Two men who’ve spent 20 years behind bars for murder had their sentences thrown out Monday and were granted new trials in light of fingerprint evidence their attorneys say conclusively points to another culprit.
Cook County Judge Domenica A. Stephenson vacated the murder convictions of Charles Johnson, 39, and Larod Styles, 36, who, as teenagers, received life sentences in the December 1995 deaths of Yousef Ali and Khalid Ibrahim. Both men were fatally shot during a robbery at Elegant Auto Sales at 75th and Western.
A brief time of elation among family members in the gallery of the courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th Street and California Avenue was quashed when Stephenson denied the men bail. Their attorneys pointed to similar cases where bail was granted, but the judge disagreed.
After eight years of legal wrangling, which included an appellate court decision in their favor, attorneys representing the men said the day would not be possible if Illinois weren’t the only state in the nation to allow post-conviction fingerprint testing for defendants.
Matching fingerprints were found on a car at the used car lot and on the adhesive side of a price sticker that was torn off of one of two cars that was stolen from the lot, said defense attorney Steven Drizin, of Northwestern University’s Center On Wrongful Convictions.
The same prints were also found on the stolen cars themselves — which were abandoned about five miles from the crime scene. And the kicker, defense attorneys claim, is the fact that the fingerprints, when run through a law enforcement data base that was not available to detectives at the time of the original investigation, returned a match: a man with a lengthy criminal record who lives a short walk from where the stolen cars were found.
According to a source, the man has since been interviewed by investigators.
“We are here today because we were able to use that database to not only exclude our clients . . . but to match those fingerprints to one person in particular who has nothing to do with our clients,” said Drizin, who discounted confessions the men gave to police.
The confessions, Drizin said, follow a trend that happened in the ’90s, a time before video and audio recordings of such interviews were standard: “youthful defendants being pressured to confess to crimes they didn’t commit and then having those confessions undermined by forensic evidence.”
Defense attorney Terry Campbell is hopeful the Cook County state’s attorney’s office will drop the charges.
“We’re still hoping that the state’s attorneys office will come to the right conclusion and decide not to retry these young men. They’ve already taken 20 years of their lives and now for the first time today have come out and said this newly discovered evidence would likely have changed the result to not guilty,” Campbell said.
A spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office did not return messages seeking comment.
“Today the state finally agreed that the evidence that we presented should demand that we get a new trial, and that’s what happened,” defense attorney Justin Barker said. “Huge win.”