On Thursday Cook County, Illinois prosecutors vacated the rape and murder convictions of three of five men sent to prison for the slaying of 14-year-old girl in 1991. The move came after DNA testing earlier this year connected a convicted rapist to the crime. The five African-American men, all of whom were convicted as teens, became known as the Dixmoor Five, and their case is drawing new attention to the harsh interrogation tactics used by investigators on young suspects.
Prosecutors also plan to dismiss the convictions of two other men who already served their sentences.
The five men were convicted of the rape and murder of Cateresa Matthews , who disappeared after leaving her grandmother's home in Dixmoor on Nov. 19, 1991. Almost three weeks later, she was found dead from a single gunshot to her mouth in a field near Interstate Highway 57. The five men were arrested after the crime went unsolved for about a year.
At the time, three of them were 14, the other two 16.
Three of the teens confessed and implicated the other two in the murder. But the confessions, lawyers said, were marked by inconsistencies. What's more, DNA tests on semen evidence did not match any of the five. However, two of the suspects, Robert Lee Veal and Shainnie Sharp, agreed to plead guilty and testify against the other three in exchange for reduced 20-year prison sentences. Each served about 10 years in prison, according to records.
Last year several key witnesses recanted their stories. Then, earlier this year new DNA information found a match for a 32-year old man who was guilty in another rape case.
"In the face of this overwhelming evidence, the State's Attorney's office stubbornly downplayed the significance of the DNA evidence and opposed the release of the men," read an e-mail that was sent by ColorOfChange.org to its members.
The Englewood Five is another group of five young black men who were accused of similar charges as the Dixmoor Five. DNA evidence has also cleared the Englewood Five -- DNA extracted from the victim was matched to a now deceased serial rapist and murderer. But Cook County prosecutors say the evidence is inconclusive.
It's not rare for police officers to coerce teenagers into providing false confessions. "Even the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that teenagers are particularly susceptible to falsely incriminating themselves during questioning from police and should not be subjected to harsh interrogation tactics," according to ColorOfChange.org.