Jim Dey: It can be a long, winding road to 'innocent'
A simple 15-minute hearing — one in which Champaign County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Ford spent more time explaining procedures than his ruling — ended 20 years of turmoil for a one-time convicted murderer who was granted a formal declaration of innocence.
"I can't do anything but praise God. It's a great day," said Alan Beaman, who served 13 years behind bars for the 1993 murder of his onetime girlfriend, Jennifer Lockmiller, a student at Illinois State University.
Five years ago, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned Beaman's conviction. On Thursday, Judge Ford granted Beaman a formal declaration of innocence, a decision that not only will help Beaman clear his reputation but authorize the state's payment to him of more than $175,000 as compensation. Now married, a father and machinist in Rockford, Beaman said his only plan for the money is to "pay bills."
Family members who accompanied the 40-year-old Beaman to court were ecstatic.
"We have been waiting for this day for 20 years," said Beaman's father, Barry Beaman, a retired engineer from Rockford.
The hearing was pro forma, no suspense about the outcome because the McLean County state's attorney's office two weeks ago abandoned its three-year campaign to deny Beaman "innocence" status.
New to the law, "innocence" petitions can be easy and quick or time-consuming and complicated, depending on how prosecutors respond.
That's why questions are swirling around another innocence petition filed in Champaign County Circuit Court, this one involving a Rantoul murder case in which 51-year-old Andre Davis spent 32 years in prison before new DNA evidence excluded him and linked another man to the crime.
Davis, then 19, was convicted of the 1980 kidnapping, rape and murder of 3-year-old Brianna Stickel and sentenced to life in prison. Subsequent scientific testing revealed the source of DNA found on the child's body was not Davis, but Maurice Tucker, a resident of the house where the child's body was found.
Maurice Tucker, who lives in Minnesota, was among the witnesses the prosecution called to testify against Davis. He has not been charged in the case.
Davis was released from prison in the summer of 2012 after the 4th District Appellate Court in Springfield reversed his conviction based on the DNA evidence, and Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz declined to retry him.
Davis' lawyer filed a request for a certificate of innocence on Feb. 4. The Champaign County state's attorney office faces a Wednesday (May 1) deadline to file its response.
Rietz declined to disclose what her office will do — oppose, support or take no position — but said "we're very likely to object to the petition."
"My position is that on May 1 our response is due. ... We're going to file our response by May 1," Rietz said.
Jane Raley, who represents Davis and works for the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions, said she has been in contact with the state's attorney's office but been given no indication how the case will proceed.
"I don't know what it's going to be," she said.
Innocence petitions are new to the law, created in 2008 by legislators in response to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's refusal to review the clemency and pardon petitions filed with his office. They provide a judicial avenue for petitioners who previously could rely only on the governor for action.
The rules surrounding innocence petitions are vague; the statute even fails to list a filing period for potential objectors to respond. Petitioners like Beaman and Davis have the legal burden of showing by a "preponderance of the evidence" that they are entitled to an innocence finding.
But while prosecutors, either the local state's attorney or the attorney general's office, do not bear the burden of proof, they're still stuck with most or all of the same evidence they had before.
If Rietz's office objects to Davis' innocence petition, it will be interesting to see how it does so in light of the repudiation of the original evidence against Davis.
Scientific evidence used at his trial to include Davis among a pool of suspects now excludes him and implicates Tucker.
Prosecution witnesses who testified against Davis at his trial have been revealed as liars.
On what basis can they argue that Davis is guilty when the entire theory of the original case has been shown to be demonstrably false?
McLean County prosecutors fought Beaman's innocence petition, dragging the case out for three years before a newly elected state's attorney threw in the towel.
State's Attorney Jason Chambers based his decision on new DNA evidence recovered from the body of the victim that implicated two additional unknown men. Beaman and three others who had been identified as possible suspects were excluded as sources of the DNA.
The evidence against Beaman, however, was never strong, and Beaman's lawyers have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging improper conduct, including the withholding of exculpatory evidence, by police and prosecutors.
Beaman lawyer Jeff Urdangan specifically charged that Beaman prosecutor James Souk, now a retired judge, withheld evidence favorable to Beaman, distorted evidence against Beaman and knowingly made false statements to the Beaman jury.
Souk is a former assistant state's attorney in Champaign County well known to local veteran lawyers.
The original case against Beaman was based on prosecution claims that he was the only person with the motive (jealousy over her relations with other men) and opportunity to strangle and stab Lockmiller. Beaman was living in Rockford at the time of the murder, but prosecutors argued there was a small window of time in which he could have driven to Normal, killed Lockmiller in a jealous rage and then returned home.
The Illinois Supreme Court unanimously overturned Beaman's conviction because prosecutors improperly withheld information to the defense about another possible suspect. But the high court said the state's evidence was "not particularly strong." The evidence of opportunity was "strongly disputed," and other contentions about Beaman's guilt were based only on "inferences."
Beaman, then a student in technical theater at Illinois Wesleyan, was 20 years old when Lockmiller was murdered. Sentenced to 50 years in prison, Beaman completed his degree while out on bond.
Despite his new innocence status, Beaman acknowledged "there will always be naysayers." But he expressed relief that "I have been declared innocent by the state of Illinois."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.