State opposes certificate of innocence for man cleared of 2002 murder

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The Cook County State’s Attorney is opposing a certificate of innocence for a man who spent nearly 16 years in prison, even though the office voluntarily dropped the murder charges against him a year ago.

Eric Blackmon has long maintained he was hosting a Fourth of July barbecue at the time of the 2002 murder for which he was convicted. After a federal court vacated his conviction and ordered him released from prison, the State’s Attorney agreed to drop the charges last January.

But Assistant State’s Attorney Derek Kuhn made clear that the State doesn’t find Blackmon’s alibi witnesses to be credible and does not believe he is innocent. Blackmon’s convictions “were set aside for reasons that were collateral to the question of guilt,” Kuhn wrote in a motion opposing the certificate of innocence.

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The certificate would allow Blackmon to have his record expunged and make him eligible to receive approximately $10,000 per year of incarceration.

Blackmon was charged in September 2002 after two eyewitnesses named Frencshun Reece and Lisa McDowell identified him as as one of two shooters in the murder of Tony Cox on July 4 of the same year. These eyewitness accounts from strangers at the scene were crucial in his eventual conviction.

At a hearing on the innocence certificate Tuesday, Blackmon’s lawyers called Geoffrey Loftus, an expert in human perception and memory, to question the validity of these eyewitness accounts. Loftus testified at the hearing that a number of factors could have made it more difficult for the witnesses to remember the shooters’ appearances, including the stress of the situation and the fact that neither of them knew him. He further explained that police lineups may have affected the witnesses’ memory of the shooting.

Reece has since recanted her testimony, but the State plans to call McDowell to testify again. Cook County Circuit Judge LeRoy K. Martin, Jr., reluctantly delayed a decision on the innocence petition until at least February, so McDowell and a state expert can testify.

“I really don’t want to put the case off that long,” Martin said Tuesday, before agreeing to a late January status hearing.

Blackmon, who is now a paralegal at the MacArthur Justice Center, testified Tuesday that he was at the barbecue from 2 p.m. until at least 10 p.m. that night, and that the alibi witnesses he collected during his time in prison corroborate his story. He also recalled that his car would not start when he went to leave because he had been playing music through the speakers all day and drained the battery.

During cross-examination, Kuhn questioned Blackmon in detail about his time at the barbecue, focusing in particular on when people arrived and left. Blackmon, who is currently studying at Northeastern Illinois University and hopes to become a lawyer, appeared confident and directly pushed back on the framing of Kuhn’s line of questioning on one occasion.

The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment to Injustice Watch because the case is pending.

The hearing came less than a month after decorated wrongful conviction attorney Karen Daniel, one of the lead lawyers on Blackmon’s case, was struck by a car and killed while walking her dog. Ronald Safer, another one of Blackmon’s lawyers, said that she was “the moving force behind getting a certificate of innocence for Eric.”

Safer seemed uncertain about why the state’s attorney’s office chose to oppose Blackmon’s request, but, in a phone call prior to the hearing, insisted that Kimberly Foxx’s administration was “light years ahead of any other we have had in Cook County for decades.”