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Recanted Witness Statements Emerge in Murder Retrial

Daughter of Murder Victim Condemns Retrial of Convicted Killer

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A law professor from a university already facing a $40 million lawsuit alleging the school framed an innocent man and engaged in a pattern of garnering false affidavits is gearing up to get another convicted killer out of prison.  

The basis for the claim against Northwestern University is a familiar one: retracted witness statements.   

Here’s the story:  

On Dec. 8, 2011, Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Kerry Masterson, 25, to 58 years in prison for the 2009 slaying of Michael Norton, the owner and operator of a West Garfield Park candy shop. The motive for the shooting: revenge. Norton, who owned the two-story building where the ground floor candy shop was located, planned to evict a couple of Masterson’s friends from an upstairs apartment because Norton found out that the couple was peddling illegal drugs and was involved in gang activity. 

Elvin Payton and Beatrice Rosado, the about-to-be-evicted Masterson friends who shared a 2-year-old son at the time, pleaded guilty to plotting to kill Norton in May 2009 and agreed to testify as key witnesses against Masterson during her fall 2011 trial. The couple originally told police that Masterson entered the store with Payton while Rosado waited outside in the getaway vehicle. In videotaped interviews, Rosado told Chicago police detectives that she saw Masterson run out of the store shortly after the shooting, while Payton told authorities Masterson had been in on the plan from the beginning and had fired the fatal shot. 

In exchange for their guilty pleas and trial testimony, Payton, 28, was sentenced to 47 years in prison while Rosado, 26, was sentenced to 22 years.  

Case closed? Not by a long shot. Subsequent to their guilty pleas—like so many other key witnesses in wrongful conviction cases—Payton and Rosado essentially recanted the statements they had given to police.  

At trial, Payton told jurors he was drunk and high when he gave his statement and was just telling detectives what they wanted to hear. "I would've said anything to get up outta there," Payton said in a gravelly voice "It was all lies." 

And Rosado? She testified at trial that she was "going along with a lie" when she told police she saw Masterson running out of Norton's shop. She said police showed her a portion of Payton's confession and pressured her to corroborate his version of events. 

"They (detectives) pretty much just kept throwing my kids in my face," Rosado said defiantly. "That's how they tricked me into giving a statement.” 

Years later, portions of this case continue to wend through the Cook County Criminal Court system. The reason is that Masterson’s trial and conviction by a jury of her peers caught the eye of Karen Daniel, a professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Lawand director of —yes, you guessed it—the university Center on Wrongful Convictions.  

There’s a problem with these recanted witness statements, though. Northwestern is currently a defendant in a $40 million federal lawsuit alleging a pattern and practice of misconduct in wrongful conviction cases that emerged from the school’s Innocence Project at the Medill School of Journalism. The lawsuit alleges that investigators at Northwestern manufactured false affidavits that included retracted witness statements.  

Professor Daniel is not new to alleged wrongful convictions. Along with her students, she has freed numerous wrongfully convicted clients, achieving exonerations in both DNA and non-DNA cases.  

It wasn’t just retracted witness statements that bolstered Daniel’s crusade to free Masterson. A bizarre ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court breathed life into the bid to overturn the conviction.

From the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

At trial, Masterson’s motion to admit the testimony of Elizabeth Loftus, a University of Washington psychology professor and memory expert who may have cast doubt on the witness identifications, was denied, and an appellate court affirmed her verdict in September 2014.

Karen L. Daniel, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, represents Masterson.

“I think that Illinois was well behind in terms of having a bias against this kind of testimony,” Daniel said. “Now, I think the court made a very strong statement that this is an appropriate type of testimony.”

Memory expert?

One judge backed up the conviction. The state appeals court backed it up, too. Then the Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded for a new trial.  

The Supreme Court ruling is a dream come true for wrongful conviction attorneys. Now, even eyewitness testimony can be eliminated in a conviction by a “memory expert.”

So the Masterson case is once again going to trial, but there are signs that it is not a sure victory for Northwestern. According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which vigorously backs the Masterson issue, three witnesses fingered Masterson fleeing the scene.

Brittany Norton, the only daughter of Michael Norton who attended every day, every hour of Masterson’s first jury trial is not buying the innocence claims of Masterson.

“Frustration is the first thing that comes to mind,” said Brittany, who recently became a mother for the first time. “I attended every day of the first trial and it is clear to all that the jury got it right—Masterson was responsible for my father’s death. There were multiple witnesses who testified to that fact. Now, we have a silly appeals decision and we have to live with it and go through a second trial. I have moved on with my life, but I will tell you this—I will be present every day of the second trial of Masterson.” 

Masterson’s retrial is scheduled to begin with jury selection seven days hence and reportedly will take about a week to conclude.