Coalition Seeks DNA Testing For Man Who Insists He's Innocent of Murders That Occurred When He Was 14
Johnnie Lee Savory (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)
CHICAGO - Johnnie Lee Savory, 45, spent two-thirds of his life behind bars for a double murder that he says DNA testing can prove he did not commit.
The trouble is that, even though Illinois law guarantees the right to DNA testing when it is relevant to a claim of actual innocence, the courts have denied that right in Savory's case.
As a result, Savory is asking Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to order the testing, which would be paid for privately, at no cost to the taxpayers.
And today Savory was joined in his quest for DNA testing by a broadly based coalition of supporters — including five former U.S. Attorneys, 30 former prisoners who were exonerated by DNA, authors John Grisham and Studs Terkel, and arrays of business, religious, and civil rights leaders, academics, defense lawyers, and past and present and public officials.
Letters signed by the supporters — 212 in all — were released today at a press conference in the offices of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
Lawyers from the Center and the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block took on the Savory case five years ago at the behest of the late U.S. District Court Judge Prentice H. Marshall, who in retirement had taken an interest in the case and had come to believe that Savory was innocent.
Although the lawyers succeeded in obtaining Savory's release on parole on December 19, 2006, on-going efforts to obtain DNA testing through the courts have not succeeded. With those remedies exhausted, Savory's only hope of proving his innocence lies with Governor Blagojevich before whom a petition for executive clemency based on innocence is pending.
It is in that context that Savory's supporters are asking the governor to order the testing. There is precedent for that — Governor James R. Thompson did it in 1988 in the case of Gary Dotson, who as a result became the first person ever to be exonerated by DNA. Since that case, DNA has exonerated 209 additional wrongfully convicted prisoners nationally, including 25 more in Illinois.
Johnnie Savory, an African-American, was twice convicted by all-white juries of the murders of teenagers James Robinson, Jr. and Connie Cooper, who were found stabbed to death in their Peoria home on January 18, 1977. The second conviction, which is the only one that matters now, rested primarily on the testimony of three informants who claimed that Savory had talked about committing the crime in their presence. Two of the informants eventually recanted, stating that the conversations in fact had not occurred.
The physical evidence in the case — a bloody pair of pants seized from Savory's home, fingernail scrapings from both victims, head hairs found in the victims' hands and bathroom sink, and a pocket knife with a blood-like stain on it that the prosecution theorized was the murder weapon.
The blood on the pants was of the ABO type shared by Johnnie, one of the victims, and, importantly, Savory's father, who testified that the pants were his. The pants were several sizes too big for Johnnie, and his father had suffered an injury at work consistent with the positioning of the blood. (Actually, the father was treated at a hospital, where there were records that would have corroborated his testimony, but that the defense did not present.)
The fingernail scrapings were said to be of no evidentiary value, and nothing regarding them was presented at the trial. Nor was anything presented regarding the hairs. The knife was entered into evidence, but the stain on it was so minute that it could not be determined whether it was blood. Most if not all of these items should be amenable to DNA testing with today's state-of-the-art technology.
Not only could the requested DNA testing exonerate Savory but it also could identify the real killer of James Robinson and Connie Cooper.
The five former U.S. Attorneys who support Johnnie's request for DNA testing are Samuel K. Skinner, Thomas P. Sullivan, Dan K. Webb, Anton Valukas, and Scott Lassar. They were represented at the press conference by Sullivan, a Jenner & Block partner and chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
The broad range of the group is perhaps best illustrated by the names of Skinner, who was Secretary of Transportation and White House Chief of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, and Abner J. Mikva, White House Counsel under President Bill Clinton. Among other names indicative of the diversity are those of Noam Chomsky, a retired MIT professor who has characterized his personal visions as "fairly traditional anarchist ones," and Richard A. Epstein, a Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago known for libertarian views. Religious leaders among the signatories include Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Greek Orthodox. Among business leaders on the list is Lester Crown, president of Henry Crown & Co.
The 30 former prisoners exonerated by DNA were represented at the press conference by Kenneth Adams, one of the defendants in the Ford Heights Four case. They languished a total of 434 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Four of them were on death row — Kirk Bloodsworth, in Maryland, Rolando Cruz, in Illinois, Ray Krone, in Arizona, and Curtis Edward McCarty, in Oklahoma.
The letter to which the exonerated lent their names notes that many of them would still be in prison and some of them might have been executed if they had been denied DNA testing, and ends with a simple plea to the governor on Savory's behalf — "We beseech you to do the right thing."