A day care worker from Hickory Hills who was convicted of murdering a child in a “shaken baby” case must be released from prison while her claims of innocence are considered, a federal judge has ruled.
Jennifer Del Prete’s 2005 conviction in state court for the murder of 14-month-old Isabella Zielinski was based on unreliable scientific evidence and it is “more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found her guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt,” U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly wrote.
Though it highly unusual for a federal judge to order a prisoner’s release in such a case, Kennelly said Del Prete’s case was “exceptional and deserving of special treatment” because she has “substantial” evidence of her innocence.
Del Prete, a 43-year-old mother of two, was sentenced to 20 years for the murder after prosecutors alleged she violently shook little Isabella while working at a Romeoville day care facility.
But following an eight-day hearing last year, Kennelly ruled in January that even the testimony of the state’s own experts suggests it was probable that the child’s fatal injury was not caused by Del Prete. He criticized the testimony of a doctor who he said did not properly consider evidence of an earlier head injury.
On Monday, Kennelly wrote that Del Prete “should not have to wait in custody” for years while her appeal moves through the state courts, ordering the Illinois Attorney General to arrange a set of bond conditions under which Del Prete can be released.Del Prete alleges she was poorly represented by her attorney at her trial, and that evidence that a coroner had significant doubts that Isabella suffered a head trauma shortly before her collapse was hidden from Del Prete’s lawyers by Romeoville Police.
A date for her release from Logan Correctional Center in downstate Lincoln has yet to be set.