It’s a bombshell.
From the Chicago Tribune:
A federal jury sided with Chicago police Friday and awarded no damages to a woman who alleged that detectives coerced her into confessing to the killing of her 4-year-old son more than a decade ago . . .
After hearing three weeks of evidence, the jury deliberated for about seven hours before finding in favor of the officers on all seven counts, including conspiracy, fabrication of evidence, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Once again, a wrongful conviction case that goes to trial collapses. This time, it’s a child murder.
What makes this verdict particularly chilling is the fact that attorneys for the detectives argued in the trial that Harris was guilty of the murder.
The claims by a consortium of wrongful conviction lawyers in this case were as bizarre as they were baseless. Who would believe for an instant that a collection of Chicago detectives would suddenly and arbitrarily decide to transform the seemingly accidental death of a child into a murder case, fingering the mother who had just lost that child as the killer? To believe this story, one has to imagine that detectives are so corrupt in Chicago that they come to work and throw murder cases on people, even a woman still grieving the loss of her child.
But that’s exactly the bill of goods sold in the Nicole Harris case, transforming Harris from child killer into victim.
On Friday that narrative finally suffered a mortal blow in the federal courts—not the Chicago courts—as a jury weighed the evidence and rejected every claim against the detectives made by Harris’s high-powered legal team, including Joey Mogul, top attorney at the People’s Law Office. After thirteen years of fighting the case, the detectives are finally vindicated.
To repeat: The attorneys for the detectives argued that Harris was guilty of the murder.
The timing of the verdict is also compelling.
Earlier in the week, detectives refused to testify in the wrongful conviction bid of another killer, Jose Maysonet. Their decision not to testify, on the advice of their attorneys, compelled Cook County State’s Attorney Eric Sussman not to retry the case.
A media storm blew up in the city, one media outlet after another attacking the decision by the detectives not to testify.
“An accused killer is walking free because five former cops—who were paid to investigate and testify—won’t talk in court,” the Sun-Times published in an editorial.
But the Harris case illuminates clearly why attorneys for detectives advise their clients not testify in wrongful conviction cases.
Police responded to a call of a dead child at Resurrection Hospital in May 2005. There they discovered four-year-old Jaquari Dancy, who had apparently died from strangulation from a cord around his neck. At first, detectives did not suspect any foul play. The death appeared accidental. Jaquari’s mother, Nicole Harris, made no statements that aroused their suspicion.
However, when detectives returned to the crime scene and conducted a canvas, interviewing neighbors, they obtained statements from the neighbors that contradicted Nicole Harris’s narrative.
When the detectives confronted her, Harris spontaneously admitted that she had strangled Jaquari because she was upset that he had left the house when she had gone to the laundromat. Harris also gave a videotaped confession in front of a prosecutor.
At trial, however, Harris changed her story. She claimed that the detectives pushed her and threatened her, forcing her to confess. She claimed that she told prosecutors about this coercion, but they ignored her.
The jury didn’t believe the coercion story. They were out just two hours. They convicted Harris, and she was sentenced to thirty years.
The federal appeals court reversed the conviction not based on police misconduct, but because of the conduct of Harris’ trial and decisions by the judge regarding the testimony of Harris’s child. The court left it up to prosecutors to retry Harris.
The media jumped on the case, giving full voice to Jenner & Block and Northwestern. As in so many wrongful conviction cases, prosecutors balked. Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez declined to retry the case, a decision that infuriates the detectives who worked the case to this day.
“The blood of Jaquari Dancy is on the Cook County State’s Attorney for not retrying this case,” former detective Mike Landando said, one of the defendants in the case.
After Harris was freed, her lawyers faced a crucial hurdle: the Certificate of Innocence. Whenever an offender is exonerated, their attorneys file a petition asking the court to declare their client’s innocence.
Obtaining the certificate lays the groundwork for a civil lawsuit and intimidates city attorneys representing the detectives from going to civil trial. If a judge grants a Certificate of Innocence, it’s that much harder for city attorneys to maintain that the detectives did nothing wrong.
True to form of a Cook County prosecutor, Alvarez declined to contest the innocence petition, selling out the detectives and her own prosecutors once again.
The Harris case was a relatively routine murder investigation with the offender spontaneously confessing. Nevertheless, the entire criminal justice system turned on the detectives and threw them under the bus. The prosecutor betrayed them twice, the judge who issued the Certificate of Innocence betrayed them, and, of course, the media, who reflexively echoed the claims of Harris’s wrongful conviction attorneys, betrayed the detectives. Clearly the jury in the trial saw things the media never did.
The detectives in this case heroically fought for thirteen years to maintain the integrity of their investigation. It was their doggedness along with the rare decision by the city not to settle and let the case go to trial that made this case an exception.
Imagine if the city settled, as they normally do. How many other offenders convicted by these detectives would have come forward and made similar allegations, hoping to cash in as well? And then how long before the state’s attorney would turn on the detectives?
Doesn’t the appalling breakdown of the criminal justice system in the Harris case illuminate why attorneys for detectives advise their clients to invoke the Fifth Amendment?