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Judge who convicted man in case with legally blind eyewitness retired in April

Judge Nicholas Ford, who convicted Darien Harris and sentenced him to 76 years in prison largely on the testimony of an eyewitness he didn't know was legally blind, quietly retired last month. | Sun-Times files

Cook County Circuit Judge Nicholas Ford, a former prosecutor whose rulings in a police brutality case and other criminal matters have come under fire on appeal, has retired.

Ford, first appointed to the bench in 1997, retired as of April 12, a spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court confirmed in response to questions. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

The former assistant Cook County state’s attorney’s judicial rulings were reversed in more than a dozen cases, Injustice Watch has reported. Appellate rulings repeatedly criticized him for not properly considering issues raised by defense lawyers.

Injustice Watch and the Sun-Times reported Sunday that Ford found one defendant, Darien Harris, guilty of murder in 2014 and sentenced him to 76 years in prison after a bench trial in a case in which the key eyewitness was legally blind and prosecutors failed to disclose that to the judge or the defense. The witness initially testified that he had vision problems but quickly reversed that statement and continued testifying.

Though the Illinois Appellate Court upheld Harris’s conviction, it noted there were credibility concerns with the two other witnesses’ testimony — including one who recanted while testifying and said the Chicago police had used threats to get him to make a false identification.

In 2013, an Illinois appellate panel reversed Ford’s decision to reject a post-conviction petition by a defendant, Anthony Jakes, who said he had been tortured into falsely confessing by two officers under the command of now-disgraced former Chicago police Commander Jon Burge. Ford dismissed the petition for lack of evidence, the appeals court found, after he had refused to allow Jakes to obtain evidence that the detectives had been accused of torture in other cases.

Burge, who died last September, was sentenced to prison in 2011 for lying under oath in civil cases regarding torture of suspects.

In another case, Ford’s decision to reject a post-conviction petition without a hearing was ordered reassigned to another judge after evidence came out that, before becoming a judge, Ford was involved in prosecuting the case.

In 2011, an Illinois appellate panel found that Ford abused his discretion by challenging a psychiatrist’s testimony about a murder suspect’s sanity. That appeals opinion said Ford abandoned his “role as a neutral and impartial arbiter of fact by adopting a prosecutorial role” and exhibiting a “disregard and unfavorable bias toward the expert’s testimony” in which he included “constantly interrupted the expert, contradicting or questioning many of his answers.”

In 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court, acting at the direction of the Illinois Supreme Court, reversed its earlier decision and reversed a murder conviction that was based largely on eyewitness identification. In that case, Ford had refused to let the defense call an expert on mistaken identification as a witness. The judge had said he believed psychologists studied eyewitness identification “so as to increase their degree of remuneration,” adding, “That’s a way of saying I think they’re in it for the money.” The appellate court found that denying such testimony was an abuse of judicial discretion.

Ford twice dismissed charges against a Park Ridge police officer who was accused of chasing and beating two juveniles who had shot a projectile into his car. The officer was represented by an attorney who was the former law partner of Ford’s wife.

Ford first threw out charges against the officer based on his finding that there was an improper prosecutorial delay. When the appellate court reversed him on that, Ford presided over a 2016 non-jury trial at which he found the juveniles weren’t credible.

Park Ridge settled a lawsuit filed by one of the teenagers for $185,000.

In 2017, a top assistant to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx engaged in a heated exchange in court with Ford over the judge’s order sending a pregnant woman to jail without bail for more than a month while awaiting trial in a case involving a nonviolent crime.

Rick Tulsky is co-founder and co-editor of Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization that conducts in-depth research to expose institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.

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