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Foot-dragging Foxx doesn’t look like much of a reformer

Thursday, November 09, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

Memo to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx:

If we’d wanted a top prosecutor who dragged her feet on apparent wrongful convictions and stubbornly refused to heed the demands of justice, we would have re-elected Anita Alvarez.

You ran as a reformer against Alvarez in the March 2016 Democratic primary, reminding voters that “trust in our criminal justice system has been broken” and promising fairer outcomes.

Voters believed you. You thumped Alvarez in the primary and cruised to victory in the general election a year ago.

Yet you’re allowing Nevest Coleman and Darryl Fulton to continue to rot in prison in the face of overwhelming new evidence that they are innocent of a 1994 rape and murder in the Englewood neighborhood.

The Tribune’s Gregory Pratt has written extensively about this case recently, including two Page 1 stories, but here’s a refresher:

Antwinica Bridgeman, 20, disappeared in April 1994, and her mutilated body was found several weeks later in the abandoned basement of the building where Coleman, then 25, lived. Police were suspicious and ultimately obtained confessions to the crime from Coleman and Fulton, then 26.

These confessions were the only physical evidence against them at the trial, where they were convicted and sentenced to life without parole. They claimed the confessions were false and coerced — and yes, sure, that’s what they all say, right? But we’ve since learned that two of the main detectives involved in the case were, let’s say, enthusiastic practitioners of unseemly persuasive techniques.

The Illinois Torture Commission found earlier this year “a substantial body of evidence” that one of the detectives, a man who has since died, “may have engaged in systematic conduct aimed at obtaining confessions through coercion.”

But that’s not all. On May 31, results from advanced DNA tests on the victim’s fingernails, sweatshirt and underwear excluded Coleman, Fulton, the victim’s boyfriend and another man who had been under suspicion as the source of the tested material. Results also showed that the semen in her underwear almost certainly came from a serial rapist whom police have not named but who is connected to at least three other sexual assaults.

Evidence like that often prompts old-school prosecutors to invent crazy scenarios in which the newly identified evildoer, never mentioned in the florid alleged confessions, joins in the ghastly depredations with those already convicted.

Alvarez famously defended slow-walking the exoneration in a similar DNA-exoneration case by floating the possibility that the person whose semen was found in the victim had merely happened on her dead body and decided to have sex with it.

Reformers use their common sense. Reformers act with dispatch to see justice done.

Your office, however, is still exploring the possibility of an Alvarez-esque crazy scenario — one in which Coleman and Fulton participated in the rape and murder but never told on the other guy in their supposed confessions.

Your Conviction Integrity Unit is asking the courts for more time to test still more DNA evidence from the crime scene, telling a judge “we’re not there yet” when it comes to vacating the sentence.

Really. It’s been more than five months since this case completely fell apart and you’re “not there yet”?

Wednesday, members of Coleman’s family and Fulton’s family assembled for a court hearing at which they’d hoped your office would vacate the convictions and set the men free after 23 years in prison.

Didn’t happen.

And look, we all applaud meticulousness in the investigation and prosecution of crime, to be sure. Check everything before declaring them innocent.

But given the state of evidence, it’s pure stubbornness to keep them locked up based on the wildly unlikely chance that last-ditch testing will incriminate them.

Veteran investigative journalist Rob Warden, co-director of Injustice Watch and former executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, championed your reform candidacy in the primary.

But in a commentary posted Tuesday about a different case, Warden wrote that, so far, your “office has proved sadly unexceptional” in addressing miscarriages of justice.

Fight back. Coleman and Fulton remain locked up for a crime they almost certainly didn’t commit. At least let them post bond while you wait for every last test result. Start trying to reclaim your cred as an agent of change.

Twitter @EricZorn

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