Proven innocent and still in prison

February 21, 2013

Daniel Taylor was police custody when a November 1992 double murder took place in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood--but cops and prosecutors accused him of being involved anyway, and sent him to prison for it. Twenty years later, Mark Clements, a victim of police torture and wrongly convicted himself, tells the story of an innocent man who is still in jail.

THE STATE of Illinois has been labeled the wrongful conviction capital of the U.S., and when you read about the case of Daniel Taylor--a Black Chicagoan who has spent more than half of his life in prison for a crime he couldn't have committed--you'll understand why.

In 1992, Taylor was 17 years old and a resident of the Maryville youth shelter. He was known to police to be a gang member. According to police records, at 6:30 p.m. on November 16, 1992, he was arrested for disorderly conduct--officers from District 23 claimed they witnessed him causing a street disturbance. He was put in a lockup and not released until he posted a bond. He didn't emerge from jail until after 10 p.m.

At 8:43 p.m., while Taylor was behind bars, a double murder was committed in the Uptown neighborhood. The apartment where the two victims were found dead was known by neighbors to be connected to drugs and prostitution.

Police quickly identified a man named Dennis Mixon as having been involved in the murders--an eyewitness said she saw Mixon among a group of men leaving the scene after the shootings. Even so, Mixon wouldn't be arrested until the following March.

Daniel Taylor at Menard Correctional Center
Daniel Taylor at Menard Correctional Center

Around two weeks later, police arrested 15-year-old Lewis Gardner and 19-year-old Akia Phillips on drug charges. During interrogation, the two teenagers confessed to being lookouts when the murders were committed, and named six others they said we're involved, one of them being Daniel Taylor.

At 2 a.m. the next morning, police rousted Taylor from his sleep at a Department of Children and Family Services group home and took him to the police station at Belmont and Western. Taylor initially denied any knowledge of the crime, but later gave detectives a confession that ran to 27 pages. No advocate for the teenager was present during the interrogation--Taylor says he was handcuffed to a chair, struck with a flashlight and threatened with worse unless he confessed.

Taylor later said he decided to tell the detectives what they wanted to hear, putting together details of the crime from their questioning--and from Akia Phillips's statement, which the cops gave him to read. In his false confession, Taylor said that he had held down one of the victims while she was shot.

Taylor was put in a lineup, and the witness who saw four men come out of the building after the shootings said she had seen Taylor around the neighborhood, but not the night of the murders. She later told Chicago Tribune reporters that police pressured her to identify Taylor and several other suspects, but she refused.

Nevertheless, the cops had Taylor's confession. He was charged with murder, as a juvenile. The jury voted to convict him and his co-defendants, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

INCREDIBLY, THE court heard evidence proving Taylor couldn't have participated in the murders. According to Tribune reporter Steve Mills:

Taylor's lawyer, Nathan Diamond-Falk, showed jurors an enlarged arrest report and bond slip showing Taylor was arrested two hours before the 8:45 p.m. murders, taken to the now-shuttered Town Hall police station at Halsted and Addison Streets, and was not released until 10 p.m. Police officers from the station testified in Taylor's defense, but the testimony was less than robust in part because Taylor's lawyer did not have all of the documents generated in the case.

Basically, prosecutors claimed that the arrest report and bond slip were wrong, and that police at the Town Hall station were covering up for having released Taylor from custody early. The confession by Taylor proved he was involved, they claimed.

Yet we now know--after revelations about police torture under former Commander Jon Burge, but also about coerced confessions in many other circumstances--that Chicago cops specialized in getting suspects, many of them young, poor and African American, to confess to crimes they didn't commit. In this particular murder case, all eight defendants made confessions that implicated the others, but seven of the eight--all except for Mixon--have since maintained their innocence.

Prosecutors at the trial could have questioned the confessions or stopped the drive to put Taylor and the other men behind bars, but they were politically ambitious--Thomas Needham, for instance, became a top aide to former Mayor Richard Daley, then a top Police Department lawyer and now is in private practice--and wanted the convictions more than they wanted justice.

The story of Taylor's life also shows why he might have confessed falsely--his childhood years were vulnerable. Taylor's mother was addicted to drugs and lost custody of her son. "Being in the state, having no family that's your blood, it gets to you sometimes," he said of his life in the DCFS group home to Steve Mills. "It's almost like jail. It's not really home."

Taylor turned to the Vice Lords about three months before he was arrested for the murder--his friends were Vice Lords, he said, so it made sense to him to join them. They sold drugs, mostly small amounts of cocaine and marijuana--which is how Taylor came to be known to police patrolling in the Uptown area.

In February of last year, further evidence of Taylor's innocence came to light--files obtained by the Illinois Attorney General show that the assistant state's attorney who took Taylor's confession had been informed at the time by police that Taylor had been in lockup, but this documentation was concealed from the defense.

Taylor is currently represented by Karen Daniel of the Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Daniel has filed a new petition arguing that Taylor is innocent and should be released immediately or granted a new trial, based on the evidence concealed by prosecutors for two decades.

There is no doubt that Daniel Taylor is innocent of the crime he has spent more than 20 years in prison for. Yet he must keep waiting to find out if the current Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez will correct this injustice and free him.

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