Friday, April 23, 2010

Meet the Exonerated: Illinois's Death Row, Part Ten

Lloyd Eldon Miller Jr., a 29-year-old cab driver with no prior criminal record, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1956 in Hancock County, Illinois, for the murder the previous year of 8-year-old Janice Elizabeth May, whose battered body was found in an abandoned rail car near her home not far from Burlington tracks in the town of Canton. Miller faced ten execution dates — coming within eight hours of execution once — before he was exonerated 15 years later.

The conviction rested primarily on a confession that prosecutors persuaded the trial judge had been voluntarily signed. Miller claimed he signed the confession, which had been written out by a police officer, because police threatened him with the death penalty if he refused to sign it. No one seriously questioned the veracity of the confession, which seemed to have been corroborated by ample physical evidence. The most crucial piece of evidence was a pair of undershorts that Miller supposedly admitted, were his and that the prosecution said were stained with blood.

Appellate lawyers hoping only to save Miller from execution soon discovered troubling facts about the prosecution case. Initially, they noted, the confession was inconsistent with known facts of the crime — an issue that Miller's trial counsel had neglected to explore. Miller's landlady, who had not testified at the trial, told the appellate lawyers that Miller had been asleep at home when the crime occurred, and it turned out that the jockey shorts were too small for Miller.

The bombshell, however, was that the stain on the shorts that the prosecution had allowed the jury to believe was blood actually was paint. Moreover, the police and prosecutors had known all along that the stain was paint because the state crime laboratory had so reported.

After Miller won a federal writ of habeas corpus, essentially exonerating him, the prosecution dropped all charges in 1971.

The Illinois State Bar Association, which at the time handled attorney disciplinary matters, undertook an investigation of prosecutorial misconduct in the case. However, the association found no grounds for action. Its report noted that the prosecution had not actually said that the stain on the shorts was blood; rather the stain had been referred to in Miller's so-called confession as blood. By remaining silent on the issue, the prosecution merely allowed the jury to assume that the stain was blood. “The presence or absence of blood on the shorts,” said the disciplinary committee, “was not a material question in the case.”

Scapegoat justice; Lloyd Miller and the failure of the American legal system by Willard J. Lasser, presents the sad story of Lloyd Miller. The author, a lawyer, recounts the happenings from the time of the murder until the case against the convicted murderer is closed 16 years later. The story starts with the suspect coerced into a confession and continues with suppressed and falsified evidence by the prosecution, the defense being denied access to evidence or reports, a criminalist falsely testifying in court, an unstable and unreliable witness helped by the prosecution to render perjured testimony, and the suspect being convicted and sentenced to death.

"The Miller case, was not merely an isolated failure of the American legal system, but rather a "demonstration of the weakness of an institution" ..."which shows clearly the ineptness, crudity and unfairness of the American system of criminal justice." -- William J. Lasser

Steven L. Manning, a former Chicago police officer and FBI informant, was sentenced to death by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Edward M. Fiala, Jr., on November 22, 1993, for the murder of James Pellegrino, a suburban trucker and former Manning business partner. The conviction and death sentence rested primarily on the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Thomas Dye.

Pellegrino left home on May 14, 1990, after telling his wife Joyce that if he turned up dead she should call the FBI and report that Manning had killed him, and that's what she did after Pellegrino's body was found floating in the Des Plaines River near the Lawrence Avenue Bridge in Chicago on June 3. He had been shot in the head. His wrists and ankles were bound with duct tape and his head was in a plastic bag and covered with a towel.

On July 26, 1990, Manning was arrested and placed in the Cook County Jail, where the FBI arranged for him to be assigned to a cell with Dye, a notorious con man, jailhouse informant, and cocaine dealer with a long criminal record, including ten felony convictions, dating to 1978. Dye had recently been sentenced to 14 years in prison on theft and firearms charges and was awaiting trial in three other felony cases.

Dye soon reported that Manning had confessed to the Pellegrino murder. Since Dye was a known liar and perjurer, his claim carried little credibility without corroboration. In an effort to substantiate it, Cook County Assistant State's Attorneys Patrick J. Quinn and William G. Gamboney arranged for Dye to record conversations with Manning. On six hours of tape, Manning proceeded to say certain things that cast him in an unfavorable light, but there was nothing on the tapes about Pellegrino.

Before the trial, Manning was taken to Clay County, Missouri, to face trial for the purported kidnaping of two Kansas City drug dealers, Charles Ford and Mark Harris. Although the alleged crime occurred in 1984, the charges were not filed until July 20, 1990, six days before Manning's arrest in the Pellegrino case.

Dye proposed to Manning that they create a phony alibi for the Kansas City crime. With FBI approval, Dye's girlfriend, Sylvia Herrera, then met with Manning to concoct an alibi and thus became the Missouri prosecutors' star witness. The supposed victims could not identify Manning, but the sister of one of them tentatively picked him out of a photo spread. Her identification was uncertain, however, and she failed to identify him in the courtroom.

A 1991 trial ended in a mistrial, due to a hung jury, but Manning was convicted at his second trial in January of 1992. Clay County Circuit Court Judge Frank Conley sentenced him to two consecutive life terms plus 100 years. The harsh sentences were based on Manning's prior record. He had been convicted in Cook County in March of 1987 of a $260,000 jewelry heist and sentenced to four years. As a result of that case, Manning was discharged from the Chicago police force and became an FBI informant.

Even though no physical evidence linked Manning to the Pellegrino murder, Quinn and Gamboney proceeded to take Manning to trial before Judge Fiala and a jury in 1993. Because the murder allegedly had occurred during an armed robbery, it was a capital offense.

Dye testified that Manning had confessed to the crime during six hours of taped conversations, but the recordings contained no such admission. Dye's explanation for the missing admissions were that they occurred during two brief gaps in the tapes, one of which resulted from a malfunction and the other from Dye accidentally covered the microphone, which was tucked into his underwear.

Judge Fialia also permitted Joyce Pellegrino to testify that her husband had told her that if he turned up dead Manning killed him.

The jury found Manning guilty and, after he waived his right to a jury sentencing hearing, he was sentenced to death by Fiala. The prosecutors then arranged for Dye's 14-year prison sentence to be cut to six years.

On April 16, 1998, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial, holding that Fiala had erred in allowing the jury to hear both Joyce Pellegrino's testimony and the Dye-Manning tapes, which contained irrelevant and prejudicial references to other crimes allegedly committed by Manning. On January 19, 2000, prosecutors dropped the charges. Manning thus became the thirteenth person exonerated and released from death row after capital punishment was resumed in 1977 in Illinois.
The Missouri reversal

Upon his release in Illinois, Manning was returned to Missouri to serve the prescribed sentences for his 1992 kidnaping conviction, which had been affirmed by the Missouri Appellate Court in 1994. After U.S. District Court Judge Ortrie D. Smith denied Manning's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Manning appealed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded the case on the ground of government misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and judicial error. The government's use of an informant planted in Manning's cell violated his constitutional right to counsel and, as a result Judge Frank Conley should have suppressed it, said the Eighth Circuit, adding that the failure of Manning's trial counsel to object to the introduction of Sylvia Herrera's testimony was ineffective assistance of counsel. created a circumstance ripe for its agents to elicit incriminating statements from petitioner in the absence of counsel. The Eight Circuit order barred Sylvia Herrera from testifying at the retrial, leaving Clay County prosecutors with no case.

Manning was exonerated on January 19, 2000, after which he was sent to Missouri, where he remained in prison on unrelated charges until February 26, 2004, when he also was exonerated of those charges. Manning filed a federal civil rights suit against his former FBI handlers, Robert Buchan and Gary Miller, whom he accused of framing him because he refused to continue working for them.

On February 26, 2004, all charges were dropped, and Manning walked free after 14 years in custody for convictions predicated on informant testimony.

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