Man awarded $27 million for wrongful murder, arson conviction

Adam Gray was arrested at 14 and spent 24 years behind bars. He filed a federal lawsuit against the city and the cops he said framed him and coerced his confession.

SHARE Man awarded $27 million for wrongful murder, arson conviction
Adam Gray (center) with his lawyer Jon Loevy (left) at a 2018 news conference.

Adam Gray (center) with his lawyer Jon Loevy (left) at a 2018 news conference.

Rick Majewski / Sun-Times

Adam Gray had just turned 14 when he was arrested and accused of starting a fatal fire at a home in Brighton Park in 1993.

He spent 24 years behind bars for murder and arson. And then his conviction was vacated, and he was released in 2017.

Now 44, Gray sued the city of Chicago and the police officers he said framed him and coerced his confession. On Thursday, a federal jury awarded him $27 million in damages.

During closing arguments Tuesday, Gray’s lawyer, Jon Loevy, asked for $24 million to $48 million in damages — $1 million to $2 million for each year he spent in prison.

The fire, in which two people died, was first ruled an arson. But that determination was based on the since-discredited belief that charring and “alligator” cracking of paint were indicators of arson.

Three Chicago Police Department detectives were defendants in Gray’s lawsuit — Daniel McInerney, Nicholas Crescenzo and Michael Pochordo. Only McInerney is still living. He attended closing arguments.

McInerney wasn’t found liable of any of Gray’s claims and wasn’t ordered to pay any punitive damages.

The jury agreed that Crescenzo and Pochordo had coerced Gray’s confession and that Crescenzo had fabricated evidence. But they disagreed with Gray on some of his claims, finding that Crescenzo hadn’t failed to disclose evidence and that McInerney had not detained Gray unlawfully.

Gray’s confession, which came the morning after the fire, followed hours of questioning without a parent or lawyer present. His motive, according to detectives, was to exact revenge on a girl who had rejected him.

Gray — sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1996 — recanted his confession maintained his innocence throughout his trial and incarceration. A pro bono legal team spent years fighting his conviction, saying it was based on outdated fire science.

Former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez tried to have Gray retried in 2016, but Cook County Judge Angela Petrone rejected that.

In May 2017, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx asked to vacate the conviction, dismiss the charges and release Gray from prison.

He filed for a certificate of innocence; it was granted in February 2018. That certificate erases a conviction from the record and signifies the person never should have had a criminal record.

The state awarded Gray $226,506 in compensation, according to Illinois Court of Claims documents.

In closing arguments, Loevy had called the fire investigation “the worst police investigation of all time” and said Gray’s wrongful conviction and incarceration were a “heinous crime” tantamount to “abducting a child.”

Defense attorney Elizabeth Ekl argued that Gray had not been framed or coerced.

Witness accounts and a milk jug that police found nearby and thought had held gasoline were used to support the arson theory. The fire is no longer considered an arson, and there is no evidence an accelerant like gasoline was present, Loevy said.

“If you can’t rule out accident, you can’t call it arson,” Loevy said.

“They decided that somebody had to pay,” Loevy said at a news conference. “Adam was arrested before breakfast. They had the case closed before noon. They were home early for dinner.”

Roshna Bala Keen, another member of Gray’s legal team, said that while in juvenile detention and prison, Gray faced bullying and physical abuse and that he tried to kill himself. Once, Gray cut himself and spelled out “innocent” in his own blood, according to Keen.

Loevy said this trial allowed Gray to share his story and get justice and that the decision will send a message about wrongful convictions.

At the news conference after the verdict, Gray said: “These dirty cops need to be stopped. It’s out of control. Break down the blue wall of silence.”

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