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EDITORIAL: If justice is blind, Cook County will review 8-year-old murder case

Darien Harris, who was convicted of murder at 18 based on the testimony of an eyewitness who was legally blind. | Illinois Department of Correction

First we had the saga of Jussie Smollett, which seems to never end.

Now we have the case of a man who was found guilty of murder based on the eyewitness testimony of a person who was legally blind.

Do we hear late-night television hosts winding up to poke fun again at Cook County?

If ever there were a case that begs for re-investigation, this is it. Justice should be blind, but we’re less sure about eyewitnesses. At stake is the public’s confidence in the integrity of our local criminal justice system.

In 2014, the man with the limited vision, Dexter Saffold, testified that he saw Darien Harris, 26, shoot two men at a gas station at 66th and Stony Island in 2011. A judge sentenced Harris, now 26, to 76 years in prison for the murder of Rondell Moore and the wounding of Quincy Woulard. Moore and his brother had pulled into the station because of car trouble, and Woulard was a mechanic working on their car.

Saffold was a key witness in the case against Harris.

But as Injustice Watch and the Sun-Times reported Sunday, Saffold’s ability to see was not raised as an issue during the trial, although it was known by the time the Illinois Appellate Court in 2016 upheld Harris’ conviction.

Also troubling are these three facts:

1) The judge in the original trial, now-retired Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford, was a former prosecutor whose rulings had repeatedly been lambasted on appeal as unfairly favoring the police.

2) A worker at the gas station said he thought detectives had improperly pressured him to identify Harris as a suspect.

3) Another witness, who previously claimed he had given Harris a ride to the gas station, recanted his testimony on the stand, saying he had told the police “whatever they wanted to hear.”

There are too many questions in this case for the appellate court ruling to be the last word.

A spokesperson for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx says the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit is reviewing the case. Let’s hope the review is deep and complete. And its conclusions should be aired at a news conference so the public can get a firm grasp on the facts.

Whether Harris is guilty — and we’re making no judgment either way — it is critical that his trial was fair. If it turns out that prosecutors failed to disclose to the defense important information about Saffold’s limited vision, that alone would be sufficient grounds for a new trial and Foxx should call for vacating Harris’ conviction.

Years before Saffold testified, doctors and the federal government had determined that Saffold, who has advanced glaucoma, was legally blind. Twelve years before the trial, Saffold started receiving Social Security benefits because his vision was limited.

When asked during the trial whether he had vision problems, Saffold, “Yes, I do,” before going on to deny having any problems seeing.

Being legally blind doesn’t necessarily mean that a person can’t see at all or, in the right circumstances, can’t be a credible eyewitness. Foxx needs to hear from vision experts as to whether Saffold, based on his medical history, could have credibly and even confidently identified Harris.

No physical evidence tied Harris to the crime, although a surveillance video that did not capture the shooter’s face showed a man whose thin build and short hairstyle resembled Harris.

Criminal proceedings can be murky, especially of late in Cook County.

RELATED

• ‘Send my baby home’: Family questions conviction that featured legally blind witness

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

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