Series: A Closer Look
Examining the News
When guards first brought Daniel Taylor into a room at the Stateville Correctional Center outside Chicago, we were strangers. It was 2001. I was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He was an inmate serving a life sentence.
He had written to me earlier. His was one of the dozen or so letters I’d get from inmates each month — each in an envelope red-stamped with a note saying they were from an inmate at the Illinois Department of Corrections, as if to warn me about their contents. But his letter stood out. He had been convicted of a 1992 double murder, he wrote, but he had records that showed he was in a police station holding cell when the murders were committed.
Even in Chicago, which was fast becoming known for its miscarriages of justice, it was stunning.
Over more than a decade, I talked with Taylor scores of times on the telephone. I visited him in prison. And with Tribune reporters Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong, I investigated his case as part of a series of stories on false confessions, then followed it until he was exonerated in June 2013.
That it took some two decades for Taylor to be exonerated and win his release spoke to many things, but none more so than the frailties of the criminal justice system and Taylor’s fierce persistence.
Taylor had a kindness and openness I liked immediately. He was candid about his troubled childhood growing up in foster homes and shelters, about leaving school and about life on the streets. Some three months before the murders, he joined the Vice Lords street gang, largely because his friends were in it. He had been arrested a handful of times for such minor offenses as mob action and theft.
Over the years, we got to know each other better. More than anything, I came to admire his tenacity in the face of a justice system that had repeatedly turned aside his innocence claims. His persistence was another indication to me that he might well be innocent, though it was the facts of the case that mattered the most.
This week, the Chicago City Council approved a $14.25 million wrongful-conviction settlement for Taylor in a vote that brought to an end a saga that had begun three decades earlier. His journey should have been so much shorter.
After all, Taylor, then 17, had what seemed the best imaginable alibi: When Jeffrey Lassiter and Sharon Haugabook were shot to death on Nov. 16, 1992, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, Taylor was behind bars in a nearby police lockup. He had been arrested for fighting two hours before the murders and released more than an hour after the murders.
The Police Department’s own records, and officers working at the lockup, showed he was in their custody at the time of the shooting. But by the time police found those records, they already had built their case against him. Two other young men had been picked up and confessed to being lookouts; they implicated Taylor and others. All told, eight young Black men were charged with the murders.
Taylor confessed, too. He said he concluded it was futile to resist after detectives hit him with a flashlight and told him that he could leave if he told them what they wanted to hear. In the end, he gave a lengthy statement. In it, he said he and the others had killed Lassiter and Haugabook, four of them carrying out the crime, the other four acting as lookouts.
The other young men confessed, too, implicating one another in interlocking statements that, in the end, sent five of them to state prison; the cases against three of the eight fell apart at various stages. Some of the others said they were mistreated as well. Police have repeatedly denied wrongdoing in all these cases.
In Chicago, as elsewhere, confessions are potent pieces of evidence, and it is hard for people to understand how someone could admit to a crime they didn’t commit. But it happens with troubling regularity.
And once a confession is made, it is almost impossible to move law enforcement off that narrative. Police and prosecutors have proceeded with cases even when DNA evidence exonerates a defendant and points to another suspect. They have proceeded when a confession doesn’t match the physical evidence. And they have proceeded with other cases besides Taylor’s where a suspect was in jail when the crime occurred. There have been so many dubious confessions in Chicago — including the false confessions obtained through torture by former Cmdr. Jon Burge and his detectives, cases that have led to tens of millions of dollars in settlements — that criminal justice advocates have called the city the capital of false confessions.
Taylor’s case upends the idealistic notion that injustices, and particularly those that seem more obvious, will be quickly corrected. That when evidence emerges to undermine the theory of a case, there will be an aggressive and thorough reexamination of the facts to be sure the right people are taken to trial and sent to prison. That there will be an honest soul-searching to make people whole when they have been wronged rather than the legal brawl that so many have experienced.
When Taylor went to trial in 1995, prosecutors attacked his alibi. They said the records that showed him behind bars were unreliable, essentially arguing that their own documents and employees couldn’t be trusted. They offered witnesses who said they saw Taylor on the streets when he was supposedly in custody.
At 19, Taylor was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Two of the other men who had confessed were sentenced to life in prison as well, while another two were given 30-year terms.
As we investigated Taylor’s case at the Tribune, we found ample new evidence of his innocence — documents and witnesses who undermined the case against him. If Taylor’s case fell apart, all the cases would fall apart, since they depended on confessions that linked all the young men to the crime. Prompted by our investigation, prosecutors said that they conducted a reexamination of the case; they said they were confident Taylor was guilty. Taylor was upset. My reporting partners and I were not surprised.
Over the next decade or so, as Taylor languished in prison, Possley and I continued to report on the case, increasingly troubled that the system refused to right what seemed so clearly wrong. We uncovered additional evidence that pointed to his innocence. In 2003, one of the convicted men — the only one significantly older than the other seven — admitted he was involved in the slayings and the others weren’t. Other witnesses were found. More exculpatory documents were uncovered. No one else has ever been arrested for the murders; Taylor’s lawyers said there’s no indication they were ever reinvestigated.
And so it went. A slow accumulation of evidence suggested what seemed clear from the start: Daniel Taylor was innocent. At the same time, attorneys at the Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions took on the case, developing additional evidence over many years and making powerful arguments in court that a miscarriage of justice had been perpetrated.
Over time, the case gained traction. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in 2011 that there was “strong proof that Taylor’s participation in the crime was physically impossible.” The Illinois attorney general’s office took an interest and turned over records that Taylor’s lawyers hadn’t seen.
Faced with spending his life in prison, Taylor educated himself and, like many inmates, studied his case. He learned to play chess and he lifted weights. He was doing what seemed impossible to me: making a virtue of necessity. But there were times he lost hope. He cried at night. At one point, he cut his wrist. His life seemed defined by an injustice. We talked every few weeks for years, but I was never sure our conversations offered much in the way of hope or solace. Too often, I had no news to offer him. Investigating wrongful conviction cases, some of them decades old, is slow, painstaking work. You can go months, even years without making any progress.
And then, in 2013, prosecutors agreed to dismiss Taylor’s conviction, saying that a review of documents and interviews with additional witnesses had persuaded them that it was not in the “interest of justice to proceed on this matter” — clinical language that failed to convey the legal battles the Cook County state’s attorney’s office had waged to keep Taylor behind bars.
After spending more than half of his life behind bars, his beard now turning gray, Taylor strode out of the Menard Correctional Center on a hot and sunny afternoon with $41 in his pocket. He walked into the embrace of his family. He walked into freedom. He got an apartment. He found a job at Northwestern University, in shipping and receiving. He became a father.
In 2014, a judge granted him a certificate of innocence. Later that year, he filed his lawsuit, alleging that police had arrested him though they knew he was not guilty. That set the stage for the legal fight that followed — years of depositions and motions that led finally to the settlement.
Now, nearly three decades after he was arrested, the city of Chicago will pay Taylor millions of dollars to make up for the years he lost in prison. A police spokesperson declined to comment. Jessica Felker, a deputy corporation counsel for the city, told the Finance Committee last week that settling the case was a “cost-effective measure to limit the city’s exposure.” Felker said that if the case went to trial, Taylor’s lawyers could ask for $21 million to $42 million in damages, plus an additional $4 million in fees.
When Taylor receives his settlement, the city will have paid roughly $40 million to Taylor and the three others who were also exonerated, a stunning amount for a case that seemed dubious from the outset. Police and prosecutors have never revealed publicly if any of the people who handled the investigation or prosecution were disciplined, and Taylor’s lawyers have not found any evidence that anyone has been held accountable. My guess is that no one ever will be.
“Rather than admitting there was a grievous injustice here, the city of Chicago chose to fight and drag this out. They chose to maintain the position that Daniel was guilty,” David Owens, a lawyer at the Chicago firm Loevy & Loevy and one of Taylor’s attorneys in his lawsuit, said in an interview. (The Loevy firm has represented ProPublica in open records lawsuits.)
At every stage, Owens said, Taylor faced opposition. Even after a jury awarded $13.4 million to one of Taylor’s co-defendants in 2017, and after the city of Chicago agreed to pay two others $5.25 million each, the city continued to fight Taylor’s lawsuit. It did so at a steep cost, too, paying outside attorneys more than $2 million in fees, according to Felker.
“They saw Daniel as a defendant,” Owens said, “rather than someone who was traumatized.”
I no longer have Taylor’s initial letter to me; I think I lost it when I moved from the Tribune to ProPublica five years ago. Until this week, I hadn’t talked to him for several years. He had attorneys he had grown close to, including the late Karen Daniel of Northwestern, and I didn’t want to intrude on his freedom. I didn’t want to remind him of his old life. He is charting a new one.
But, with his case now concluded, the time seemed right. We met on Monday at his lawyers’ office and embraced. He looks the same, though his small beard is now more white than gray. At 46, he is focused on his 7-year-old son. He and his girlfriend and son are now planning to move, to leave behind Illinois and the memories of his arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.
Taylor told me he is mostly at peace. He said he has let go of his anger that no one has been held accountable for his wrongful conviction. Instead, he chooses to be excited for the future, for the chance to live “a comfortable life” and to give his son “the opportunities I didn’t have.” His life has changed, but he knows the criminal justice system hasn’t.
“Mark my word,” he said, “I won’t be the last one to be proved innocent.”