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By MIKE SANDROLINI
PROVISO | There were a record number of exonerations in the United States in 2016.
The National Registry of Exonerations reports 166 exonerations that it knows of throughout the country—in 25 states, the District of Columbia, federal courts and Puerto Rico. Approximately 93 individuals were exonerated of either homicide, sexual assault or other violent crimes, while 73 defendants were exonerated of non-violent crimes.
17 defendants were exonerated in Illinois alone during 2016—the most ever recorded in this state. A recent case that made headlines in the Chicago area was the case of 46-year-old Patrick Prince, who was acquitted in late May of a 1991 murder charge in which he spent 26 years in prison.
Locally, there’s a 501c3 organization based in Westchester—The Evans Exoneration Project, or TEEP—which is dedicated to following up on cases of incarcerated individuals who have maintained their innocence and contacted TEEP with the hope of ultimately being exonerated and released from prison.
TEEP recently held an open house and fundraiser at its offices, located at 10330 W. Roosevelt.
“We envisioned it (the open house) as a way to educate the community on wrongful convictions and mass incarceration, and the realities of the prison system,” said TEEP president Demitrus Evans.
Evans started the Evans International Law Firm in 2009, but as soon as it opened around 2010, she said she “started getting letters from prisoners.”
“I would do what I could but it got overwhelming,” she recalled. “People started writing saying ‘I’m innocent, review these documents, file them on my behalf or help me prove my innocence.’ ”
At that point, she brought in volunteers to answer the letters, but she realized “that this was bigger that the (Evans International) Law Firm and it needed its own name. That’s when we called it The Evans Exoneration Project.”
Then, Evans came to the realization that they needed to form an organization for TEEP and applied for 501c3 status in 2012.
“That took a little while,” she said.
The IRS granted TEEP nonprofit status in 2014.
“We want to exonerate those who have limited funds,” Evans explained. “They are in prison and have maintained their innocence from the beginning. Normally cases we see have been in prison for approximately 20 years and have had an opportunity to take a plea agreement. They could have been out in 10 years but have maintained their innocence all along.”
A TEEP brochure states that TEEP’s target population “is low income African Americans and Latinos that have been wrongfully accused and are incarcerated. Most clients have gone through trials and appeals or are personally in need of counsel for these legal phases. Due to their economic status, they are unable to afford legal counsel, experts for test of evidence and transcripts.”
Evans said TEEP gets around 30 inquiries per month.
“It wasn’t until 2017 that inquiries started to be national,” she said. “In 2016 they were all Illinois cases. We’re corresponding with about 25 cases that are ongoing. The rest of the cases, we’re able to do what they ask if it’s within our means. With the ones that are quick, we can help right away.”
Evans said she will go visit prisoners in prison and “if I’m able to look them in the eye and believe them, we will order all the transcripts and do the work.”
One particular case TEEP is working on is that of Eric Watkins of Chicago, who in 1997 was convicted of murdering his stepfather and armed robbery. Evans said Watkins has been in the Stateville Correctional Center for 20 years, but maintains his innocence.
“He’s accused of killing his stepfather in 1992 without any evidence, no DNA, no fingerprints, no weapons,” Evans said. “We’re trying to get a new trial for him.”
Charles Shumate, who works as a paralegal for TEEP, has experienced firsthand what it’s like to be behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. He once spent nearly three years in jail.
“I’ve been through the court system and had to represent myself,” he said. “I could not depend on a public defender or an appellant defender because they simply wanted the case (to be) over with. I was in the (Cook) county jail for 33 months after I was found guilty of a residential burglary that I did not commit. Because that was my background, officers felt I would be a good candidate for the charge so they could close the case.
“So society wins because they perceive the system is working. But the system is actually broken because if these people could afford to have a lawyer that could go all the way to trial, the state would not have the conviction rate that they would have. Courts would be tied up all the time if everyone would fight their case through trial.”
Shumate also pointed out that “you can bet that the county says their conviction rate is 90 to 98 percent, but anywhere from 60 to 69 percent of those convictions were plea bargains. You have innocent people copping out all the time.”
“Our society says the sooner we can get the perpetrator locked up the better,” Evans added. “Everybody wants to feel safe. Police have great incentive to do the work quick and get someone locked up so that society can then feel safe, but that’s false.”
“Guilty until proven innocent is the way society wants it to be,” said John Davis, the development director for TEEP. “If someone is shot, they want it solved now.”
Davis, who recently started with TEEP, is a former inmate, having served three years in prison after pleading guilty to a mail fraud charge. He was released this year.
“I’m pretty new out of prison,” said Davis. “I’m guilty and I paid my debt to society, but the system is very broken.”
Davis said he has a heart for men and women who’ve been in prison a long time.
“I personally went through it and have an opportunity to do something positive for others,” he said, “and apply my business and financial background into a nonprofit. I’m submerging myself into learning the nonprofit world.
“I’m taken aback by number of inquiries we get. You hear of people getting released from prison, but here, you see that there are these cases out there (and) that they are innocent. That’s been a real eye-opener for me.”