Marquette Park 4’s exoneration marks milestone for Illinois

Lashawn Ezell, Larod Styles and Charles Johnson stand with family and legal team to speak about their exoneration Wednesday afternoon. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)

By Kara Voght

Theresa Johnson knew there was no way her son, Charles, committed the robbery and murder he’d been convicted of. Convincing others of his innocence, however, was another matter.

“Everybody would just close the door practically in my face,” Johnson said of her repeated attempts to obtain legal help for Charles, who, along with three other men, spent over 20 years in prison for a 1995 double murder and armed robbery they did not commit.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx rewarded Johnson’s decades of persistence Wednesday morning when she dismissed all charges against Charles Johnson, Larod Styles, Lashawn Ezell and Troshawn McCoy after fingerprint evidence conclusively proved their innocence.  McCoy, sentenced to 55 years in prison, is awaiting his release from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The “Marquette Park 4,” as their attorneys call them, entered prison as teenagers and spent a collective 70 years behind bars.

On Wednesday afternoon, Johnson, Styles and Ezell appeared in a press conference at Kirkland & Ellis LLP’s Chicago office, alongside their legal teams and nearly two dozen family members, to discuss their cases.

Theresa Johnson embraces her son, Charles, at Wednesday's press conference to discuss Johnson and three other men's exoneration. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)
Theresa Johnson embraces her son, Charles, at Wednesday’s press conference to discuss Johnson and three other men’s exoneration. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)

The Marquette Park 4’s journey to exoneration began in 2008, when Steven Drizin of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law received a letter from Charles Johnson. Johnson described giving a false confession to detective James Cassidy, a story that matched many other letters Drizin had received from inmates across the state.

According to Drizin, Cassidy employed psychological interrogation techniques that led young men like Johnson to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.

“Most of these young people thought they were going home after signing confessions,” Drizin said.

Justin Barker, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP who joined Johnson’s case, noted these signed confessions mark the end of most legal battles.

“Once there is a quote-unquote confession, all too often the investigation, for all intents and purposes, ceases,” Barker said.

Reigniting the investigation required thousands of donated hours from city attorneys. Jenner & Block LLP, Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP, Cotsirilos, Tighe, Streicker, Poulos & Campbell and the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago joined Drizin and Barker in the effort.

The fingerprint evidence supporting the men’s innocence came from sales stickers removed from the cars stolen in the case. Those stickers, which captured fingerprints of the real criminals on their adhesive sides, offered compelling evidence for a retrial and, under Foxx’s tenure as state’s attorney, the dismissal of charges.

Attorney Justin Barker showcases a sticker similar to those that proved the Marquette Park 4's innocence. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)
Attorney Justin Barker showcases a sticker similar to those that proved the Marquette Park 4’s innocence. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)

The Marquette Park 4’s exoneration is the first ever in Illinois to result from defendant-sought fingerprint comparison. Illinois is the only state in the country that considers fingerprint and ballistics comparisons, in addition to DNA evidence, post-conviction.

Charles Johnson expressed his relief for freedom he hasn’t seen since his teenage years.

“It has been a long journey,” Johnson said. “There were times when we almost wanted to give up.”

As for what comes next, Johnson said the Marquette Park 4 is looking forward to moving on.

“I can’t live for the past, but I can definitely live for the future,” he said.

Photo at top: Lashawn Ezell, Larod Styles and Charles Johnson,  flanked by family members and attorneys, discuss Wednesday  their exoneration of a 1995 double murder and robbery. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)