CHICAGO — Ten years after Harold Hill and Dan Young were sentenced to life imprisonment on rape and murder charges, prosecutors Monday dropped all charges in the case because new DNA results could not link the pair to the crime.
At a hearing before Criminal Court Judge Kenneth Wadas, Assistant State's Attorney Celeste Stack dropped the state's opposition to a motion for new trials in the Oct. 14, 1990, slaying of Kathy Morgan.
Stack then formally dropped the case.
The hearing lasted less than three minutes, and at its end, Wadas ordered, "Release defendants — this case only."
Young, 44, and Hill, 31, remained at the Pontiac Correctional Center during the hearing. But just before 3 p.m. Monday, Young walked into the winter cold, a free man.
"I feel better about being out of here," Young said, moments after leaving the corrections facility. "I shoulda never been here the first time."
The exonerated man later celebrated his freedom with a dinner of fried chicken and cake.
The prosecutors and defense attorney Kathleen Zellner said Hill still had about three years left on an unrelated armed robbery conviction.
Morgan was found raped and strangled Oct. 14, 1990, in a burning abandoned building at 1435 W. Garfield Blvd. Police arrested Young and Hill in 1992, and two years later each was convicted and sentenced to serve life in prison.
After the hearing Monday, First Assistant State's Attorney Robert Milan said the cases pre-dated use of DNA testing in Illinois courts, and repeated subsequent testing failed to link the pair to the crime scene.
The decision was made to drop the case after testing of DNA evidence found under the victim's fingernails and on her clothing excluded Hill and Young, NBC5's Renee Ferguson reported.
Stack estimated that the Cook County State's Attorney's Office spent nearly $100,000 reviewing the case.
"This is a case that was troubling from the get-go," Milan said. "We took the evidence where it led us."
Kathleen Zellner said the wrongful convictions were the result of nearly identical false confessions, and bite-mark evidence that was tenuous at best.
"There were obviously a few people who contributed to these men being wrongfully convicted," Zellner said. "Once again we have a situation of a false confession."
Young told reporters he had no idea what was on the paper he signed.
"They beat me and made me sign a confession. I can't read or write," Young said.
Stack said bite-mark analysis, unlike DNA, is a subjective science, noting that about half of the seven dental experts who reviewed the evidence could not exclude Young or Hill.
Kathleen Zellner, who represents several defendants in post-conviction cases, praised prosecutors for their dedication to reopening the case.
"The state's attorney did a wonderful job on pursuing this," Zellner said. "We went to two different labs, we had dental experts from Canada — we tested everything."
Zellner said civil suits were likely forthcoming from both defendants, but did not offer specifics.
Young's sister, Betty Ray, called her brother's exoneration "long overdue," and said she knew all along he was framed.
"You know your brother, and this is something he could never have done," Ray said. "I believe they (police) just wanted to pin this on somebody to close the case, and they got the wrong guy. Thank God for DNA."
Both Milan and Stack said they could not meet their burden of proof at a new trial, but Stack stopped short of saying the men were innocent.
"I don't know if they're innocent," Stack said. "That's something I can't answer."
Authorities do not know who killed Morgan. Attorneys on both sides said the focus of the Morgan case must now shift to finding the real killers.
Milan said that, so far, none of the DNA profiles collected has matched anyone in the FBI computer system.
He also said that, thanks to evidence such as DNA and a rigorous screening process, false convictions like Young and Hill have become increasingly unlikely.
"Today we have the luxury of DNA. ... They didn't have that then," Milan said. "We feel pretty good about how we review cases in 2005."
Cook County prosecutors today dropped murder charges against two men who have spent more than 12 years behind bars, after DNA test results undermined their confessions and testimony from a dentist who implicated the two through a bite mark and a hickey.
Dan Young Jr. and Harold Hill were exonerated after a forensic dental expert reexamined the bite mark on the victim's body, and a final round of DNA tests again came back and failed to implicate the two defendants.
The case against Young and Hill was featured in the Tribune's October 2004 series, "Forensics Under the Microscope," which exposed the use of faulty forensics in the courtroom.
The series showed how bite mark testimony has been used as a prosecutorial tool though there is no accurate way to measure its reliability, and the story quoted a dentist used by the prosecution against Young and Hill as saying he felt "pushed" to testify in a harsh light. The Tribune first wrote about questions surrounding the case in 2001, in a series that investigated how police obtained false confessions.
Young was to be immediately released, while Hill was still being held on a separate robbery conviction.
"We took the evidence where it led us," said Cook County Assistant State's Atty. Bob Milan, who acknowledged that the case against Young and Hill was "troubling from the get-go."
Today's hearing before Criminal Courts Judge Kenneth Wadas lasted only two minutes. Prosecutors first withdrew their opposition to a new trial for the two men, then moved to drop the charges against them.
Young was released today from the Illinois state penitentiary in Pontiac. Hill will remain behind bars, though the attorney for the men said Hill's sentence was enhanced by the now-vacated murder conviction and he, too, should be set free.
The attorney, Kathleen Zellner, said the "case was flawed from the beginning," noting that a third man charged in the case was set free not long after his arrest after police discovered he was in jail when the murder occurred.
Like Young and Hill, that man also confessed to police.
Young and Hill were sentenced to life in prison without parole after their 1994 convictions for the killing of Kathy Morgan, 39, whose body was found in a South Side building in 1990 after firefighters were summoned to extinguish a blaze.
The two have long contended they were innocent.
Their exoneration today followed a report last month that discredited the only physical evidence that linked them to the slaying.
Dr. David Sweet, considered one of the top forensic dental experts in the world, said in a report sent Dec. 13 to defense and prosecution attorneys that a bite mark on the victim was not suitable for comparison because the body had been damaged by a fire apparently set to cover up the crime.
The report rebutted testimony given by Park Ridge dentist John Kenney that Young and Hill were responsible for marks on Morgan.
The state's attorney's office and Zellner had jointly agreed upon Sweet to analyze the evidence and to accept his opinion.
Hill had sought a new trial based on the dental examination as well as previous DNA tests that failed to link them to the crime. The DNA tests that have been completed to date have identified the genetic profiles of two other unknown men.
Latest test results of DNA taken from the victim's clothing again came back negative for the two defendants, prosecutors said today.
The only other evidence linking Young and Hill were alleged confessions to detectives. Those confessions have been questioned because police at the time said a third man, Peter Williams, had confessed as well. After police learned Williams was in jail at the time of the crime, he was released.
Hill, who was 16 when Morgan was killed, was arrested on unrelated charges about 18 months after the slaying. Chicago police detectives Kenneth Boudreau and John Halloran obtained a confession from him saying that he, Young and Williams all took part in the crime.
Two days later, detectives arrested Young, who court-appointed doctors said had an IQ of 56, which is 14 points below the most commonly used benchmark for determining retardation. Young said police beat him.
Williams was the last to be arrested. He gave the most detailed confession, but he later said he was handcuffed to a radiator for hours and urinated on himself because he was not allowed to use a bathroom.
The detectives denied they abused the men.
After this morning's court hearing, Young's sister, Betty Ray, said her family always knew he was innocent.
"You know your brother, you know your family," Ray said. "This is something you know that he could never, ever have done."
Police simply wanted to clear the murder, Ray said. She added, "They just wanted to pin it on someone and close the case fast, in a hurry, but they picked the wrong guys."
Prosecutors said they spent tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in reviews of the case and new testing. In the end, there was not enough evidence to pursue the matter in good faith, Milan said.
The new lab work included testing at the forefront of current forensic science, prosecutors said. In no test was DNA from either Young or Hill isolated, they said.
Milan said today's investigators have the "luxury" of such evidence, which was not available when charges were first brought in the case. If the case had been brought in 2005, it would not have resulted in charges, he said.