Chicago man convicted of murder trying to clear his name, attend grad school

Restoring justice said to be top priority for rebranded Cook County conviction review unit

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Tom Jones WLS logo
Wednesday, April 3, 2024
Chicago man convicted of murder trying to clear name, attend school
David Staples says after being injured in a 1993 Hyde Park, Chicago shooting, police framed him for murder.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Cook County has overturned more than 200 convictions since State's Attorney Kim Foxx took office in 2016. David Staples says he hopes to be added to that list.

On August 27, 1993, someone shot Staples in Hyde Park. He says as he was still lying on the ground, he was framed for murder by a Chicago police officer.

"In his narrative I was shot because of an incident that occurred two days prior, where somebody was actually unfortunately killed. And he said I was shot in retaliation from that. He created a narrative and he built a story around that, and then sent me to prison for 29 years," Staples told the I-Team. "It felt at times unsurmountable. It was also rough because at the same time I had a young family that was actually going through tremendous struggles."

After nearly three decades behind bars, Staples was released from the East Moline Correctional Center in 2022. The Illinois Innocence Project took on his case nine years ago, and is still working to clear his name.

Cook County has overturned hundreds of convictions since State's Attorney Kim Foxx took office, but Chicago remains the US wrongful conviction capital.

"We opened up a full reinvestigation of the case and some very credible witnesses have come forward. This is one of those rare cases where we know what really happened that day and we know who was really involved and it wasn't David Staples," said Illinois Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Maria de Arteaga.

"We believe we know who the real perpetrator was," said Illinois Innocence Project Co-director Lauren Kaeseberg. "We have a motive. We have like the whole thing laid out, including DNA evidence from the gun found at the scene. But it's not David's DNA on the gun."

A petition to vacate his conviction is pending in Cook County.

SEE ALSO | Judge grants certificates of innocence for Chicago brothers exonerated in 1994 murder case

Michelle Mbekeani is the leading the newly-rebranded Conviction Review Unit.

"We should all be able to agree that we don't want innocent people in prison," said Mbekeani. "I feel like when we have a conviction review unit that title allows us to really take ownership in a way without having to feel that we are the ones that caused harm, but realizing the system as a whole is causing harm to so many people. And we have to ensure that we are playing our part to ensure that we're doing our due diligence and we are correcting the wrongs of the past and do so in a way that we're open to it, we are welcoming it, because our primary goal is justice."

According to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations, somewhere between 2% and 10% of defendants are wrongfully convicted in the U.S., meaning the number of innocent people behind bars is anywhere from 46,000 to 230,000, and up to 7,000 in Illinois alone.

"When you wrongfully convict someone, the real perpetrator gets away with it. And I think the really horrible truth is most innocent people in prison will never get exonerated. Many will die in prison, never getting the truth out," said Kaeseberg.

Data shows, for the fifth year in a row, Chicago is the wrongful conviction capital of the U.S., not for current wrongful conviction cases but because of exonerating ones from past years.

"The process in Cook County has been really frustrating because it's not collaborative," said Kaeseberg.

But she says she has noticed a clear shift in the way wrongful convictions are addressed and spoken about in the current state's attorney's office. She says there has also been more of a willingness to review wrongful convictions.

"This is not an adversarial proceeding with this unit, especially now. We want to collaborate in the interest of justice and we want to ensure that all stakeholders can participate in that process," said Mbekeani.

READ MORE | Unprecedented data project exposes what advocates call wrongful conviction crisis in Chicago

Staples says his biggest hope is that he can actually prevent somebody from going through what he has gone through.

He was part of the inaugural Augustana Prison Education Program. After his release, he enrolled as a full-time student on campus and will graduate in May. Staples told the I-Team he wants to be a therapist, but is hitting roadblocks getting accepted to a master's program because of his conviction.

"I haven't received any acceptance letters yet. I'm sure with my grades... and my story within itself should be enough," said Staples. "You would think I would have acceptance letters but people hesitate with this hanging over my head."

"You have this beautiful soul who's been through so much and now his dream in life is to give back and help people re-acclimate to society is being thwarted because of this murder conviction that could easily be vacated," said Kaeseberg.

Staples' case is back in court Wednesday. His message to the state's attorney is, "I didn't commit the crime. Evidence shows it. Look at the case and get it right. You're not responsible for what happened to me... I'm looking to continue to grow."

One of the requirements for the Illinois Innocence Project to take on a case is that the person has to have at least eight years remaining on their sentence, because it takes an average of eight years to start a case and exonerate someone.