When he was 16, Charles Green stood before a judge who found him guilty of participating in a gruesome 1985 quadruple murder and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Today, Green is 53, suffering from failing eyesight, and awaiting the outcome of a clemency petition addressed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker — the last possible means for him to establish his innocence.
Green’s nightmare began Jan. 12, 1985, when two men burst into a reputed drug apartment on the West Side. They stabbed to death Raynard Rule and shot two women, Lauren Rule and Yvonne Brooks.
They doused the bodies with kerosene and set the apartment on fire. A fourth victim, Kim Brooks, was severely burned but survived long enough to be questioned by the police and to provide detailed descriptions of the two men who attacked her and the others.
A month later, three people were arrested: Derrick House, Teddy Bobo, and Green, a 16-year-old with severe learning disabilities. Subjected to 27 hours of interrogation during which he was denied access to his mother or a lawyer, Green eventually signed a statement in which he confessed that House and another man paid him $25 to knock on the door of Rule’s apartment so they could gain entry.
Green has been unwavering in his insistence over the years that police coerced his confession by beating him and telling him that if he cooperated he could go home to his mother.
On several occasions before and during his trial, prosecutors offered Green a deal. The charges against him would be dropped if he testified against House. When he refused, prosecutors instead sought to exclude Kim Brooks’ deathbed description of her assailants, which in no way resembled the defendants.
Green sought to have his confession suppressed, but Judge Romie Palmer ruled it was admissible. At the same time, Palmer granted the prosecution’s motion to exclude Brooks’ detailed descriptions of the two men who committed the slayings on the grounds that her deathbed statement was hearsay, because she was not available to be cross-examined.
“In essence,” Green’s clemency petition states, “the trial court and the state’s attorney believed that a confession taken from a 16-year-old boy after a 27-hour unlawful arrest and interrogation was more reliable than an eyewitness-victim’s deathbed identification.”
House and Green were convicted of the four murders. At the time, the death penalty was still in force in Illinois. House was sentenced to death. Green was given a sentence of natural life, because he was a juvenile. The third suspect — Teddy Bobo — was released for lack of evidence. The only evidence the state presented in support of the conviction of Green was the contested confession.
The Illinois Court of Appeals affirmed Green’s conviction, prompting an extraordinary dissent from Justice Eugene Pincham. The judge, a celebrated champion of civil rights, sharply criticized Green’s lawyer for his “grossly inadequate and incompetent performance” and then went on, in effect, to make the case the lawyer had failed to present in a dissent that reads like a brief on Green’s behalf to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, however, never got an opportunity to consider the merits of Green’s conviction. In House’s case, by contrast, an appeal was automatic, because he had received the death penalty. In 1990, the court reversed his conviction in part because the trial judge had erred in ruling that Brooks’ description of the killers was inadmissible.
The same reasoning applies equally to Green, but by this time he had no lawyer and an appeal was not filed on his behalf.
Rather than stand trial again, House agreed to a deal under which he pleaded guilty to one of the four murders in exchange for a maximum sentence of 40 years. As was the practice at the time, he was released for good behavior in 2006 after serving half his sentence.
Green remained in prison. This outcome is all the more outrageous, if one accepts the state’s theory of the case. The man who allegedly committed four murders was released, while the boy who allegedly knocked on the door remained imprisoned.
In 2007, the state’s attorney’s office offered Green a plea deal: He would be immediately released, if he pleaded guilty to one count of murder. Determined to clear his name, he again refused.
Finally, in 2009, Judge Marjorie Laws commuted Green’s sentence, finding that the sentence of natural life for a juvenile was excessive, and he was released from prison.
Since his release, Green and his attorney Jared Kosoglad have pursued every possible means of establishing his innocence. Among other things, they brought a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that resulted in the public release of the files of all police misconduct investigations over a four-year period. In the process, Green emerged as a champion for those like himself who need access to these records to prove they were wrongfully convicted.
The link between wrongful conviction and police abuse is powerfully dramatized by Green’s case. Since his conviction, the officer who interrogated him, Detective John Summerville, has been alleged on multiple occasions to have coerced people in custody to make self-incriminating statements. His career as a police officer ended in 1997 when he was arrested and convicted of sexual assault.
Developments in other legal venues have bolstered the argument that Green was wrongfully convicted. Yet, the legal system has been unable or unwilling to correct the cascading miscarriages of justice in his case. At this late hour, the only avenue open to him in his quest to establish his innocence is his pending clemency petition.
The decision of whether or not to grant a pardon to Green rests ultimately with one person: Gov. Pritzker. The governor has been an effective champion for common sense criminal justice reform. There is reason to hope those measures will help prevent harm that would otherwise occur in the future.
It is equally important, though, to repair past harm to the limited extent it is possible to do so. No one can restore to Charles Green the years he spent in prison nor the possibilities in life that were foreclosed to him because he was branded a quadruple murderer.
But Gov. Pritzker can do the one thing that Charles Green has so patiently and persistently sought. He can give him back his good name.
Jamie Kalven is founder of the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization on the South Side. He received the 2022 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence from Harvard University.
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December 16, 2022 at 05:22PM