.

I was drawn to the case by what it shows about the standard of proof required to convict an African American youth “beyond a reasonable doubt” of a gang-related murder.

To say that the standard is low would be an understatement.

This is not a tale of some gullible, racially skewed jury leaping to misjudgment.

Rather the conviction followed a bench trial before reputedly exemplary Cook County Circuit Court Judge James M. Obbish, who sentenced the defendant to 55 years in prison.

These are the facts—as discerned from the public record with the able assistance of Milan Rivas, an Injustice Watch intern:

On the afternoon of New Year’s Day 2013, Kelvin Jemison, a 28-year-old member of a street gang known as the Del Mob, died in a hail of gunfire in front of Washington Park Homes, a Chicago Housing Authority complex in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.

Anthony Robinson, a 17-year-old member of a gang known as the Jig Dawgs, a faction of the Gangster Disciples, was indicted for the murder along with alleged accomplices Clyde Jackson, 19, and Antwoine A. Hill, 18.

The indictment rested on grand jury testimony of Dwayne Rolle, a 17-year-old member of a gang called the Touch Money Boyz who was with Jemison when he was slain.

Rolle hid from the police in the immediate aftermath of the shooting because he feared being jailed on an outstanding juvenile warrant for burglary, but Chicago Police Detectives Roger Murphy and Thomas Carr tracked him down the next day. Although the detectives were aware of the outstanding warrant, they did not arrest Rolle—assuring him, in his words, “it wasn’t they business about my warrant.”

Six days later, Rolle identified Robinson, Jackson, and Hill from photo arrays, which Murphy would testify he had assembled after learning the suspects’ nicknames during a canvass of the neighborhood the afternoon of the crime.

Robinson was arrested on Feb. 14, whereupon Rolle identified him in a live lineup and, at the behest of Assistant State’s Attorney Marina Para, provided a video-taped statement in which he claimed to have seen Robinson get out of the passenger side of a car and shoot Jemison.

After meeting with Assistant State’s Attorney Joell Zahr on March 7, Rolle swore before a grand jury that he had seen Robinson shoot Jemison to death and identified Jackson and Hill as lookouts. All three youths were indicted for first-degree murder—Jackson and Hill on the theory that they were accountable for Robinson’s actions.

Unbeknownst to the grand jury, Rolle’s veracity left something to be desired. The crime had been captured on video by Housing Authority motion-sensitive security cameras. The video was of very poor quality, but it pretty clearly showed that the killer did not have shoulder-length dreadlocks—which Robinson had when he was arrested only 44 days later.

At trial before Judge Obbish in December 2014, Rolle recanted his identification of the defendants, asserting that in fact he had not seen who shot Jemison.

On direct examination, Rolle acknowledged that he had identified the defendants in photo arrays, in live lineups, on video, and before the grand jury. But on cross examination, he said, “I know for a fact that they did not kill him.”

Why would he have falsely identified three innocent youths? Because, Rolle testified, the detectives “made it seem like” the three youths were the killers—“so I went along with them.”

After confronting Rolle with his earlier statements, the prosecution rested—whereupon Obbish granted motions to acquit Jackson and Hill, but denied a motion to acquit Robinson.

The defense called two eyewitnesses—Tameka Mingo and Lakesha Joseph, residents of the Washington Park complex who testified that the killer they saw had little or no head hair—thus positively excluding Robinson. Mingo and Joseph had been interviewed by detectives shortly after the crime, but they were not invited to view the lineup in which Rolle identified Robinson.

Although nothing beyond Rolle’s pretrial identifications linked Robinson to the crime—no physical evidence, no confession—Obbish found him guilty, branding Rolle’s recantation “incredibly unbelievable.”

In September 2017, a unanimous panel of the First District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed Robinson’s conviction and 55-year sentence. Justice Joy V. Cunningham wrote the opinion, holding in essence that the conviction could stand on uncorroborated, recanted, prior statements—despite credible, exculpatory eyewitness testimony corroborated by video evidence. Justices Mary Katherine Rochford and Mathias W. Delort concurred in the opinion, which the Illinois Supreme Court declined to review.

Tempting as it is to employ a stream of invectives at this point, suffice to allow the facts to speak for themselves.

On a bright note, Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, an attorney with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, agreed last week to represent Robinson in further pursuit of justice.

Rob Warden is co-founder of Injustice Watch.