Dear Gov. Quinn:
I am writing to you on behalf of Anthony Dansberry, a wrongfully convicted man whose life you can change with the stroke of a pen.
Anthony was convicted of murder in 1996 and still is serving out his 75-year sentence at Danville Correctional Center. I am writing this letter on his behalf because, well, you see, he would not be able to do that himself. His communications skills — writing and reading — are limited. He has a low IQ and reading comprehension somewhere between the first- and second-grade level. In IQ terms, he falls in the “intellectual disability range.”
That, at least, is part of the reason he signed a confession for police thinking it was really a form for his release from interrogation in December 1991. He has not been out of custody since then. I am not suggesting that he was misled into signing that form. But the facts surrounding this case must give rise to serious questions about how an innocent man could wind up behind bars for 23 years, nearly half the life of a 50-year-old man who was 27 when he was taken into custody. This man was somehow locked away from public consciousness and, perhaps, conscience and is suffering a gross injustice in a justice system that clearly did not work in his case.
Here is how it happened.
On Dec. 19, 1991, 77-year-old Edna Abel of suburban River Forest was mugged. Her purse was snatched and she was knocked to the ground. She was hospitalized with critical injuries. On Dec. 27, reportedly based on “an anonymous tip,” Anthony, then of Oak Park, was taken in by police for questioning. This is when he signed that paper, the one that set out a confession. The one he thought was a release form. As he recalls it, he had told police he knew nothing about the crime. Since he had no criminal record or history of violence, he naively thought that explanation was all that was required of him.
Eventually, Edna Abel died. Tragically. An armed robbery charge against Anthony then was raised to murder. The state wanted him executed.
In addition to questions about the legitimacy of the confession, there were other questionable elements of this case. Eyewitness testimony, for one thing. Of the four eyewitnesses, only one was able to provide a positive ID. And the system used in the identification process is one that has been discredited.
Then there is the question of race. Anthony Dansberry is African-American. Edna Abel was white. So is the main eyewitness. Cross-racial identification has been shown to be unreliable.
Also, forensic evidence has called Anthony’s conviction — even his charge — into question. The person who assaulted Abel was chased by eyewitnesses. In that process, the assailant nearly was hit by a car. He left a palm print on the car.
The palm print lifted from the car by police did not match Anthony’s print. The sketch of the assailant did not look like him. When combined, these elements certainly raise questions about the fairness and accuracy of the evidence that led to Anthony’s conviction.
Unreliable eyewitness testimony is, perhaps, the most problematic part. Eyewitness testimony can be so critical in conviction. But here, one eyewitness asserted that Anthony was not the assailant, and he was not called by the prosecution to testify. Had he testified, he likely would have told how Anthony was pointed out in a lineup by an officer who asked, “Are you sure he’s not the one?”
Another eyewitness, a bit uncertain in identifying someone other than Anthony, reportedly was told by an officer that she had made the wrong choice.
These factors should give weight to Anthony’s assertion that he was tricked into signing that confession.
Now, Anthony’s only hope for justice lies with you, sir.
It is understandable that you would feel disappointment in being denied another chance to make a positive difference in Illinois. Your many supporters in the last election would share that disappointment. But you still have a chance to make a difference in a way that can have powerful and enduring resonance.
Grant the clemency petition filed on behalf of Anthony Dansberry by lawyers at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC). I recognize that you inherited a tremendous backlog of clemency petitions from former Gov. Rod Blogojevich in 2009, when you were sworn in. Those 2,500 petitions have grown by an estimated 800 each year.
Those of us who have been watching this case and advocating for justice were heartened recently when you took up the question of clemency petitions. None could be more compelling than this one. The legal arguments were made by CWC lawyers in 2010. Here, I am appealing to reason, morality and justice.
Anthony has been a model inmate in Danville Correctional Center, a place where he should not be now nor should he ever have been. Clearly, he would have every reason to be frustrated and angry regarding the grave injustice he has suffered in the justice system. But he is not. And he has suffered with dignity and grace. Although he doesn’t fully understand how he got into this situation — few reasonable people could find reason in it — he still has remarkable patience, flowing, no doubt, from a deep-seated belief in the goodness of people and the rightness of justice.
More than all of that, though, it would seem that this case would be important for not just Anthony Dansberry, and not just his family, but for everyone who wants to see justice in crime cases. In that sense, the outcome here would seem to go to our sense of security. Security in our confidence that we are protected from crime. But, just as important, security in our confidence that innocent people will not be forced to languish in prison while the guilty go free. No doubt it would bring a measure of relief to the survivors of victims that justice truly has been served.
Although you do not have much time left in office, there is still enough time to do the right thing. And a thing that serves the public good.
Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.