Saturday, April 17, 2010

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

In January of 1994, Gary Gauger of McHenry County, Illinois was wrongfully sentenced to death for the murder of his parents. Despite an exhaustive search, no physical evidence was found linking Gauger to the crime. After an all-night interrogation, Gauger made statements that police and prosecutors claimed constituted a confession. He was sentenced to die based only on an unrecorded testimony he denied making. In March of 1996, Gauger was freed on appeal because of trial improprieties. The true murderer of his parents was discovered several years after Gauger’s case was reversed and remanded.

Morris and Ruth Gauger were murdered on April 8, 1993 at their McHenry County farm, where they, in addition to farming, operated a motorcycle shop and sold imported rugs. Gauger, who lived with his parents, discovered his 74-year-old father’s body the next day and called 911 to summon paramedics, who notified sheriff’s police. Shortly after deputies arrived, they found the body of 70-year-old Ruth in a trailer from which the rugs were sold.

Gauger was indicted on May 5, 1993, on two counts of murder. He denied that he had confessed, claiming he had made the statements only hypothetically after his interrogators persuaded him it was possible he had committed the double murder during an alcoholic blackout. The statements were not electronically recorded, and deputies made no contemporaneous recording of them.

At a hearing on a pretrial motion to suppress the alleged confession, Gary testified that deputies had induced him to speculate about how he might have committed the crime. He said they accomplished this by telling him that he had failed a polygraph examination and that clothes drenched in his parents’ blood had been found in his room. In fact, the polygraph had been inconclusive and there were no blood-drenched clothes.

At trial, the jury heard the official version of Gary’s allegedly inculpatory statements. According to deputies, Gary told them he committed the crimes by coming upon his parents from behind, pulling their heads back by their hair, and cutting their throats. The only evidence introduced to corroborate the alleged statements was the testimony of a pathologist who performed autopsies on the bodies and a state forensic scientist who examined loose hairs found near Ruth’s body.

After the jury found him guilty on both counts, Gary waived a jury for sentencing and was sentenced to death by Judge Henry L. Cowlin of January 11, 1994. Nine months later, after Northwestern University Law Professor Lawrence C. Marshall agreed to take the case on appeal, Cowlin reduced the sentence to life in prison.

On March 8, 1996, the Second District Illinois Appellate Court unanimously reversed and remanded the case for a new trial on the ground that Cowlin erred in failing to grant a motion to suppress Gary’s allegedly inculpatory statements. In an unpublished opinion written by Judge S. Louis Rathje, with Judges Robert D. McLaren and Fred A. Geiger concurring, the court held that the statements were the fruit of an arrest made without probable cause and therefore should not have been admitted at the trial.

Without the confession, McHenry County State’s Attorney Gary W. Pack had no choice but to drop the charges, and set Gary free. Pack continued to suggest publicly that Gary had in fact committed the crime and was freed only because the prosecution could not meet its burden of proof without the confession.

Pack’s position was severely undermined in June of 1997, however, when a federal grand jury in Milwaukee indicted two members of a Wisconsin motorcycle gang known as the Outlaws for 34 acts of racketeering, including the murder of the Gaugers. One of the Outlaws, James Schneider, pleaded guilty to acts relating to the murders in 1998. The other, Randall E. Miller, was convicted of the charges in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee in June of 2000.

At Miller’s trial, prosecutors played tape recordings in which Miller was heard to say that the authorities had nothing to link him to the Gauger murders because he had been careful not to leave any physical evidence. The recordings had been made by an Outlaw who turned government informant.

After his release, Gauger returned to farming in McHenry County.

Joseph Burrows , the third person to be exonerated from Illinois's death row, was convicted of murder and armed robbery. The prosecution's primary evidence was the testimony of the two men who also had been charged with the murder. Direct evidence implicated the two, but by naming an alleged accomplice they escaped the death penalty. Burrows was tried twice, the first trial ending in a hung jury, the second in a verdict of guilt and a sentence of death. Two years later, after the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed Burrows’s conviction and death sentence, one - who had an IQ of 76 - of the two men recanted his testimony, saying the police had intimidated him into falsely confessing and implicating Burrows.

discovered a letter Potter had written asking a friend to falsely testify that he had seen her in a blue pickup truck that she claimed Burrows had driven to and from the crime scene. Confronted with the letter, Potter admitted that she had falsely accused Burrows and Frye to minimize her own culpability and because she thought, mistakenly, that Burrows had burglarized her trailer.

She admitted that she alone had killed the elderly victim in an attempted robbery to obtain drug money. After a hearing at which Frye and Potter testified, Burrows won a new trial. The prosecution unsuccessfully appealed and eventually dropped the charges.

Burrows was released on September 8, 1994, five years, one month, and seven days after he was sentenced to death. His left arm bore a prison tattoo from Death Row: "Die Free."

After his release, he was employed by a landscaping company in the Champaign-Urbana area. He filed a civil rights suit, which was settled for a mere $100,000, a small fraction of what comparable cases would be settled for in the years ahead.

In 2005, Burrows was convicted of possession of chemicals he allegedly used in the manufacture of methamphetamine and sentenced to six years in prison. With day-for-day good time, he was released in 2008.

On October 15, 2009, fifteen years after his release from Death Row, he died at age fifty-six.

Burrows spent five years on death row before a court reversed his conviction and dropped all charges.

"I've sat in a cage for five and a half years and watched my life crumble. Things build up on you until you're ready to scream." -- Joseph Burrows

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