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INNOCENCE PROJECT CASES
|Bill Clutter was the principal founder of the Downstate
Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illiniois at Springfield
(UIS), where he currently serves as Director of Investigations.
Nicarico Case: Alejandro Hernandez and Rolando Cruz freed in 1995
after 12 years on Death Row
In 1988, Bill Clutter began work on the re-trial
of Alex Hernandez after the Illinois Supreme Court vacated
his first conviction. Bill worked for Springfield criminal
defense attorney Michael Metnick, who volunteered his services
Author Scott Turow called the Nicarico case
"the most extraordinary criminal case I know."
DuPage County police and prosecutors railroaded
two innocent Hispanics. They continued to obstruct justice
even after the Illinois State Police obtained the confession
of the real killer.
It would take another 10 years to free Hernandez
and Cruz, but only after police perjury of a fabricated confession
was finally exposed.
Bill's investigation linked physical evidence tying
the real killer to the crime scene.
In 1999, police and prosecutors were brought to
trial for their misconduct, but were acquitted.
In 2005, the real killer, Brian Dugan was finally
charged for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico, 23 years after the crime.
On Nov. 11, 2009, the jury handed down a dearth verdict.
Excerpt from Victim's of Justice
Metnick knew that defense lawyers by nature have
a difficult time representing innocent clients. Usually, defense
lawyers won't cast about indiscriminately for new information because
they donít want to turn up something damaging that can be
used against their clients. Instead, defense lawyers focus on attacking
the prosecution case.
This case, however, needed as much probing as possible, Metnick
believed. The more information he uncovered, the better for Alex.
Metnick turned to Springfield investigator Bill Clutter. . . He
took Clutter into the law firm's conference room and showed him
the case file.
"It was just unbelievably huge," Clutter recalled. "It
was bigger than anything else we had ever done. Usually, when we
get a case, it might take up an accordion file. If it is a really
big case, it might take up two accordion files. But this was banker
box after banker box."
Clutter started by combing through the files, and soon found the
report by Warren Wilkosz in which he documented having investigated
Dugan after Dugan was arrested for Melissa Ackerman's murder. Prior
to that, nobody on the defense side had realized that Wilkosz had
Clutter met with Gary Johnson, Thomas McCulloch, Randy Garrett,
and Naperville police chief Jim Teal. He re-interviewed witnesses
and talked to prosecutors. He went to the Prairie Path and to the
church where the secretary had seen Dugan. He also found out that
plaster casts had been taken of tire tracks on the Prairie Path.
Prosecutor Robert Kilander had told Ed Cisowski there was nothing
of evidentiary value from the Prairie Path, so the State Police
had not examined the casts while they still had Brian Dugan's car.
Now, in the summer of 1989, Clutter insisted on seeing them. Then
he persuaded the State Police to examine them. A test identified
the tracks as coming from Goodyear Viva glass-belted tires, which
were the original tires on Dugan's Volare. The car itself, though,
by now had been crushed and was no longer available for comparison.
Steidl freed in 2004 after 17 years in prison, most spent on death
row, for a murder he didnít commit.
Randy Steid, left, and his mother Barbara "Bobbie"
Steidl pose with Bill Clutter on his first day of freedom.
"I feel like Rip Van Winkle," said Randy,
moments after being released from prison.
On May 27, 2004, Edgar County Judge Dean Andrews
signed the order setting free former death row inmate Gordon "Randy"
Steidl. It took seventeen years to free Steidl, who was convicted
in 1987 of the double homicide of Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris,
IL. They were savagely stabbed to death in their beds as they lay
sleeping. The crime occurred at approximately 4 a.m. on July 5,
1986, when neighbors heard a woman scream. A fire was set destroying
evidence of the crime.
Steidl, and his co-defendant Herbert Whitlock were convicted based
on perjured testimony of two alcoholics who claimed to have been
eyewitnesses to the murders. Both witnesses denied knowing about
a $25,000 reward that had been circulated in the seedy taverns ringing
the courthouse by a man who at the time was being investigated by
police as a potential suspect for arranging the murders. Steidl
was represented at trial by Charleston, IL attorney John Muller.
Bill Clutter conducted the post-conviction investigation that federal
judge Michael P. McCuskey relied on in granting a habeas petition
filed by Jane Raley, Karen Daniel and Lawrence C. Marshall of the
Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University School of Law,
and by Springfield attorneys Michael Metnick and Kathy Saltmarsh.
By April of 1992, Clutter's investigation revealed new evidence
proving that a key prosecution witness, Debra Rienbolt, bore false
witness against both Steidl and Whitlock. This evidence included
forensic evidence proving that a broken lamp discovered by firemen
had been broken after the fire had been suppressed, discrediting
Rienbolt's trial testimony that she saw a broken lamp inside the
bedroom as she witnessed the murders. At trial, Rienbolt testified,
"somebody was holding a piece of it." In closing arguments,
the prosecutor told the jury Rienbolt's knowledge of the broken
lamp made her a "credible witness."
Clutter's investigation determined that the inside of the ceramic
lamp had no soot and was bone white, meaning it had not been broken
until after firemen had suppressed the fire. Blood spatter at the
scene suggests that the lamp had been pulled off the nightstand
by one of the victims. A fireman who entered the bedroom testified
at trial that he found the lamp in the doorway of the bedroom and
he scooted it out of the way and noticed the lamp was broken. Other
firefighters had already entered the room and likely broke the lamp
when they stepped inside.
On June 17, 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. McCuskey
issued his opinion ordering the State to either release or retry
Steidl. Judge McCuskey determined that Steidl's trial attorney failed
to investigate his defense, and deprived Steidl of his constitutional
right to effective representation of counsel.
Judge McCuskey noted that in 1997, the Illinois Supreme Court determined
that the "evidence in this case was closely balanced"
and "no physical evidence linked [Petitioner] to the crime
scene and [Petitioner] presented an alibi."
Judge McCuskey wrote: "As presented at trial, the lamp was
a significant detail used to bolster Rienbolt's credibility. The
prosecution relied heavily on Rienbolt's supposedly accurate description
of the crime scene to offset her doubtful credibility and the inherently
unbelievable nature of her story . . . Had defense counsel presented
expert testimony showing that Rienbolt's account of seeing a broken
piece of the lamp was flatly inconsistent with the physical evidence
from the crime scene, it would have gone a long way toward convincing
the jury that Rienbolt's trial testimony was not actually an eyewitness
account of the murders. This court concludes that there is a reasonable
probability that scientific refutation of one of the key aspects
of Rienbolt's testimony would have resulted in a different outcome
In March of 2000, the Illinois State Police reviewed new evidence
documenting that Darrell Herrington, a second eyewitness who testified
at trial, had received payment of the "reward" money in
exchange for his false testimony against Steidl and Whitlock. The
investigation was assigned to Michale Callahan Zone 5 commander
of investigations. Callahan's investigation also came to the same
conclusion that the testimony presented at trial lacked credibility.
On March 26, 2004, Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced she would
not appeal Judge McCuskey's order. The Office of the State Appellate
Prosecutor's Office then reviewed the case to determine whether
to retry Steidl. Prosecutor David Rands presented the order to Nolle
Pros the case.
December 14, 2005
Hours -- Segment to highlight role of UIS Innocence Project
in Rhoads murder investigation
Times -- Badge of Honor: Veteran trooper Michale Callahan believed
that the Illinois State Police would always do right. He was wrong.
By Dusty Rhodes, August 25, 2005
Rea Harper exonerated of son's murder; Innocence Project investigation
corroborates confession of real killer
Julie Rea Harper appears in Springfield to thank
the Dominican Sisters for their support in her struggle for justice.
The Sisters were a major source of support for
the Downstate Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at
Bill Clutter works part time at the Project as
its Director of Investigations, and was a founding member of the
Project, which teaches undergraduate students investigation skills.
On October 13, 1997, Julie Rea-Harper's 10-year old son, Joel, was
brutally stabbed to death in the middle of the night by an intruder.
The crime shocked the small town of Lawrenceville, Illinois. She
was a Ph. D. student at Indiana University. For three years, the
case remained unsolved.
Though there was no motive or evidence that she had killed her only
child, Julie was indicted by a special prosecutor who was appointed
after the elected State's Attorney declined to press charges, citing
a lack of evidence.
Bill Clutter advised her attorney to investigate Sells: In June
of 2000, Julie's privately retained attorney was referred to private
investigator Bill Clutter. Clutter was informed that that the attorney's
client was facing indictment on capital murder charges. Hearing
Julieís description of the assailant, and the details of
the crime, Clutter suggested investigating whether Tommy Lynn Sells
committed the murder. The description of the intruder; and the modis
operandi, said Clutter, fit the description of a confessed child
serial killer, Tommy Lynn Sells. On New Years Eve of 1999, Sells
broke into the home of a Del Rio, Texas family at 4:30 a.m. and
brutally stabbed to death 13 year-old Kaylene Harris while the rest
of the family slept through the attack. Another child, 10 year-old
Krystal Surles had her throat slashed, but survived the attack and
provided police a description of the assailant, leading to the arrest
of Sells, who is now serving a death sentence in Texas for that
Clutter suggested that a defense investigation should look at Sells
as a possible suspect in the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick.
Prosecutors prevent access to reforms designed to protect innocent
people from execution: On Oct. 12, 2000, Julie was charged with
capital murder. Having exhausted her life savings on private counsel,
Julie filed a pro se petition requesting the appointment of two
capital qualified attorneys to defend her, seeking the protection
of Supreme Court reforms that were to take effect in March of 2001,
requiring the appointment of two qualified attorneys to defend a
person facing the death penalty.
Prosecutors prevented Julie from receiving the benefit of those
reforms, by announcing they no longer intended to seek the death
penalty. Those reform só including access to the Capital
Litigation Trust Fund, which funds the appointment of investigators,
lawyers, and experts were put in place in January of 2000, after
Anthony Porter, 48 hours away from execution was exonerated by a
private investigator Paul Ciolino, working with a Northwestern University
journalism professor, Dave Protess.
The prosecutor's decision to back away from seeking the death penalty
deprived Julie of the reforms that were designed to guard against
an innocent person being wrongly convicted.
Prosecutors used emotionally charged evidence in their zeal to convict:
Prosecutors improperly elicited testimony from Julie's ex-husband
that she once considering having an abortion when she became pregnant
with Joel. Julie, raised in a deeply religious family, adamantly
denied this. The case, tried in Wayne County, Illinois, in deep
Southern Illinois, was in a conservative rural county where abortion
is fiercely opposed by an overwhelming majority. The prejudicial
impact of this emotionally charged testimony becomes even clearer
when one looks at the 2004 election for the US Senate between Barack
Obama, and Alan Keys, two black candidates who had distinctly opposing
positions on the abortion issue. Keys based his campaign entirely
on his pro-life views on abortion. Though Obama won 70% of the vote
statewide in an overwhelming landslide, Keys commanded 72% of the
popular vote in Wayne County where the case was tried.
Defended by a lone, public defender and outmatched by three opposing
prosecutors, Julie was convicted on March 4, 2002, and sentenced
to serve 65 years in prison.
On May 31, 2002, just weeks after Julie was sentenced, ABC 20/20
aired her story. Diane Fanning, a true crime author on serial killer
Tommy Lynn Sells, watched the program. She corresponded with Sells.
Without providing him when this crime occurred, Sells wrote back
and asked her if this murder happened two days before his Springfield,
MO murder. On Oct. 15, two days after Joel's murder, Sells abducted
and killed 13 year-old Stephanie Mahaney. He was indicted for that
murder by a grand jury after he gave details that only the killer
Investigation by Bill Clutter, Director of Investigations at the
Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois
at Springfield resulted in eyewitness testimony from Alan Berkshire
who saw Sells in Lawrenceville the weekend Joel was killed; and
the testimony of Sandra Wirth, who reported selling a bus ticket
to Winnemucca, Nevada, two days after Joel as killed to a man who
matched the suspect Julie described to police. Winnemucca is significant
because Texas Rangers can place Sells there after Joel was killed.
Texas Ranger John Allen reviewed the evidence gathered by UIS. This
evidence convinced Ranger Allen that Sells' confession to the murder
of Joel Kirkpatrick is genuine.
UIS presents exonerating evidence to the Prisoner Review Board:On
Oct. 24, 2003, the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project presented
compelling evidence corroborating the confession of Tommy Lynn Sells.
Diane Fanning testified as to the circumstances of how Sells confessed
to the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick.
Former state police crime scene investigator Alva Busch pointed
out inaccuracies in the interpretation of crime scene evidence of
one of the State's experts at the first trial that contributed to
Julieís wrongful conviction.
Bill Clutter, director of investigations for the Downstate Illinois
Innocence Project presented a summary of the evidence corroborating
At the urging of the Prisoner Review Board, prosecutor David Rands
and Sgt. Pea of the Illinois State Police traveled to Texas on Nov.
6, 2003, and conducted an audio recorded interview of Sells. Sells
gave details that only the killer would know. Sells told prosecutors
that during the struggle the woman clung to his leg as he drug her
inside the house. Six years earlier, Julie had described this event,
grabbing the intruder's leg and being dragged on the carpet. A nurse
who treated Julie observed what appeared to be rug burns on her
Despite 53 points of corroboration to Sell's confession to the murder
of Joel Kirkpatrick, prosecutors continued to insist they disbelieved
the confession based on the few facts Sells got wrong, taking the
same position prosecutors in DuPage County took in the Nicarico
case when they were presented the confession of serial killer Brian
Dugan in 1985.
UIS discovers evidence of police perjury: The media coverage of
the Prisoner Review Board hearing prompted the former mayor of Lawrenceville
and the former chief of police to contact the Downstate Innocence
Project with evidence suggesting that a Lawrence County Sheriff
deputy testified falsely at the first trial regarding his search
of the back yard looking for footprints in the dew covered grass
in the back yard. Whether reports indicate that there was no dew
on the ground. On the morning of the crime, the former Lawrenceville
police chief conducted an audio interview of the deputy who discovered
Joel's body. The deputy described going into the house upon discovering
broken glass and blood at the back door. At trial, however, the
deputy testified before going inside the house "I shined the
yard with my light. It was heavy dew. I seen no fresh track in the
yard." The deputy did not document this activity in his report.
Yet, his testimony was used by prosecutors as evidence that there
was no intruder.This audio tape was never provided to the defense
during Julie's first trial.
Appellate court vacates conviction.On June 24, 2004, the appellate
court vacated Julie's conviction and ordered her immediate release.
As she was set to take her first step out of prison, prosecutors
re-arrested Julie, ignoring overwhelming evidence that she is innocent.
Supporters quickly rallied and raised $75,000 in less than a week's
time to secure her release on bond. Instead of seeking justice,
as new Supreme Court rules require, prosecutors sought to convict
Jury acquits Julie: On July 26, 2006, a jury in Carlyle found Julie
not guilty of killing her son. She was represented by the Bluhm
Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Law School. Lead attorney,
Ron Safer, a former federal prosecutor and partner at the Chicago
law firm of Schiff, Hardin, donated his time to Julie's legal defense.
He was assisted by Jeff Urdangen, a staff attorney at Northwestern.
Other staff attorneys Karen Daniel, Judith Royal and law students
at Northwestern University assisted the defense team.
The UIS Innocence Project is working to educate lawmakers on the
need for further reforms: Legislation is needed to provide for independent
prosecutors who can fairly review cases involving actual innocence.
Despite death penalty reforms that were put in place to guard against
an innocent person being wrongly convicted, the case of Julie Rea-Harper
exposes serious flaws that still exist in our criminal justice system.
to Women in Crime Ink: A well of thoughts on crime and media
issues from women criminal justice professionals and authors featuring
Bill Clutter as Mystery Man for April 19, 2008 as a guest author,
writing about the Julie Rea Harper case.
Dist. Appellate Court cites Clutters investigation
in reversing the conviction of Herb Whitlock
On Sept. 6, 2007, Justice Thomas Appleton, writing
a unanimous opinion, ordered the conviction of Herbert Whitlock
vacated. The Rule 23 opinion found that prosecutors improperly withheld
exculpatory evidence from the defendant, consisting of crime lab
notes of an Illinois State Police forensic scientist Debra Helton:
According to Clutters report, Helton received a telephone
call from [ISP Agent Jack] Eckerty on October 6, 1986, the date
she began screening the items of evidence for human blood. As Helton
explained to Clutter, much of the evidence had blood on it, and
she wanted to know if anyone other than the [victims] had shed blood
at the crime scene and, if so, what was the injury. Helton wrote
down Eckertys response to that question: Informant cut
on handcut not bad. Not sure if anyone else cut. Says other
two had a lot of blood on them.. . .
To confirm Herringtons statement to Eckerty that he sustained
a cut at the crime scene, Helton needed Herringtons blood
standard. Clutters report states: Helton agreed that
as a scientist, in order for her to prove or disprove the informants
statement to Agent Eckerty that he cut himself at the crime scene,
she would need to have had his blood standard. Helton never
received Herringtons blood standard.
The State violated Brady by failing to disclose (1) the fact that
Herrington originally identified Jim and Ed statement as the perpetrators
of the crime; (2) Heltons notes, containing information that
Herrington had a cut on his hand; and (3) that the police provided
alcohol to Herrington. When we examine these errors cumulatively,
the trial courts conclusion that (1) no probability exists
that the verdict would have been different but for these errors
do not undermine confidence in the verdict is manifestly erroneous.
Clutters report states: Helton agreed that as a scientist,
in order to prove or disprove the informants statement to
Agent Eckerty that he cut himself at the crime scene, she would
need to have had his blood standard. (Emphasis added.) Arguably,
this information raises the possibility that Herringtons testimony
at trial diverges significantly from what really happened at the
Rhoads house and that he was a hands-on participant in the murders.
If [defense trial counsel] Tulin had known that Herrington told
Eckerty he had got cut at the crime scene, Tulin could have cross-examined
Herrington about it, impeaching him further and implying that Herrington,
rather than defendant, committed the crime-a theory Tulin argued
For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the trial courts judgement
on the second amended petition for post conviction relief, vacate
the conviction, and remand this case for a new trial on the charge
of first-degree murder of Karen Rhoads.
(Slip opinion pp. at 15, 47, 52 53)
first day of freedom, on Jan. 8, 2008, at the home where he grew up.
He is surrounded by his attorneys Susanna Ortiz and Kent College of
Law professor Richard Kling. Assisted by law students and the Downstate
Illinois Innocence at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Kling
and Ortiz donated their legal services pro bono.