Illinois appellate court denies exonerated man’s innocence certificate

Wayne Washington spent more than a decade in prison for a crime that he says he didn’t commit. He was 20 years old in 1993, when Cook County prosecutors charged him and his co-defendant, Tyrone Hood, for the murder of Marshall Morgan Jr.

Morgan, a college student and standout basketball player at the Illinois Institute of Technology, was found shot to death and left in an abandoned car on Chicago’s South Side. Washington, now in his 40s, maintains that Chicago police detectives beat him until he confessed to playing a role in Morgan’s death in 1993. He says that he only made a deal with prosecutors and agreed to plead guilty to secure a 25-year sentence so that he would at least “still have a chance at life,” rather than serve more time and possibly die in prison. He’d just seen Hood get a 75-year prison term after fighting his case.

Washington was released on parole in 2007. He lived for years after that with the stigma of being a convicted murderer. However, various news reports in the early 2010s highlighted evidence indicating that Morgan’s father was the likely culprit, bringing more attention to the case. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office vacated Washington’s conviction in 2015 and dismissed the charges against him — shortly after then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn commuted Hood’s sentence.

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Photo provided by Steven Greenberg

Wayne Washington spent more than a decade in prison for a murder conviction prosecutors later vacated.

But Washington is still fighting an uphill battle for a certificate of innocence. The piece of paper would clear his record, formally acknowledge his wrongful conviction, and allow him to seek financial restitution from the state.

Karl Leonard, an attorney who helped represent Hood in post-conviction proceedings, including his successful certificate petition, said the document can also help people heal psychologically after a wrongful conviction.

“The declaration from the people who sent you to prison saying ‘we got it wrong’ goes a long way in helping people cope with what happened to them,” Leonard said.

Washington petitioned for a certificate in 2015. Cook County Circuit Court Associate Judge Domenica A. Stephenson denied his request. Washington and his lawyer Steven Greenberg subsequently filed an appeal with the First District Appellate Court.

On Monday, June 28, the appellate court affirmed the circuit court ruling on a 2-1 decision backed by Appellate Judges Mary Ellen Coghlan and Daniel James Pierce. The decision on Washington’s appeal, and the Circuit Court decision before it, did not center on Washington’s innocence. Instead, the judges cited a technicality in state law to assert that he voluntarily brought about his conviction when he pleaded guilty.

Appellate Judge Carl Anthony Walker authored a dissent departing from his colleagues’ interpretation. Walker also warned of the broader implications of the majority opinion. He wrote that “wrongful convictions and accusations like these can devastate families, foreclose career opportunities, and undermine the integrity of our justice system.”

“Washington deserves the state’s assistance in his recovery from the consequences of the offenses police committed against him,” Walker wrote. “The majority’s denial of that assistance continues the difficulty associated with the too-many wrongful accusations against Black and brown people.”

Greenberg said he was “pissed” when he read the majority opinion. He thinks the appellate court violated the spirit of the innocence certificate.

“The purpose of the statute is to right a wrong, to compensate those who have suffered because they were framed,” Greenberg said. “And no one disputes that Wayne was framed.”

Allegations of police misconduct

Washington recalls he was inside a corner store on the South Side several days after Morgan’s body was found when Chicago police detectives Kenneth Boudreau and John Halloran arrested him and Hood and drove them to a police station for interrogation, according to court records. The detectives allegedly coerced witnesses and fabricated evidence to pin Morgan’s death on the two young men.

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Washington first told police he wasn’t involved in Morgan’s murder. But he later confessed to the crime, according to an ongoing civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago against the city and more than 10 cops. The lawsuit claims that police pressured Washington to sign a confession by punching and slapping him while he was handcuffed and claiming that another man had implicated him in Morgan’s murder.

Court records show that the tipster and other supposed witnesses later recanted their statements, saying the detectives had coerced them to support the case against Washington and Hood. Boudreau and Halloran, who worked under former police Cmdr. Jon Burge, have faced (and denied) multiple accusations of misconduct for beating suspects and witnesses or fabricating evidence to obtain convictions, including in this case.

Hood’s legal team argued that Marshall Morgan Sr., Morgan’s estranged father, had killed him and then cashed in on a life insurance policy the older man had taken out on his son shortly after reappearing in his life the year before Morgan’s murder. But the trial judge refused to allow Hood’s attorney to question the father.

In Washington’s first trial, the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict in April 1996, resulting in a mistrial. In May 1996, Hood, who maintained his innocence despite the alleged attempts at coercion by police, was sentenced to 75 years in state prison after he fought and lost his case. Later that year, Washington pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors and got a 25-year sentence in exchange.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, then run by Anita Alvarez, re-examined the case in 2012, several years after Washington’s release on parole, after the Chicago Tribune investigated the evidence and volleyed questions at prosecutors. The office concluded that Hood, still in prison at the time, was guilty. But more media coverage of the conviction followed. Hood’s attorneys also filed a request for clemency asserting his innocence in light of all the evidence against Morgan’s father.

Morgan Sr. had a prior voluntary manslaughter conviction, had been suspected of insuring and then later killing his fiance in 1995, and was convicted of murder in 2008 after killing his girlfriend and stuffing her in the trunk of an abandoned car. He has denied involvement in his son’s death, according to reporting by the Chicago Tribune.

However, the governor’s office commuted Hood’s sentence in January 2015. Prosecutors filed and were granted a motion to vacate Washington and Hood’s sentence shortly after that.

‘If you’re beaten into confession, that doesn’t seem very voluntary to me’

The majority opinion issued by the appellate court on June 28, written by Pierce, denied Washington’s innocence certificate petition “not because the petitioner failed to prove his innocence” but because Washington’s case didn’t meet one of several requirements to grant a certificate of innocence in Illinois.

The opinion stated that Washington was ineligible for the certificate “because, by his own conduct, he voluntarily brought about his own conviction by giving a statement to police and pleading guilty.”

Washington declined to be interviewed for this article.

“He doesn’t want to say anything other than he feels like a victim again,” Greenberg wrote in a text message to Injustice Watch.

The lone dissenting judge, Walker, argued that Washington should not be barred from his certificate because his confession was physically coerced from him, and that he did not purposely try to mislead the detectives.

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Walker contended that a defendant’s decision to plead guilty often has nothing to do with their guilt. He cited case law suggesting that the criminal justice system encourages people to engage in a “cost-benefit assessment” in the hopes of securing a more lenient but inevitable sentence.

In other words: people accused of crimes might not risk fighting a case and getting a harsher sentence if they lose, even if they are innocent.

The same three-judge panel that issued a 2-1 decision denying Washington a certificate of innocence recently granted one to Hood after reversing a prior circuit court decision. The appellate court approved Hood’s appeal because he had never pleaded guilty or confessed to the crime.

Leonard hopes that the decision in Washington’s case will spur legislative changes to the way that certificates are granted. He thinks there has to be a better definition of what “voluntary” means in bringing about someone’s conviction.

“If you’re beaten into confession, that doesn’t seem very voluntary to me, and if you end up in a situation where you feel your only choices are to plead guilty or spend your life in prison, that doesn’t seem very voluntary to me, either,” Leonard said.

Washington’s attorney, Greenberg, said he intends to take their fight to the Illinois Supreme Court.

“They’re gonna hear this one for sure,” he said.

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