Man cleared in 2002 Fourth of July murder awarded certificate of innocence

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Connor Echols

Eric Blackmon (second from the right) poses for a photo with his legal team shortly after being awarded a certificate of innocence.

A man who served 16 years in prison on a wrongful conviction won his certificate of innocence at a Monday court hearing, clearing the way for him to expunge his record and seek financial compensation from the state.

The man, Eric Blackmon, had been convicted in the July 4, 2002 murder of Tony Cox.

Blackmon, who is studying to be a lawyer, has maintained his innocence since his arrest, arguing that he was hosting a barbecue on the day Cox died. More than 10 eyewitnesses testified that Blackmon never left the event.

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“I feel absolutely elated to finally have this over with and to be awarded my certificate of innocence,” Blackmon said Monday following a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago before Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr.

The certificate comes nearly two years after a federal court vacated Blackmon’s conviction and ordered him released from prison. Prosecutors agreed to drop the charges against him last January. However, the state tried to block Blackmon’s certificate of innocence, arguing that his conviction was overturned “for reasons that were collateral to the question of guilt.”

Judge Martin heard impassioned arguments Monday from Ronald Safer, Blackmon’s lawyer, who emphasized witness testimony supporting Blackmon’s alibi. Safer added that prosecutors lacked forensic evidence tying Blackmon to the murder, and that there was no motive for the killing.

“This is an easy case,” Safer said. “There is a mountain of evidence that proves Eric innocent.”

Assistant state’s attorney Derek Kuhn argued that many of the alibi witness accounts were contradictory, saying “nothing adds up.” Kuhn contended that testimony from two eyewitnesses to the Cox shooting, Lisa McDowell and Frencshun Reece, should be enough to block Blackmon from receiving a certificate of innocence.

McDowell has consistently testified that she saw Blackmon shoot Cox. Kuhn characterized her as an independent, unbiased witness.

Reece originally testified that she saw Blackmon commit the murder but later recanted her testimony, saying that police coerced her statement, and that she told the grand jury that she did not see Blackmon commit the crime. Kuhn said that her decision to recant years after the trial was not credible, arguing that the misconduct that she alleged would have required a “vast conspiracy.”

However, the prosecutor did not bring live witnesses to Monday’s hearing, despite saying at a previous hearing that he planned to bring McDowell and an expert witness.

Safer alleged that there were major problems with how police presented McDowell with a lineup of potential suspects. He added that she only saw Cox’s alleged shooter for a few seconds while driving away from the crime scene, and that she identified Blackmon as the assailant two months after the incident, raising questions about the reliability of her memory of the alleged offender’s appearance.

As for Reece, the other eyewitness, Safer contended that her allegations of police coercion were not “beyond reason.”

Safer framed the hearing as a “happy day” in which his client could get his “good name back,” while the Kuhn said that granting Blackmon an innocence certificate amounted to “a murderer receiving a windfall.” In the end, Judge Martin ruled in Blackmon’s favor. After the ruling, Blackmon shook hands with the prosecutor before hugging members of his legal team.

Blackmon, who now works as a paralegal at the MacArthur Justice Center, had advice for alleged wrongfully convicted people who are still seeking exonerations, urging them to stay strong despite the “daunting” prospect of getting out.

“I would say to keep working, to keep fighting to ultimately prove their innocence,” he said.