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Editorial: Four lessons from murder case solved after 23 years

In this Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, photo, Theresa Matthews, of Dixmoor, Ill., holds a framed photo of her daughter, Cateresa Matthews, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1991. (Leslie Adkins/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Follow @csteditorialsTwo years ago,Ronald Burge, who was then the police chief in the south suburb of Dixmoor, decided to apply heat to a cold case.

It was a case of murder, 23 years cold. The victim, 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews , had grown up right next door to Burge in Dixmoor. It was case that had really “torn up the community,” as Burge told us Friday, and it remained officially unsolved even after five innocent teenagers who had been wrongfully convicted for the crime were freed in 2011.

But during the legal fight to free the the so-called “Dixmoor Five,” who spent a decade or more in prison, DNA evidence had linked career criminal Willie Randolph to the murder. Randolph was a convicted sex offender from Dixmoor who had been paroled shortly before Cateresa was murdered.

Yet for three years, little more was done to bring the true killer to justice.

EDITORIAL

Follow @csteditorials“The case was one of the cases that sat idle,” says Cara Smith, policy chief for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

In 2014, Burge called Dart for help, knowing his small police force couldn’t handle the case on its own.

“There was a lot of push back and resistance,” he recalls, referring to local officials in Dixmoor. “They didn’t want this case reopened. Three elected officials threatened my job, but I did it anyway.”

Willie Randolph
Willie Randolph

The case isn’t sitting idle anymore. On Thursday, murder charges were filed against Randolph, who was denied bail. He already was in prison on a previous conviction.

We see several lessons here.

First, authorities too often are reluctant to re-investigate when a case has gone wrong and innocent people were convicted and later exonerated. Taking a new approach almost always means ruffling the feathers of those who put together the original case.

As Smith said last week, “It’s so rare after these wrongful convictions that the true offender is found, that justice can occur after all those years.”

Often, if a reversal happens, it is because of work by a defense team that does its own investigation and uncovers new evidence.

But, as this case shows, police and prosecutors need not wait on others to right a wrong. They can — and the best do — dig into the dusty past and unearth the truth without a push from anybody.

Second, a key part of the new case is that Randolph was secretly recorded incriminating himself in statements made at the Stateville Correctional Center, where he was incarcerated for a drug conviction.

That’s a huge improvement over the common use of “jailhouse snitch” testimony, in which inmates testify about allegedly overheard conversations in exchange for lighter sentences or some other benefit. Too often, unreliable snitch testimony has contributed to wrongful convictions.

Third, we are reminded once again of the frequency and dangers of false confessions, especially from young people who can be more easily swayed by interrogators. In this case, three of the wrongly convicted teenagers had “confessed.” One of them immediately recanted and the other two did so later. But the courts gave the recantations too little credence.

Fourth, the original convictions of the Dixmoor Five — and the Cook County state’s attorney’s reluctance to free them even after DNA matched Rudolph — were a disgrace. The DNA from the victim didn’t match any of the Dixmoor Five, yet prosecutors long refused to concede. In June 2011, this page labeled the case one of those in which law officers act as though DNA stands for “Don’t Notice the Alternatives.” When strong new evidence challenges a conviction, authorities should always be willing to re-examine the entire case.

Cateresa wasn’t found for three weeks after she disappeared after she leaving her grandmother’s home in Dixmoor in November. She had a gunshot wound in her mouth when her body was discovered near Interstate 57, and she had been sexually assaulted.

Last week, her mother, Theresa Matthews, made it clear that a prosecution in such a case — even 25 years later — is important.

“I thank God that it’s happening, because I just want justice for my child,” Matthews said. “She had dreams. She wanted to be somebody in life.”

And we thank God Ronald Burge made a call.