Jim Dey | Once at a dead end, Beaman case gets reprieve

Jim Dey | Once at a dead end, Beaman case gets reprieve

The state Supreme Court has breathed new life into a "malicious prosecution" lawsuit stemming from the 1993 murder of Illinois State University student Jennifer Lockmiller and the subsequent wrongful conviction of her onetime boyfriend.

It remains unclear if and when Alan Beaman, who served 13 years in prison before his conviction was overturned, will get a civil trial on his allegation that Normal police officers botched the investigation that led to his incarceration.

But the state's high court unanimously decided last week to send the case back for review by a state appeals court that earlier had dismissed Beaman's case.

The high court ruled the appellate court used the incorrect legal standard to determine if the lawsuit should proceed.

"On remand, the appellate court must examine whether the defendants' conduct or actions proximately caused the commencement or continuance of the original criminal proceedings by determining whether defendants played a significant role in Beaman's prosecution," Justice Thomas Kilbride wrote for the unanimous seven-member court.

Both a McLean County trial judge and the 4th District Appellate Court had dismissed Beaman's lawsuit against the city of Normal and investigating officers because it found that McLean County prosecutors made the decision to charge Beaman after a lengthy investigation.

In also dismissing a separate-but-similar lawsuit by Beaman, the federal courts made a similar ruling that prosecutors, not police, charged Beaman. It said prosecutors are immune from civil liability.

Now the appellate court must decide whether the police officers played a "significant role" in the prosecutors' decision to charge Beaman. The answer to that question, at first blush, would appear to be that they did.

Normal police conducted a long inquiry into Lockmiller's death that, according to the Beaman's lawyers, featured a single-minded focus on Beaman.

A student at Illinois Wesleyan University, Beaman was convicted, sentenced to 50 years in prison but released in 2008 after the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction.

The court concluded that Beaman deserved a new trial because police withheld exculpatory material from the defense that related to other suspects. McLean County authorities declined to retry Beaman.

The Beaman defense complained bitterly that authorities ignored other suspects, including one in particular, to focus on Beaman. Ultimately, however, the state disclosed that none of the original suspects in the Lockmiller case was involved in her death.

The McLean County state's attorney's office disclosed that subsequent tests of DNA recovered from Lockmiller's battered body came from two unknown men.

As a consequence, the Lockmiller investigation has been reopened.

Now in his mid-40s, married and with children, Beaman is working as a design engineer at a tool cutting firm in Rockford.

Mark Shapiro, a lawyer with the Northwestern University law school who is among those representing Beaman, said he was "very pleased" with the verdict. He said both sides are waiting to hear how and when they will proceed now that the case is going back to the appellate court.

Beaman already has received compensation from the state — $175,000 — for his time behind bars. That came as a consequence of receiving a formal declaration of innocence from the state courts. He also received a pardon based on innocence from former Gov. Pat Quinn.

But it's the lawsuit against the city of Normal that opens up the prospect of significant financial damages — potentially several million dollars or more.

Prosecutors have been the bane of Beaman's existence for more than 20 years. But a group of onetime top prosecutors — led by former Gov. Jim Thompson — assisted Beaman in getting the Supreme Court to review the appellate court decision.

The prosecutors — a who's who of big-time Illinois lawyers — filed a brief with the high court that argued the Beaman investigation represented a "corruption of the criminal process."

They contended it's necessary to hold police liable to deter similar misconduct in the future. Lawyers for Normal acknowledged errors in the investigation but insist they were honest mistakes.

Adding to the case's oddities, the hearing before the Supreme Court almost didn't take place. The high court initially decided not to hear Beaman's case, bringing it to an official end. Shortly after declining review, the court decided it would hear the case. It offered no explanation for its zigzag decision-making process.

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