Men released after murder convictions tossed

November 18, 2011 (CHICAGO)

A Cook County judge recently tossed their murder convictions after DNA evidence linked another man to the crime.

Michael Saunders and Harold Richardson could be re-tried, but at least for now, they are free on bail.

A flurry of hugs greeted Saunders and Richardson Friday. They have spent more than half their lives behind bars.

"I need to catch back up on lost time that I lost by being incarcerated for a crime in which I didn't commit," said Saunders.

"Being falsely incarcerated I kind of lost interest... I lost the Christmas spirit, all that. Hoping to get it back now," said Richardson.

The release on bail of Saunders and Richardson comes two days after a judge vacated their convictions along with those of Terrill Swift and Vincent Thames and ordered new trials. Swift was present when Saunders and Richardson were released Friday.

The four men were all teenagers when they were convicted of the 1994 South Side rape and murder of an alleged prostitute. All had confessed to the crime but claim they were coerced.

"I was physically assaulted by the police department," said Saunders.

"Cases like this, where there's DNA evidence, shows that there are plenty of reasons to question those confessions, particularly where they're not videotaped, where there's no evidence about what actually happened to the youth in those interrogations, where their parents aren't present," said attorney Tara Thompson.

It wasn't until last year that a new DNA test linked another man to the crime, a now-deceased sex offender and convicted killer with a long criminal history.

"DNA is the gold standard evidence, and here we've got DNA evidence that shows who the likely perpetrator of this crime is," said Thompson.

While he was behind bars, Richardson says that he lost a grandmother. Saunders says he has a 17-year-old daughter who has never seen him outside prison walls.

"It's been real hurtful for me, knowing that I had a child out there and not being able to be with my daughter," said Saunders.

Though Swift and Thames were already free after serving their time, Saunders and Richardson had more than three years left on their sentences.

"This is his first Thanksgiving with us in 17 years, that's enough to be thankful for - just give all honor to God... if it weren't for God, none of this would be possible," said Saunders's cousin, Cleo Hopkins.

Saunders had strong emotions about the past 17 years he spent in prison.

"I'm very very angry. It's a lot of resentment. I would be lying if I told you I wasn't angry," said Saunders.

All four men are due back in court November 28th. Prosecutors could choose to re-try the men, but at this point they have little or no credible physical evidence and DNA points to another man.

The Cook County State's Attorney's office declined to comment Friday evening.

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