Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Illinois: Jason Strong exonerated from Kate Sunderlin murder

False testimony. Incompetent forensic science

On December 9, 1999, the body of an unidentified woman was found in a forest preserve near North Chicago in Lake County, Illinois.

Two weeks later, police charged 24-year-old Jason Strong, who worked in an adult bookstore, with first-degree murder and concealing a homicide. Two other men—21-year-old Jeremy Tweedy and 27-year-old Jason Johnson—were also charged with concealing a homicide.

Lake County Sheriff’s Police said that all three confessed and said that Strong had picked up the woman, who was appeared to be homeless, and took her back to his room at a motel where he lived next to the adult bookstore and a strip club called Baby Dolls. When the woman microwaved a burrito that belonged to Strong, he whipped her, poured molten wax over her body and bashed her head with a bottle of tequila. The three then took the woman—who they said was still alive—and dumped her along a road in the forest preserve.

Strong (who disavowed his confession) and the other two men lived in separate rooms in the motel. Johnson, like Strong, worked in the adult bookstore; Tweedy was married to a stripper at the club.

Strong went to trial in Lake County Circuit Court in October 2000. The victim remained unidentified. Johnson had recanted his confession by that time and was not called as a witness. A female sheriff’s deputy testified that she was working undercover posing as a prostitute shortly after the victim’s body was found. She had a conversation with Tweedy during which he spoke of the murder. Tweedy had later been questioned and after giving at least six different statements implicated himself, Strong and Johnson in the murder.

Tweedy—whom the prosecution conceded was "truthfully challenged"—admitted that much of what he had initially said about the murder was false.

On October 18, 2000, the jury convicted Strong of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 46 years in prison.

In 2005, authorities finally buried the victim’s body although she remained unidentified. In 2006, police in Wisconsin investigating another unrelated murder, connected the unidentified body from Strong’s case to a missing person’s report filed in December 1999 in Carpentersville, Illinois, for 34-year-old Mary Kate Sunderlin, a developmentally disabled woman. Dental records confirmed that the victim was Sunderlin, who had secretly married Gonzalo Chamizo three weeks prior to her death.

In 2013, Michael Nerheim was elected State’s Attorney of Lake County and created a conviction integrity unit to review questionable convictions. By that time, Mermel had retired due to public controversy over his statement in the Strong case and similar statements in other cases. Nerheim agreed that the conviction integrity unit would review the Strong conviction.

In 2014, three medical experts independently reviewed the autopsy reports and photographs and all concluded that Sunderlin had been dead for several days when her body was discovered—which meant that the confessions by Strong, Tweedy and Johnson were all false. Some of her injuries were probably weeks or months old, the experts concluded.

The findings were brought to the attention of the federal district court in Chicago where a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Strong’s behalf was pending. On May 28, 2015, District Attorney Nerheim and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which was defending the habeas case, agreed that Strong’s conviction should be vacated. On that date, United States District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly signed an order vacating the conviction, the murder charge was dismissed and Strong was released.

Original report here

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