Man exonerated after 16 years behind bars

May 4, 2009 4:28:43 PM PDT
He spent more than 16 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit. Monday afternoon, Thaddeus Jimenez is a free man. Jimenez was arrested for a street gang murder when he was just 13 years old. A judge sentenced him to 50 years in prison, but his lawyers say he may go down in history as being the youngest person wrongfully convicted of a crime.

When Northwestern Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions took Thaddeus Jimenez's case, lawyers called it dead in the water. In the early 1990s, Jimenez had been convicted by two Cook County juries. However, years later, three main witnesses recanted their stories. The Cook County state's attorneys office found the recantations credible and worked with defense attorneys to exonerate Jimenez.

Sixteen years, 2 months and 27 days is how long Thaddeus Jimenez spent behind bars for a crime he says he did not commit. The 30-year-old was only 13 when he was convicted of a 1993 murder. His conviction was thrown out by a Cook County judge after three witnesses recanted their testimony.

"I survived because of the love and support that I received from my mother, who battled cancer and other illnesses while I was away in prison, and who fought to survive so that she could be here when I was released," said Jimenez.

Known as T.J. to his friends and family, Jimenez wrote a letter four years ago to Northwestern Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Attorney Steve Drizin was so impressed he and a team of lawyers began to investigate the case.

"This is not a case where DNA evidence could prove to a certainty that Jimenez was innocent. This case had to be solved the old school way, with gumshoe investigative work," said Steve Drizin, NU Law School, Center on Wrongful Convictions.

During their investigation, three witnesses who say they saw Jimenez kill Eric Morro on the corner of Belmont and Sacramento on Chicago's North Side in 1993 changed their stories. The Center on Wrongful Convictions took that information to the Cook County state's attorneys' office, who reopened the case and asked for the conviction to be overturned.

"Sometimes there are recantations that you know that are not legitimate. So in this particular case, it was clear to us that these recantations needed to be taken seriously and that's exactly what we did," said Anita Alvarez, Cook County state's attorney.

After one judge denied the request for the case to be thrown out last Friday another exonerated Jimenez, he walked out of prison a free man last Friday.

"I hope my story will give hope to others when wrongful convictions occur in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, those injustices can be corrected," said Jimenez.

While Jimenez's lawyers believe one of the teenage witnesses was pressured by police to name Jimenez as the murderer, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez says there was no evidence of misconduct on the part of police or prosecutors when the case was originally investigated.

A new suspect has been arrested. Thirty-year-old Juan Carlos Torres is being held on a murder warrant in Indiana.


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