A man who spent 29 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared him of the 1984 murder of a Park Forest teen has reached a $14 million settlement with Cook County and the village.
Christopher Abernathy was arrested a year after police found the body of 15-year-old Kristina Hickey behind a shopping mall in the south suburb; after a 36-hour interrogation, the then-18-year-old Abernathy confessed. But DNA evidence would clear his name nearly three decades later, and former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez dropped the case against Abernathy in 2015.
Abernathy’s mother visited him every week for the 29 years he spent behind bars, and she died not long after he was released, said Damon Cheronis, one of the attorneys who fought to overturn Abernathy’s conviction and handled his civil rights lawsuit against Cook County and Park Forest.
Cheronis said the settlement agreement bars him from talking about the terms, but an entry on the National Registry of Exonerations website said that Park Forest will pay $13.5 million, Cook County will pay $300,000 and a polygraph expert that tested Abernathy will pay $1,000 from his own pocket.
“He is looking forward to continue to reconnect with his family and to get on with his life,” said Cheronis, who took up Abernathy’s cause after he was approached by private investigator Sergio Serritella, who had previously worked on the case with the Illinois Innocence Project.
Abernathy had been sentenced to life without parole for the rape and murder of Hickey, who had disappeared while walking home from a high school choir performance. No physical evidence linked Abernathy to the crime, and at trial the case against him hinged on a confession he had signed after nearly 40 hours of questioning. An acquaintance who had testified against him at trial recanted years later, admitting that police had offered him $300 to buy clothes for court and to help him get out of minor charges in an unrelated case.