From prison, Rico Clark fights a murder conviction and COVID-19

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Alejandra Fernandez / South Side Weekly

Rico Clark

On September 24, 2006, 19-year-old Damion Kendricks was shot and killed in an alley near 76th and Dorchester in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Witnesses said they saw four men with hoodies pulled over their heads running from the scene holding guns, according to police. Only one of the men named by witnesses, Rico Clark, was convicted of the crime, and sentenced to 55 years in prison. But Clark has maintained his innocence all these years.

“It’s always on my mind what I’m doing locked up,” Clark told Injustice Watch during a phone call from prison. “Because I had nothing to do with this.”

An Injustice Watch investigation found that the case against Clark included problems often seen in wrongful convictions, including allegations of police coercion, recanted witness statements, and inadequate defense.

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Two of the three witnesses who named Clark as the shooter recanted at trial, testifying that Chicago police detectives forced them to make statements. Detectives Brian Forberg and Kevin Eberle have a pattern of alleged misconduct, including allegations of evidence tampering and witness coercion, according to several civil lawsuits and pending appeals. Clark’s defense attorney was later disbarred for misconduct he admits was a result of alcoholism. And the judge in Clark’s case has faced his own legal troubles.

Clark, who was 19 at the time, was arrested for the murder in March 2007, barely a week after his daughter was born. Before his conviction, his family says he had a great sense of humor and enjoyed putting on rap shows with his brother Lester Owens.

“All he talks about is trying to get home to his family and his child,” said Jasmine Smith, who is engaged to Owens.

Now, his family and attorneys said, Clark has contracted COVID-19 in prison, while his latest post-conviction petition has been stalled by the court’s coronavirus slow-down.

‘A really weak case’

There was no mention of Rico Clark when detectives Forberg and Eberle first interviewed witnesses on the night that Kendricks was shot, according to court records.

Kendricks’ brother-in-law, Leroy Moore, told the detectives at the scene that he heard gunshots from inside his apartment a couple of blocks away, ran outside, and saw a man with braids running away and holding a gun.

Later that night, Kevin Eson, who detectives interviewed at the police station, told them he had been walking and saw the victim with four men. Police said he told them two of the men carried guns, but he didn’t identify them.

Authorities did not officially link Clark to the case until December 4, 2006. According to court records, Leroy Moore picked him out of a photo lineup administered by Detective Forberg. Two months later, police arrested Demetrius Murry for cannabis possession, and detectives questioned him about the murder. He pointed out Clark and Corey Manuel as the shooters and later identified them in a photo lineup.

Courtesy of Jasmine Smith

Rico Clark (right) and his brother, Lester Owens, in a photo taken around the time of Clark’s arrest.

In March 2007, prosecutors took the case to a grand jury, which rendered indictments for murder against Clark, Manuel, and a third man, Marcellus French. Prosecutors dropped the charges against French, but Clark and Manuel went to trial in October 2009.

No physical evidence linked them to the crime. “This was an all-identification case,” said Eric Bisby, one of Clark’s attorneys.

Moore was the only witness who testified consistently with his written statement. The two other key witnesses changed their stories, testifying that their identifications were coerced by detectives Forberg and Eberle.

Murry testified that he told detectives what they wanted to hear because he was afraid he would be sent back to prison for violating his parole with the marijuana charge. Eson also walked back the statement he signed for Forberg and an assistant state’s attorney implicating Clark, testifying that he agreed to sign the statement because he was eager to leave the station.

Detective Forberg contested both those claims and testified that there was no coercion. Manuel was acquitted. But in October 2009, based largely on Eson and Murry’s initial statements and Moore’s testimony, the jury found Clark guilty.

“It was really a weak case [against Rico], and you have a known detective who has engaged in misconduct,” said Jennifer Blagg, one of the attorneys representing Clark in his post-conviction petition. “That’s not grounds for establishing [guilt] beyond a reasonable doubt.”

‘Turning a blind eye to patterns’

In the years after Clark’s conviction, the detectives who helped put him behind bars have been accused in multiple cases of alleged witness coercion and mishandled evidence, according to an Injustice Watch review of civil lawsuits and court records.

Forberg, a 25-year veteran of the force, was named in a $3.4 million wrongful conviction lawsuit filed in 2011 by Maurice Patterson. Though Forberg’s role in his case was not explicitly stated, the lawsuit accused him and eight other officers of manipulating witnesses, fabricating evidence, and withholding DNA results in the 2002 investigation. Patterson was exonerated in 2010 after a previously withheld state lab report showed someone else’s DNA was found on the alleged murder weapon. The city settled with Patterson but did not admit fault.

“I still feel broken,” Patterson told Injustice Watch in a phone call in late June. “[The settlement] didn’t make up for the time that I went through being wrongfully convicted.”

In two other cases around the time of Clark’s arrest, alleged misconduct by Forberg and Eberle led prosecutors to drop serious charges, according to civil lawsuits filed by the defendants.

In 2005, the detectives accused Terrance Lofton of robbing a Dunkin Donuts three separate times, according to a lawsuit he later filed. Lofton was held in jail for nearly three years, even after a man who matched the description of the robbery suspect was shot and killed by police in the middle of an armed robbery of a different Dunkin Donuts in the southwest suburbs.

The owner of the Dunkin Donuts eventually told an assistant state’s attorney he had picked Lofton out of a lineup because Forberg told him Lofton was the offender and had a “bad record,” according to Lofton’s lawsuit. Prosecutors immediately dropped the charges.

In another case, from 2006, murder charges against Sara Bridewell were dropped after prosecutors found several problems with Forberg and Eberle’s investigation, according to facts agreed upon by Bridewell and the city in a civil lawsuit she later filed, which was dismissed on a technicality.

Bridewell had been riding in a car with three passengers when a man named Walter Chandler hit them on Chicago’s Southeast Side. The car Bridewell was in chased Chandler into a dead-end alley, and an altercation ensued. Chandler died of a gunshot wound to the head.

According to the civil suit, DNA swabs taken from the gun found in the car where Chandler was killed were not immediately tested and, when they were, yielded no results. A lie-detector test taken by one of the other passengers who implicated Bridewell was “not so much an objective lie-detector test as it was a ‘completely biased’ investigation,” according to the agreed-upon facts of the case. And all of the passengers of the car tested negative for gunshot residue.

Clark and his attorney argue that these cases show that the detectives have a pattern of coercing witness statements.

“I didn’t know Forberg and Eberle personally. I just knew they were coming around a lot, picking us up off the street,” Clark said. “I really didn’t know nothing about police misconduct and stuff before I got locked up, and really understand that what they’ve been doing all this time was wrong.”

Forberg and Eberle did not face any known discipline for any of these cases, according to Chicago Police records. Forberg was promoted from detective to sergeant in February 2014. Last year, records show, Forberg was one of the highest-paid officers in the department, bringing in over $118,000 in overtime in addition to his six-figure salary. Eberle remains a detective. The officers could not be reached for comment.

“The existence of a significant number of complaints of coercion should be a red flag, because those complaints generally are grossly under reported in terms of complaints to the police department,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project.

“Turning a blind eye to patterns is just contrary to any notion of sound investigative practice,” he said.

A troubled defense

Dave Wiener, Clark’s trial attorney, has since been disbarred for failing to adequately represent his clients, according to records from the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

In an interview with Injustice Watch, Wiener acknowledged that he had struggled with alcohol abuse and anger management issues that led to arguments with his clients.

“It happened because I had an anger management problem,” Wiener said of his disbarment. “I argued a great deal with many of my clients. And I had an alcohol problem.”

Clark blames Wiener for failing to adequately represent him. He said he could sometimes smell alcohol on Wiener’s breath and that his demeanor was unpredictable. Wiener failed to appear at several pre-trial hearings in Clark’s case due to a payment dispute, which left Clark with a public defender unfamiliar with his situation. But Wiener denied ever drinking during the trial and said he remembered little about Clark’s case but “felt very, very badly” for losing his case.

The Illinois Supreme Court suspended Wiener for a year in 2015 for failing to “take the necessary steps to pursue his clients’ interests in three criminal cases,” and for not returning $13,000 in unearned client fees.

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Cook County judge acquitted of gun charge got break others have not

An Injustice Watch investigation identified 14 cases of defendants of color convicted on gun charges based on testimony or video, though no gun was found. The convictions stand in contrast to what happened when Cook County associate Judge Joseph Claps was acquitted after dropping what deputies called a gun on the floor of the courthouse lobby.

Within a year, Wiener was disbarred when he failed an alcohol screening test. He claimed it was mouthwash, but the testing lab determined the amount of alcohol in his system to be “far in excess of normal.”

Clark said he didn’t know at that time that he could have reported what he saw as Wiener’s problematic behavior. “I didn’t know my constitutional rights,” Clark said. “I didn’t know that he would have gotten in trouble if I told the judge, because he would’ve been reported.”

Judge Joseph Claps, who presided over Clark’s case, was arrested in 2018 on a misdemeanor gun charge after surveillance video captured a gun falling out of his jacket in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. He pleaded not guilty. Two Cook County Sheriff’s deputies allegedly saw him drop the weapon, too. But a judge from neighboring Will County later acquitted Claps, saying the prosecution failed to prove that the object that dropped was in fact a gun, despite the testimony of the two sheriff’s police. Claps was initially put on administrative duties, but he has returned to the bench and is assigned to hear Clark’s post-conviction petition.

Coronavirus dangers and delays

Clark remains incarcerated at Menard Correctional Center, where he has waited for his hearings to resume since March, when the coronavirus-related court shutdown delayed his post-conviction petition.

A coronavirus outbreak at Menard has now affected at least 66 staff and 94 incarcerated people, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Clark told his family in an email on August 12 that he had contracted the virus.

“My heart hurts, it’s hard for me to breathe. I can’t taste or smell anything,” he wrote to his aunt, Tanya Clark-Washington.

In an interview in July, Clark described the facility as “nasty and dirty and filthy,” and said people there were living in segregation and given masks, but not adequate cleaning supplies.

The court’s coronavirus slowdown has stalled post-conviction petition hearings like Rico’s since March, including 20 petitions taken up by the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender. Some hearings have resumed via Zoom in addition to in-person, according to the office.

“It’s been a slow appeal process with my financial situation,” said Clark, who has worked on this specific petition since 2014. “But I’ve got a lot of issues that work in my favor. I’m ready.”

Those close to Clark are hopeful that his current post-conviction appeal will be successful and he’ll be able to come home.

“Rico was funny, Rico was loving. All he wanted to do was be around his family, crack jokes on everybody,” said Smith. “He was just full of life.”

As Clark’s attorneys prepare to return to court on September 16, he’s hopeful that authorities will free him after taking another look at his case.

“I can only keep myself up and keep hope alive that I get out of [prison],” Clark said. “What am I supposed to do, just give up?”

This story was published in collaboration with South Side Weekly, a nonprofit newspaper dedicated to supporting cultural and civic engagement on the South Side, and to developing emerging journalists, writers, and artists.

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