Demond Weston, who has long said Chicago police officers tortured him into falsely confessing to a murder and attempted murder in 1990, was exonerated Wednesday after 29 years behind bars. Special prosecutors agreed to vacate his conviction, and he will be released from Dixon Correctional Center Thursday morning.
When Cook County Associate Judge Angela Petrone announced that the charges would be vacated, Weston began to cry and clutched the courtroom table for support. Later, his attorneys said, he was too overcome with emotion to speak. His family and friends moved into the hallway to celebrate, crying, hugging, and shouting “Thank you, Jesus!”
Special State’s Attorney Robert Milan told Judge Petrone that he agreed to drop the charges, despite finding that Weston’s allegations of police abuse were “unsubstantiated.” After a three-month review of the case, Milan’s office determined the evidence against Weston did not prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.
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Weston was 17 when he was arrested for two shootings in Englewood that police said were gang-related, one of which killed 19-year-old Joseph Watson. After several hours in police custody, he confessed to participating in the shootings. But almost immediately, as an Injustice Watch investigation chronicled in 2017, he began saying that police had slapped him and coerced him into falsely confessing.
The detectives he said abused him, William Moser, Anthony Maslanka, and Michael Kill, were all former subordinates of notorious Commander Jon Burge who have been accused of similar misconduct in a litany of other cases.
Weston was convicted on the basis of the confession and an eyewitness testimony, and sentenced to 75 years in prison. Despite his claims of torture and the lack of physical evidence tying Weston to the shooting, his repeated appeals and post-conviction petitions were all denied.
“We all knew he had no business being in there,” said Ramon Hooks, a friend who grew up with Weston, after the hearing.
In 2016, with the help of a private attorney who took Weston’s case pro bono, Judge Petrone finally awarded him an evidentiary hearing on his innocence claims. The next year, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission determined that his case showed credible evidence of torture. However, due to delays typical of torture cases, it took two more years for his hearing to be scheduled.
Before the evidentiary hearing could take place, Weston’s attorney, Scott Schutte decided to reach out to special prosecutor Robert Milan to see if he would be willing to vacate the conviction.
Milan is the latest special prosecutor to handle Burge-related torture cases since 2002, when former chief judge Paul Biebel removed the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office from the cases after deciding that State’s Attorney Dick Devine’s past stint on Burge’s defense team presented a potential conflict of interest.
In November, Milan let Schutte know that he had taken a look at the case and was willing to vacate Weston’s conviction and drop the charges, with the stipulation that Weston give up his rights to seek a certificate of innocence from the court.
Milan declined to comment on his decision beyond his public statements in court.
Weston’s lawyers and family said that they did not agree with the special prosecutor’s determination that Weston’s torture claims were unsupported, but were glad that the special prosecutor had chosen to drop the charges. Weston still has the legal avenue to bring a civil suit with his torture claims if he wishes, Schutte said.
“I don’t care what they said,” said Weston’s sister, Rhonda Weston, in an emotional interview. “I’m just glad he’s out.”
Originally, Schutte and Milan hoped to present their agreement to Judge Petrone for her approval on Nov. 26, which would’ve allowed Weston to be home in time for Thanksgiving. But when Schutte entered Petrone’s courtroom the day before in order to have the judge sign an order to bring Weston from prison to the courtroom, Petrone said that her schedule for Nov. 26 was too full, and that Weston would have to wait until she had time, on Dec. 18. When Schutte mentioned that the motion was an “emergency” to be heard as soon as possible, Petrone responded, “There is no emergency. I fail to see any emergency on a case that’s been going on for years and years and years.”
In two previous cases, Petrone was overturned by the appellate court when she refused to dismiss a conviction, even though the state’s attorney’s office agreed that the conviction merited dismissal.
After Weston is processed and released from prison, he’ll live in an apartment on the South Side that a friend helped him find. His legal team plans to take him out for a steak dinner on the river on Monday. And he’ll be home with his family for Christmas.
“We’ve got a feast,” Rhonda Weston said.