Innocent and framed anyway

November 4, 2010

Joe Allen reviews a book about a fight to free a Chicago man framed for murder.

ON AUGUST 5, 1999, Howard Thomas Jr., a longtime employee at Chicago's Union League Club in the Loop, left work shortly after 11 p.m. He was heading back to his Park Manor neighborhood on the city's South Side.

Thomas was Black, 51 years old and well liked. After he arrived in his neighborhood, he bought a takeout chicken dinner for two, and started walking to his basement apartment to spend the rest of the evening with his girlfriend. He never got there.

Just a few blocks from his apartment, Howard was attacked by a group of young Black men, and viciously beaten and killed. His girlfriend could not initially identify his body because his face was so swollen, and many of his teeth were broken and missing. She finally identified him by the markings on his hands.

The murder of Howard Thomas was the type of senseless killing that causes enormous anger, frustration and, ultimately, despair in many of Chicago's Black neighborhoods.

There were several witnesses to Howard's murder, including the daughter of a police officer, but they didn't come forward because they feared for their lives. The police were also not popular in the neighborhood, especially among young people. Park Manor was part of the Chicago Police Department's Area Two, whose former commander, Jon Burge, was recently convicted in federal court of perjury for covering up the use of torture by his himself and his subordinates.

Jovan Mosley at a Life After Innocence Project event
Jovan Mosley at a Life After Innocence Project event

Burge left Area Two in 1986, but his methods--particularly, his methods for extracting false confessions--lived on.

Finally, after six months, there was a break in the case, and a group of young men were picked up and brought in for interrogation. Among them was Jovan Mosley, a 19-year-old Black youth who had no criminal record. Jovan aspired to be a lawyer, and during high school, he worked in a Loop law office part-time.

He had nothing to do with Howard's murder. But that didn't stop the Chicago cops from isolating him in a windowless room, handcuffing him to the wall and denying him food and access to a bathroom for 28 hours. They also didn't read him his Miranda rights--the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.

The isolation and pain of the handcuffs biting into his flesh caused Jovan enormous stress. Then the cops began verbally abusing him, telling him to admit to what they accused him of. He refused. He was not guilty of anything. "I didn't hit that guy." Then they added a sweetener. Just admit that you threw two punches, and you can go home.

This, of course, was a trick. Under Illinois law, even if you played a peripheral, non-lethal part in the murder of a person (this is the "accountability" law), you are guilty of the full charge. He finally signed a confession admitting to throwing two punches and fully expected to go home. He never got there.

Instead, Jovan was taken to Cook County Jail and soon afterward charged with the murder and armed robbery of Howard Thomas Jr. That was only the beginning of his nightmare. As his case was passed from one overworked public defender to another, and delayed after the death of the judge assigned to his case and general bureaucratic inertia, Jovan spent six years in jail before he had a chance encounter with a lawyer who literally saved him.

CATHERINE O'DANIEL was visiting Cook County Jail to meet another client when she met Jovan, who was sweeping the floor. She immediately sensed something was wrong with his situation after talking to him for a few minutes.

O'Daniel made a few calls, checked into Jovan's case and took it on. It was the only pro bono case she ever did. She was an extremely capable defense attorney with a wide range of experience. She enlisted the help of her friend, Laura Caldwell, a former civil attorney who had become a fiction writer of what she called "chick lit." After establishing herself as a writer, she moved onto thrillers.

O'Daniel asked Caldwell to join the defense team. She agreed, but was nervous because she had no criminal experience and hadn't been in courtroom in many years.

Long Way Home is Caldwell's account of their investigation of the real world of Chicago police investigations--incompetence, false confessions and straight-out deception--and the trial that acquitted Jovan of Howard Thomas' murder. Caldwell is a good writer, and the book is quick read. I read it in two days.

She does a good job of putting the issues of Jovan's case into the larger context, particularly how police, on a national scale, extract false confessions. A law professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Caldwell started the Life After Innocence Project, which works with those who have been exonerated to adjust to life on the outside after spending years in prison. She does good work.

There are just two things that I thought lacking or unnecessary in this book. Caldwell does a great job of describing the racial disparities of the criminal justice system, but she only mentions the word "race" once and never talks about the ingrained racism of the judicial system.

She also regularly adds qualifiers about the cops and prosecutors. So after she describes their horrifying treatment of Jovan, she then adds that she respects cops and prosecutors, and admires their professionalism and unenviable jobs. The problem is that no cop or prosecutor in the book displays a shred of decency.

Why does she do this? I can't help but think that it's because there are still too many lawyers who have looked into the horrors of the judicial system, and still believe the police and prosecutors can play a role in reforming it. There is no evidence for this.

Anyone concerned with criminal justice issues should read Long Way Home and invite the author to speak on a college campus or community center to discuss the important issues in it.

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