Innocence Project Panel Discussion Part 1

In the first of a two-part conversation, Tavis joins Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and four men who, combined, spent more than 50 years behind bars—despite their innocence.

A 16-year-old Chicago girl accused University of Chicago probationary police officer Ken Berry of abduction at gunpoint and sexual assault. Berry had no criminal record and insisted that sex with the girl was consensual. Convicted and sentenced to 35 years, Berry was later determined innocent and his police and court records were expunged.

Randy Steidl lived in a small farming community in southern Illinois. In a 90-day period, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of a newlywed couple.  After serving 17 years—12 of them on death row—he was exonerated when it was proven that witnesses fabricated testimony against him.

Marcus Lyons, a 29-year-old Navy vet and member of the naval reserve with no previous police record, was convicted of raping a woman in an apartment complex in Woodridge, IL. He served three years of a six-year term before being released after DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Johnnie Lee Savory was 14 years old when he was whisked away from junior high school and, absent his parents or legal representation, interrogated about the murders of two teenagers in Peoria, IL. He was ultimately convicted of the crimes, sentenced to 50-100 years and served 30 years—two-thirds of his life—in Illinois prisons before being released on parole.

These are just four cases of wrongful conviction that have surfaced in Illinois following investigations by Northwestern University's Innocence Project.



Tavis: The human toll on those who have been wrongfully accused and falsely imprisoned is staggering, as you will hear over the next two nights from the four men in Illinois you are about to meet.

In a recent study by the Better Government Association, 85 people wrongfully convicted in Illinois spent a total of 926 years in prison. But that’s only part of the story.

Consider what it means for all of us as taxpayers. In the same study it revealed that those wrongful 85 convictions cost taxpayers in Illinois $214 million, and that figure will likely grow to $300 million when all is said and done.

In 81 of the 85 cases, the study found misconduct or error by state officials. Worse yet, the actual perpetrators continued their crime spree that included an additional 14 murders and 11 sexual assaults.

So how does this happen and what can we do about it? That’s why we traveled to Chicago for a two-night look at one of America’s most underreported stories.

[Begin videotaped segment of interview]

Tavis: Illinois seems to be ground zero, if you will, for wrongful convictions, so let me just start by asking, before I get into the broader notion of wrongful conviction across America, what’s happening here in Illinois. Why are so many people in this state wrongfully convicted? Why is this an issue in Illinois?

Rev. Jesse Jackson: It may be an issue here because Northwestern’s Project for Innocence has revealed them. It may be as pervasive in other places as well.

There is a movement here to uncover the situation. We know there’s a case of Jon Burge, who tortured people into confession. The city spent millions of dollars to protect Jon Burge. He finally was convicted. He’s not in prison, but still receiving his pension, almost as if he is still being rewarded for torturing people into false statements.

Johnnie, for example was in school. He was 14 years old, pulled out of school. He was in the right place at the right time. He was in school and pulled out and then jailed for 30 years, and faced death row. Even now, though he is innocent and out, he can’t get the governor to pardon him. Once he’s pardon he can then be fully free and he can sue for some kind of compensation.

So one step is getting their records out and exposing the fact that they were innocent. Next is to get a government with the courage to set them free – the kind of thing George Ryan did. The third thing is then once they’re out of jail then to get them pardoned, so they can then fully function.

Tavis: Randy, I want to come to you first, and I want to come to you because I read about your case in California, where I live, and I read about it because it was your case that brought to the fore this particular number. Your case raises to the level of 6 percent – this is significant – your cases raises to the level of 6 percent the number of persons wrongfully convicted on death row.

We’re not just talking wrongful convictions across the board. Six percent of the people sitting on death row in Illinois are wrongfully convicted. That number comes to light because of your case.

Tell me more about the back story of your case, specifically.

Randy Steidl: Well, I was arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 of a young newlywed couple, on the words of a town drunk and a mentally ill woman. No physical or forensic evidence tied me to that crime whatsoever, and I had a corroborated alibi which remains corroborated to this very day.

Yet every appeal process with two execution dates for over 12 years in the state courts, I was denied. If it had not been for the efforts of people outside the system, an honest state police officer, a federal judge who actually read the record for the very first time, I would be dead today, or at the very least doing life without parole.

There is so much systemic problems with the death penalty system in Illinois that finally we’ve got it abolished and it’s over with. But that doesn’t mean the system’s fixed. How many others are out here doing life without parole, which is a passive death sentence, or 30 or 40 years that were railroaded with the same system that put me on death row and almost took my life?

Tavis: What would you say to people watching right now, Randy, who feel the pain of you and your comrades on this stage right now but will say of any public policy there is no perfect public policy, so mistakes might be made along the way. But by and large we get most of the people who are guilty. By and large, we get most of the folk who are doing the wrongdoing.

We’re sorry for what happened to you, but mistakes are made because no public policy is perfect. You’d say what to those persons?

Steidl: I’d say that it’s a human factor. This capital punishment system was put in place by humans, who sometimes have agendas, who have blind allegiance to the system, to where they believe what a police officer and a prosecutor says, no matter what, because you’re the defendant, and I honestly believe the defendant has the burden of proof, to prove you’re innocent in a court of law.

Because this system has been broken for decades. It’s just not Randy Steidl or Johnnie Savory or the rest of them. It’s just that when you have prosecutors and police officers that have qualified and absolute immunity for their conduct, they’re going to continue that misconduct in order to gain convictions.

They gild the lily a little too much, and in my case, in Johnnie’s case and the rest of these guys, that’s what happened. That’s how it drags innocent people into the system.

Tavis: Before I move on, you stand out on this stage in part because you’re the only white male with five African American males. When we tend to think of criminals, when we tend to think of those who are sitting on death row, those who are incarcerated, for whatever reason we tend to think of it in color-coded ways, so that we don’t think of white guys in this country being wrongfully convicted. We don’t think of white guys sitting on death row. What say you about that reality?

Steidl: It’s very clear. Two-thirds of the 20 of us that were actually innocent on Illinois’ death row were people of color, and only one-third of us white. But we were innocent, so it shows you that it goes beyond race. That’s the systemic problems with this system that we have in place.

Tavis: I want to come to Johnnie now. What do you make of why, at the age of 14, you get pulled out of school and end up spending three decades wrongfully convicted, falsely imprisoned. Three decades, Johnnie.

Johnnie Lee Savory: Much the same as I am now – in awe that the system could be so cruel and people could be so uncaring to allow it to take place in the first place.

But sitting in the Peoria Junior High, born in Peoria County, Illinois, the third largest city in Illinois at that time, with a small percentage of a Black community, I was left unprotected. I did not know how or what to do. My dad had a fourth grade education. He couldn’t really respond to what they were doing.

It wasn’t what I was taught by Officer Friendly, the religious sector of my community. Just relying on the people in my community to protect me. I never spoke during trial. Only time I ever said anything, there was – like in Randy’s case, there was no physical evidence that tied me to the crime. There were no eye witnesses. There was nothing.

Only thing that took place is over the course of two days of interrogation, being stripped naked, hairs plucked from my body, I lost my will for 30 seconds and the only way I could stop it is to agree that I had done something that I hadn’t done.

Jackson: They stripped you – how did they torture you?

Savory: It was more of a psychological torture, but they took my clothes, took hair samples from me, took blood samples from me. That was without even a court order. They gave me no real reason why. I wasn’t a suspect, as they told the court system.

I was just a person that could have possibly helped solved a case, seeing something, “You might have saw something.” But it went from one extreme to the next.

Through the questioning I just broke down, and when I admitted, as they worded me along, because when I refused to sign the confession then they became more angry, and this – I found myself sitting on trial.

My community responded, the mothers, the grandmothers in my community responded overwhelmingly.

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick, Johnnie. You ended up confession to what? It was a wrongful confession, but confessing to what?

Savory: To a double murder. To the death of my friend and his sister, in order for me to go home. But they said, “No, you can’t go home.” I said, “Well, I told you what you wanted to hear. Can I just go home?” It wasn’t to be.

Then while sitting on trial at age 14, the prosecutor said that I had been found guilty by a jury with no evidence whatsoever. He asked for the death penalty. At 14.

That’s the only time I spoke. And I asked, “How could you take my life for something I didn’t do?” So the judge sentenced me to 50 to 100 years in the Illinois Department of Correction.

While I was sitting there I was given an attorney, Ted Gottfried, who was the head of the state appellate defender’s office for the state of Illinois, probably one of the most awesome appellate counsels in the country. He came to see me and he told me he would bring me home.

So I won the right to a new trial and the appellate court ruled unanimously that I was in custodial interrogation, no rights read, nothing, and they said the word “badgered” rather than tortured.

They ruled unanimously, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled unanimously. It went to the United States Supreme Court and they sent me back. Threw out the confession, it had no substance, no merit, no nothing.

Upon coming back, one of the most awesome things that ever happened in this case was the former prosecutor, Michael Mihm, who is a federal judge now, and John Barra, who was a prosecutor also then at the time, both publicly came out and said that there was no evidence (unintelligible) to the crime or to the scene of the crime, so it was no longer a question will he be released. The question is when.

In 60 days, he will be released. Well, that didn’t take place, nor was I re-indicted. They convicted me with absolutely no evidence. They bribed or forced three witnesses who did not testify in the first trial and coerced them into testifying falsely. Brought one from a drug rehab center. All of them had criminal records against them, so they too became victims in this grand scheme.

Tavis: How does it feel, then, to sit here after that ordeal and to still not have complete closure on this because you can’t, at the moment, at least, get a full pardon from the state of Illinois?

Savory: Well, through the grace of God I feel that in situations like mine, like Randy’s, like Mr. Lyons, like Berry, like the (unintelligible) to be used to bring the attention needs to be.

Yes, I hurt, yes, I did not get my formative years in terms of finishing high school, going to the prom, playing football and all those things that I desired to do, but Reverend Jackson has given me the opportunity to head up the Innocence Project here and I think (unintelligible) Jackson, with his guidance, I feel like a soldier in the military.

That I get to go behind enemy lines and bring those home, give my voice to those who do not have a voice. That’s my way of healing. It is therapy for me, because there is no curriculum to deal with what we went through in any institution.

Tavis: I want to move to Marcus and Ken here in just a second, but let me ask one last question for you at the moment, Johnnie, and that is how a 14-year-old, how a teenager processes the state wanting to give him the death penalty? How does a teenager psychologically process that?

I ask that because we know there are other underage youth in this country in various states who are facing that even as we sit and have this conversation right now. How does a teenager process that?

Savory: I could not process it, and I cannot process it to this day. The mere fact that I was born on the same day that Emmett Till, and I was the same age he was when they murdered him, it –

Tavis: The same day?

Savory: The same day. I was born 07/25/62; he was born 07/25/1941. To read what happened to him, I felt like – I’m thankful that I was allowed to be alive, because I could have been the youngest prisoner ever executed in the United States of America.

So that still is emotionally a strain upon me, and I try to stay away from it because I can’t believe that they wanted to actually take my life and they knew that I was innocent. So I can’t deal with that. I can’t process it.

Jackson: He works at Rainbow PUSH now and he’s turned all of his pain into power. He has this passion, as he said, to go behind enemy lines, because others who have themselves been victims of this kind of system.

(Unintelligible) there’s a pattern between if you are Black or poor. Without legal representation you are subject to the hit.

Tavis: I’m not sure how much more of this I can take or how much my heart can take, because just the stories we’ve heard already from Johnnie and Randy are, again, pardon the phrase, arresting to the spirit and to the soul. But I want to get to Marcus and Ken.

Marcus, give me some of your story, how you found yourself falsely imprisoned?

Marcus Lyons: I had been – I was older, I was 29 years old. I was fresh out of the Navy, I had done seven years in the Navy and I’m working at a Fortune 500 company in a suburbs. There was a knock on my door and it’s the police. A white woman has been sexually assaulted by a Black male.

I’m the only one in this high-rent apartment district, because I’m making good money. I’m also in the Navy reserves. Along with that, I’m also a college student. They knock on my door and they tell me. I said, “Okay. It’s got nothing to do with me.” They said, “Well, can you have us – give us this, give us these clothes.”

I said, “Fine, take it. You can take anything you want. I’ll help you in any way I can help you. Not a problem.” They came back. They said, “Well, come down, we want to talk to you.” I said, “Fine, not a problem.”

I come down there and they took my photo ID from my job and said that the woman identified your photograph. I’m the only one in the photo lineup with a necktie on, so I’m like, I’m the only one that could afford to stay there, where I work at.

To make a long story short, I found myself indicted in front of a jury that convicted me with no evidence, and I was just shocked. My mother hired an appellate attorney. He was telling me all the time I was in prison, “You’ve got to be patient. Be patient. Be patient.” I get out and find out he never filed the appeal.

I just lost it, and I took a wooden cross out of railroad ties and I took it to the courthouse and I nailed myself to the cross, and I said, “You know what? She told me as a child when you got a problem, take your problems to the Lord.” They said, “Okay.” They were upset.

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick. To get the attention of the criminal court system that was not giving you the respect you deserved, you went to the courthouse and nailed yourself to a cross.

Lyons: Yes, sir.

Tavis: To get the kind of media attention that you had to get –

Lyons: In my Navy uniform.

Tavis: In your Navy uniform

Lyons: Yes, sir.

Tavis: To draw attention to your case.

Lyons: Yes, sir.

Tavis: What happened when you did that?

Lyons: I nailed my foot, and the police officer grabbed it and told me, “Nigger, your 15 minutes of fame has come to an end.” They took me to the hospital and then they took me back to the courthouse. The judge said, “Disturbing the peace, $100.” I said, “Here you go.”

I’m supposed to leave. I’m leaving, and the next thing I know, “Wait in this room.” I’m like, “I’m not waiting anywhere. I’m leaving.” I was – my skull was caved in by one of the police officers. I woke up in the back of a van and when I came to I found myself at the Elgin mental hospital.

They wouldn’t release me. They sent – I guess the prosecutor said, “This nigger’s crazy.” I’m like, “Okay.” So they kept me for a week and then they finally released me, and I had to have some – they wouldn’t take me back home, so I had to find someone to come get me.

When I got out of prison they had put me in a homeless shelter because I couldn’t leave the state. I was originally from Indiana. I started doing my own investigation, and I came across some other things that I needed. I applied those things.

I applied my military training and to say that’s why I feel like I’m an example for young Black men. Reverend preaches education, education. My education overturned my conviction.

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Lyons: I used a 2,000-year-old military battle strategy to get this case overturned. I outwitted a federal agent to do it, but it worked.

Tavis: We live in a country where we celebrate those persons who have served, who put their lives on the line and done everything for their country. You did that as a member of the Navy. How do you explain to people how something like this could happen to a man who had served his country in the Navy?

Lyons: They didn’t know I was in the Navy when they did this. They had no idea. How it can happen? I’m astonished. All they say was Black face, no other Black males around – it’s you. Like I said, no evidence. You’re it. So they just grabbed me and used me. That’s how I feel.

I went to Washington to talk with the military in 2009, and they told me, “We can’t help you.” I had spoken with my congressman and he had given me some names. So I flew to Washington to talk to somebody, because I want to be reinstated. I want my 24 years back.

Tavis: Reverend, what do you make of the fact, before I go to Ken here, what do you make of the fact that individuals in this country – obviously we can see Black and white can be wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted, falsely imprisoned, get out because the evidence declares that they are innocent, and then have to go to these kinds of extremes – putting themselves on a cross outside of a courthouse – just to draw attention to their case. Why does it have to be this difficult?

Jackson: Well, Blacks, we have a target on our backs. Two hundred and forty-six years of slavery, we have the targets on our backs, and the Jim Crow is a target. My father came from World War II, had to sit behind Nazi POWs. He never forgot it as long as he lived. He had to sit behind Nazis. The Nazis could vote, he couldn’t vote.

It hurts, intergenerationally, because it’s just so wrong. Nixon kicks off the drug war 40 years ago. Twenty-five million people arrested. About half of them are African American and most are nonviolent drug offenses. They built a whole industry off the jail industrial complex, destroying families and disrupting lives of people.

Then when it’s all over they still cannot get a job. They come out of jail without an ID. They come out without anybody saying, “I apologize. I’m sorry.” So these guys were wrongfully convicted, but they’re still semi imprisoned. They’re not totally free yet.

Tavis: Does the state give you a check, Randy?

Steidl: Twenty-six dollars and 40 cents when I walked out.

Tavis: What?

Steidl: That was it.

Tavis: How much?

Steidl: Twenty-six dollars and 40 cents. That’s all I got when I was released. Thank God I had a loving, supportive family.

Tavis: Johnnie, I see tears running down your face. Why the tears after all these years?

Savory: It shouldn’t take this long. It’s been 35 years for me, 25 years for Randy.

Lyons: Twenty-four.

Tavis: Twenty-four for Marcus.

Savory: It didn’t – justice is not what we seek. Justice is something that prevents injustice from taking place. All we ask for is to let the truth do what the truth does. All we ask is to be compensated so we can get on with the rest of our lives. (Unintelligible) I’m almost 50. It’s gone. We can’t get it back.

But we shouldn’t have to struggle. We shouldn’t be compared to Willie Horton. Politicians shouldn’t continue to use it as an excuse for not doing the right thing. Willie Horton was guilty when he went in prison and he was guilty when they let him out. That has nothing to do with our situation.

No just legislators, no just clergies, no just people can sit here and watch what we go through. And if it hasn’t been for Jonathan, Reverend and especially the media, they have really been awesome in exposing injustice throughout this country as around the world, we still wouldn’t have no voice. We still would languish in those places, and they would have murdered us and pretend like nothing happened.

[End videotaped segment of interview]

Tavis: Next time we’ll hear the story of a former police officer who was wrongfully convicted of a serious crime while on duty at the University of Chicago. Plus, a look at the work being done to combat false convictions.

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Last modified: July 5, 2011 at 1:28 pm