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Two decades later, two murder cases unravel

Charles Johnson was greeted by family and friends last September outside Cook County Jail. | Courtesy of Joshua Tepfer

A Cook County judge on Tuesday vacated the conviction of a Chicago man sent to prison in the sexual assault and killing of a 6-year-old boy in 1992.

Mark Maxson is the 15th person whose conviction was vacated after a reinvestigation by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s Conviction Integrity Unit that was formed in 2012.

The unit reviewed Maxson’s case after his attorneys, Elliott Zinger and Larry Dreyfus, filed a post-conviction petition on his behalf and persuaded a judge last year to authorize new DNA tests in the case. On Tuesday, prosecutors asked Judge Thaddeus Wilson to vacate Maxson’s conviction.

Maxson, 55, is expected to be released from prison as early as Tuesday afternoon. He was serving a life sentence.

A day earlier, on Monday afternoon, a Chicago man sent to prison for an unrelated double murder walked out of Cook County Jail because his conviction was vacated, too.

Charles Johnson, who was found guilty of the 1995 murder of two Southwest Side car dealers, had his conviction vacated in July after his attorneys presented the court with new fingerprint evidence they say shows another man was the culprit.

Unlike Maxson, though, prosecutors said they plan to retry Johnson with the murders. On Monday, he was released from jail after his family posted $500,000 bond.

“He will be able to smell the free air for the first time in two decades,” said one of his lawyers, Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.

Mark Maxson, sentenced to life in prison for a 1992 murder of a child, is expected to have his conviction vacated Tuesday. | Police photo
Mark Maxson, sentenced to life in prison for a 1992 murder of a child, is expected to have his conviction vacated Tuesday. | Police photo

Maxson initially drew the attention of police because he told a TV reporter he bought chips for 6-year-old Lindsey Murdock and told the boy to go home a day before he was found dead under debris in an abandoned garage near 107th and State. But police said Maxson’s story kept changing.

He allegedly confessed that he sexually assaulted and killed the boy in the garage after smoking crack and drinking beer.

Maxson accuses the detectives of punching and kicking him during their interrogations and says he was coerced into giving a confession.

No physical evidence linked Maxson to Lindsey’s murder. At his trial, a prosecution witness who examined a bloodstain on the boy’s shirt and one on his jeans testified the stains couldn’t have come from Maxson or the boy. Based on his confession, though, the jury convicted Maxson.

Before he was sentenced to life in prison, Maxson insisted he didn’t kill Lindsey.

“All of the evidence belonged to someone else,” Maxson told Judge Daniel Locallo at his sentencing in 1994. “I am charged with a crime I did not commit.” Locallo responded that Maxson possessed a “malignant heart” and needed to be eliminated from society.

Charles Johnson’s conviction for a double murder was vacated in July. | Police photo
Charles Johnson’s conviction for a double murder was vacated in July. | Police photo

Johnson, now 39, was convicted in the fatal shootings of Yousef Ali and Khalid Ibrahim at their used car lot at 75th and Western. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The killers stole two cars. Fingerprints found on the adhesive side of a price sticker on one of the cars identified a convicted felon as the culprit, according to Tepfer and his co-counsel, Justin Barker of the Kirkland & Ellis law firm. Other fingerprint evidence also linked the man to the crime scene, the attorneys say.

Tepfer said his client was “19-year-old kid who was never interrogated before. He maintained his innocence repeatedly. He was tricked into finally signing a confession that was untrue.”

Tepfer said he was “frustrated” that prosecutors now plan to retry his client, saying they have not presented him with any new evidence. A spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.

Johnson was among four co-defendants. One has served a robbery sentence. Another is in state prison for murder with a post-conviction petition pending. A fourth man also had his murder conviction vacated in July, but he remains in jail because he can’t post his $500,000 bond.

Contributing: Rummana Hussain

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a reference to a detective who court records erroneously had said worked on the Maxson case. That reference has been removed.