Jim Dey: Rethink pays off in wrongful-conviction case

Jim Dey: Rethink pays off in wrongful-conviction case

It ain't over till it's over.

You can ask Alan Beaman about that, too.

A month ago, it looked like his long legal battle over the civil lawsuit he filed for his wrongful murder conviction was finished, and that he had lost. In fact, his lawyer said as much at the time.

"As a legal matter, we're done," said David Shapiro, a Northwestern University law professor.

Shapiro made his comment after the Illinois Supreme Court rejected Beaman's request to review an appellate court decision dismissing the lawsuit the Rockford resident filed against the city of Normal and three police officers.

Then things started to happen. The Northwestern lawyers representing Beaman decided they just couldn't throw in the towel and would ask the seven-member Illinois Supreme Court to reconsider its decision dismissing Beaman's case.

"We had to try because of the significance of the case and of the issue," said Jeffrey Urdangen, one of Shapiro's colleagues.

So the lawyers drafted their motion in a way that was aimed at pointing out in stark terms what had happened to their client and what it had cost him.

"The court should hear this case because of the profound injustice Alan Beaman suffered at the hands of the police officers who procured his wrongful conviction through a malicious and jaundiced investigation. A college student at the time of his arrest for murder, Mr. Beaman languished in prison for over a dozen years for a crime he manifestly did not commit," the defense motion states.

Motions asking courts to reconsider their decisions are hardly new.

But what happened next was unusual. Before the prosecution could even express its opposition to the defense motion for reconsideration, Beaman's lawyers received a rare notice from the Supreme Court.

Dated Dec. 8, it read, "On the court's own motion, the order of Nov. 22, 2017, denying the petition for leaving to appeal is vacated. The petition for leave to appeal is allowed. Order entered by the court."

In other words, justices on the high court didn't need to be asked before reversing their decision not to hear the case.

"That's what one could surmise from the language on the order," Urdangen said.

The Supreme Court is a Byzantine institution, not given to explaining why it does what it does.

In matters where the court announces the reversal of a decision, it sometimes explains that it's doing so because it acted "improvidently" on the first go-around.

This time, however, there was not even that limited explanation.

Nonetheless, Beaman's civil lawsuit has been resurrected and is headed back to the state's highest court.

Christopher Bonjean, the court's communications spokesman, said Beaman's legal brief is due on Jan. 12. Once that is on file, lawyers for Normal's police department will respond.

Bonjean said, "It looks like (the) May term would be the earliest for oral arguments."

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The court's reversal was big news in central Illinois, where the Beaman case has played out over the years.

He became a murder suspect after the body of his former girlfriend, Illinois State University student Jennifer Lockmiller, was found in her apartment in August 1993. Ultimately, he was charged with and convicted of murder and then sentenced to 50 years in prison.

A student at Illinois Wesleyan, Beaman vehemently protested his innocence, insisting that he was not in Normal when Ms. Lockmiller was killed. Instead, Beaman said, he was living with his parents during a summer break at their home in Rockford.

Two decades later, scientific tests revealed that neither Beaman nor any other suspects police investigated at the time were the sources of DNA recovered from Ms. Lockmiller's body. Instead, tests revealed that two so-far unidentified men are the sources of the DNA, and the case has been re-opened.

By the time of that disclosure, Beaman's conviction had been overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. He later was granted a certificate of innocence by Champaign County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Ford and received $175,000 in compensation from the state for the time he spent behind bars.

Gov. Pat Quinn also intervened in the case, granting a pardon to Beaman on the grounds of innocence.

Now married and the father of two, Beaman works as a design engineer at a tool-cutting firm and is active in community theater, one of his longtime interests.

But he has also pursued civil redress for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

* * * * *

A federal lawsuit he filed against law officers was dismissed. Now, he's pursuing a similar course in the state courts, where the question is to what extent the city of Normal and its police officers can be held responsible for their roles in his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

The defense argues that "Mr. Beaman deserves a day in court to seek justice from the men who maliciously robbed him of his youth" and that not allowing a trial to go forth would ensure "that the tragic history of Mr. Beaman's criminal case will repeat itself."

They alleged that former Normal police officers Tim Freesmeyer, Dave Warner and Frank Zayas became fixated on Beaman as a suspect and bent the rules to see that he would be charged and convicted.

Ultimately, Beaman's conviction was overturned because police and prosecutors withheld information from the defense about an alternate suspect, one that DNA evidence later excluded as a suspect along with Beaman.

Lawyers for the city and the police, however, contend it would be a mistake to hold police responsible because of their investigative roles, that it was the McLean County' State's Attorney's office that charged Beaman and took him to trial. They contend that allowing Beaman's case to go to trial would open up police officers to malicious prosecutions merely for doing their jobs.

So both sides are arguing they have been or would be victims of "malicious" litigation, claims the high court belatedly decided to address and resolve.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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