Judge sentenced teenager to 76 years based on eyewitness he did not know was legally blind

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A version of this article was published in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Dexter Saffold took the witness stand more than five years ago and described the chaos he saw at a South Side gas station in 2011.

Saffold told Cook County Circuit Judge Nicholas Ford that he watched a man shoot and kill one man there and badly wound another.

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And he pointed out who did it — the defendant, Darien Harris, the man in the courtroom wearing the jail jumpsuit.

There was no physical evidence linking Harris to the shooting that left Rondell Moore dead and Quincy Woulard badly hurt.

Still, the judge, hearing the case without a jury, found Saffold persuasive. Ford called him an “honest witness” and said he had given “unblemished” testimony. Largely based on that testimony, he found Harris guilty and sent him to prison for 76 years for murder.

A letter from Dr. Robert G. Taub regarding Dexter Saffold’s visual impairments, submitted as an exhibit in Darien Harris’s request for a review of his conviction.

But what the judge — and the accused — did not know was that Saffold had been deemed legally blind years earlier by his doctors and the U.S. government, the result of advanced glaucoma.

Now, Harris, 26, is trying to get his conviction overturned, citing the eyewitness’s previously unrevealed vision problems and also that, when asked about his vision, Saffold testified he had no problem seeing.

“The mere fact that he lied under oath about his ability to see should alone call his testimony into question,” Harris’s attorney said in a filing that asks the Cook County state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit to review the case.

The application for a review noted that another witness, who was not called to testify during the trial, has provided a sworn statement saying detectives pressured him to identify someone he did not believe was the shooter.

A state’s attorney’s representative confirmed that the case is under review and declined to comment further.

The shooting happened around 8:20 p.m. on June 7, 2011, at the BP gas station at 6600 S. Stony Island Ave. Moore and his brother Ronald Moore pulled in with car trouble. Woulard, a mechanic, was working under the hood when a Lexus pulled up.

According to prosecutors, Harris got out of the car and started shooting. Rondell Moore was shot three times in the back. Woulard was hit in the chest and under his right arm.

Harris had turned 18 three months before the shooting. According to court records, he came from a stable family and had no previous criminal record, and he got his high school equivalency diploma while awaiting trial.

When Harris went on trial in 2014, Saffold testified that he was heading home from a fast-food joint on his motorized scooter and was maybe 18 feet away when the gunfire started. He told the judge the shooter bumped into him, nearly causing him to drop the gun, as he ran off.

BP Stony Island

The BP Gas Station on Chicago’s South Side where Rondell Moore was killed and Quincy Woulard was badly injured.

The issue of Saffold’s vision came up when Harris’s lawyer asked whether the man had diabetes. Saffold said he did. Asked by the lawyer whether he had any vision problems, Saffold said, “Yes, I do,” then said that, no, he did not have any difficulty seeing and continued to testify.

Saffold’s vision problems have been documented in a handful of lawsuits he has filed over a span of 16 years. He has sued colleges, a landlord, and two employers. He said they discriminated against him because of his visual disability and sight limitations, court records show.

According to the records, Saffold started receiving Social Security disability benefits in 2002 because of his vision, which a doctor diagnosed as 20/400 in both eyes. That means that something a person with normal vision could see 400 feet away, he would be able to see only if he was just 20 feet away. And his field of vision was measured at 10 degrees in each eye, records show — 20 degrees or less, and a person is legally blind.

In one case, Saffold sued the City Colleges of Chicago in federal court in 2012. He said that after he enrolled in an adult education class at Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side in early 2011 and gave medical documentation of his visual disability, he was to be provided with a note-taker, enlarged-print documents in class, a visual monitor, and additional time during test-taking.

But he did not get the accommodations, according to his lawsuit, which said he struggled as a result to see the board in class, take notes, and participate. Saffold settled out of court for an undisclosed amount about three months before testifying against Harris.

In an interview with Injustice Watch, Saffold said the shooter was near enough that he could see him and later identify him.

“I don’t know that man for nothing in the world,” Saffold said of Harris. “All I know is that, on this particular day, he shot somebody.”

Saffold, who said his eyesight has worsened to 20/800 but varies from day to day, said he told prosecutors before Harris’s trial about his vision problems.

Neither of the two assistant state’s attorneys on the case, Jane Sack and Denise Loiterstein, responded to requests for comment.

Harris’s trial lawyer, Donna Rotunno, said the prosecutors did not disclose any information about Saffold’s visual impairment.

Jodie Toney, then 53, was at work at the gas station the evening of the shooting and later told police he was about to ask the man whose car had broken down at the pump if he needed antifreeze. Toney told the police that was when the shooter got there.

Toney also told them that he had recognized the gunman, that about an hour earlier inside the store the man had threatened to “blow his head off.” Toney called the police because he thought the man was stealing something.

Lead detectives Isaac Lambert and Devinn Jones had Toney view a lineup that included Harris at what was then Area Two police headquarters about a week after the shooting. Toney did not identify anyone as the shooter, according to police reports.

In a sworn statement taken last June by Harris’s current lawyer and a defense investigator, Toney said the detectives coached him before the lineup, showing him a mug shot and telling him the man in that photo was the shooter.

Toney said he told them no, that it was not who he saw shoot Moore and Woulard. He said the detectives then had him view the lineup and that the shooter was not there.

Toney said in the affidavit that the detectives got angry and that he thought they were pressuring him. He said they told him that, if he made the identification, “It will be one bad guy off the street.”

Cook County Criminal Courthouse

Toney was not called to testify in 2014. He said in the statement that he was never contacted by Harris’s attorney prior to trial.

Since 2016, the Chicago Police Department has, under most circumstances, prohibited detectives who are involved in an investigation from overseeing lineups.

In 2011, though, Saffold, Toney, and Ronald Moore were shown lineups by one or both of the lead detectives, according to police records.

Saffold said he remembers the identification process well. About a week after the shooting, he said he went to the police station, where he viewed a physical lineup and several photo arrays. Saffold said he cannot remember whether the photo arrays or the physical lineup were shown to him first but that in each instance he was able to identify Harris.

Saffold said he did not feel pressured to pick Harris and that the detectives wanted him to be absolutely sure before he made any identification.

During Harris’s trial, prosecutors entered as evidence the physical lineup that Saffold viewed and said that is when he identified Harris as the shooter.

They did not mention the photo lineups Saffold said he was shown. Nor were any additional lineups noted in the police reports.

A police spokesman would not make Jones or Lambert, who both have been promoted to sergeant since the Harris case, available for an interview.

Two other witnesses linked Harris to the shooting, including one who recanted his identification in court, saying detectives had pressured him.

Aaron Jones, who was driving a black Lexus that the police pulled over right after the shooting, testified that he gave Harris a ride to the gas station before the shooting. Near the end of his testimony, though, Jones cursed and recanted the identification he had made to detectives of Harris, which came after he was held for two days in police custody.

“He wasn’t never in my car. He wasn’t never in my car,” Jones told the judge. “The detectives told me to say this.”

After being scolded by Ford, Jones testified that detectives told him he could face life in prison and that, as a result of that threat, he told them “whatever they wanted to hear.”

Ronald Moore, the brother of the man who was killed, identified Harris in a lineup and in court. But he testified that was after friends showed him a music video in which both Jones’s black Lexus and Harris appeared.

In 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld Harris’s conviction.

It cited Moore’s “apparent animosity” toward Harris in acknowledging his credibility could be at issue. It also said Jones’s courtroom recantation put his identification of Harris in doubt.

Still, Saffold was a credible witness, Appellate Judge Michael B. Hyman wrote, citing surveillance video he said corroborates the testimony he and Moore gave.

The video showed a man whose thin build and short hairstyle generally fit Harris. But it does not show the shooting or the shooter’s face, which prosecutors acknowledged in their closing argument.