James Allen, 71, had barely made it into the courtroom, walking slowly with his black-sneakered feet shackled by a chain, when Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sophia Atcherson reversed his conviction for the 1984 murder of Robert Ciralsky.
Allen had waited 13 years for Wednesday’s hearing. In the end, it lasted just four minutes.
Ciralsky, a white drug-store owner, was shot and killed outside his Hyde Park home in August 1984. Police and prosecutors had alleged that his murder was part of an elaborate murder-for-hire scheme plotted by some of Chicago’s most notorious drug dealers and that Allen had been the getaway driver for two co-defendants who’d staged the contract killing to look like a robbery. A jury convicted Allen in 1987 and sentenced him to life in prison.
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But since 2009, another incarcerated man, Robert Langford, has confessed to the killing in multiple sworn affidavits and a deposition.
After numerous denied petitions and court delays, Allen’s attorney, Steven Becker, was prepared to call Langford to testify for the first time in open court that Allen had nothing to do with the murder.
But in a surprising reversal, Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Linda Walls announced Wednesday that the state was no longer opposing Allen’s post-conviction petition.
Without the state’s opposition, there was no need for Langford to testify. Atcherson promptly reversed Allen’s conviction, finding that there was a substantial showing of his innocence and violations of his constitutional rights. The judge vacated Allen’s sentence and ordered a new trial. Walls immediately responded that the state would not seek a new trial.
“Thank you ma’am,” Allen said to Walls as IDOC guards shuffled him back out of the courtroom.
After the hearing, Allen’s lawyer, Steven Becker, was visibly elated and relieved.
“It’s very rare to have a homicide conviction vacated after 35 years on an actual innocence claim, because it’s a very high burden [of proof],” Becker told Injustice Watch.
A long road to freedom
The reversal of the decades-long conviction, however, does not spell freedom for Allen. He is also serving a life sentence for the 1984 murder of Carl Gibson, which happened weeks before Ciralsky was killed.
The state’s narratives about Allen’s involvement in the two murders hinged on the same informant, Darryl Moore. During federal proceedings nearly 20 years ago it was revealed that the state had paid Moore some $66,000 and cleared him of pending charges in exchange for testimony that he later recanted.
In his petitions challenging both murder convictions, Allen has alleged that the state knowingly put lying witnesses on the stand, concealed exculpatory evidence, and coerced him into confessing. For years, Allen has said in interviews and court filings that proving his innocence in the Ciralsky case would help unravel his conviction for the Gibson murder, too.
In March, Circuit Court Judge Diana Kenworthy denied his post-conviction petition in the Gibson case, but Allen is currently appealing the decision.
Becker wouldn’t comment on the next steps, but the exoneration in the Ciralsky case technically allows Allen to petition the Circuit Court for a certificate of innocence. If granted, the certificate would allow him to collect up to $200,000 for wrongful incarceration from the State of Illinois. With or without the certificate, Allen can now also pursue civil lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department and the state’s attorney’s office.
Allen is also serving a 100-200 year sentence for felony murder for the killing of a Chicago police officer in 1969. Allen, who was 19, took part in an attempted heist of an armored truck. The police thwarted the robbery, but an officer was wounded and paralyzed during a shootout with Allen’s accomplices and he died a year later. Allen didn’t shoot at the cops, but he was convicted in one of the first applications of the state’s felony murder statute.
He was on parole for that conviction when Gibson and Ciralsky were killed in 1984, and he has maintained that his prosecution for those murders were motivated by law enforcement officials’ ire that a “cop killer” had been set free.
This story was co-published by the Chicago Reader.