Michael Evans and his co-defendant, Paul Terry
, were 17 in 1976 when 9-year-old Lisa Cabassa was raped and murdered on the south side of Chicago. The victim and her brother, Ricky, 11, were walking to a friend’s home in the early evening of January 14, 1976, when Lisa, complaining of a headache, turned back. When Ricky returned home alone later that night, the family realized that Lisa was missing. Police were called, and Lisa’s body was found shortly before 3:00 a.m. the next day in an alley about two miles from her home. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled. The Cook County medical examiner theorized that it had taken more than one assailant to subdue and sexually assault her.
Four days later, Judith Januszewski, a 32-year-old secretary at a real estate office near the crime scene, called Frank Martin, who had advertised a $5,000 reward in the case. Police were summoned and questioned Januszewski. She told them that at “approximately 6:37 p.m.” on January 14, she had seen two black youths struggling with a young white girl. From descriptions she provided, police prepared composite sketches of two young black men. Over the next few weeks, Januszewski identified one of the youths as Michael Evans, whom she knew. Police arrested Evans the next day and he was indicted for rape, kidnapping, and murder.
Keith Jones, a friend of Evans, also implicated Evans in the crime, along with a man named James Davis. In addition, Jones said that one of the composite sketches looked somewhat like another neighborhood youth – Paul Terry. In November 1976, Januszewski identified Terry and Davis in a lineup. Based solely on the lineup identifications, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office obtained indictments charging Terry and Davis with rape, kidnapping, and murder.
Evans waived a jury and went to trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Earl E. Strayhorn.
Januszewski’s credibility suffered when it was learned that the time records at the real estate office where she was employed indicated that she was at work at the time she initially claimed to have seen the men with the little girl. Police solved the discrepancy by altering their time records to make it appear that the abduction occurred later than the members of the Cabassa family had reported.
Despite misgivings about Januszewski’s credibility, Judge Strayhorn found Evans guilty on June 17, 1976. Before sentencing, however, the prosecution disclosed that Januszewski had received money from the State’s Attorney’s Office, ostensibly for relocation. Because that information had not been provided to the defense prior to trial, Strayhorn vacated the conviction for prosecutorial misconduct, and Evans’s case was consolidated for retrial with those of Terry and Davis.
Before the trial, prosecutors dropped the charges against Davis because Keith Jones recanted. Evans and Terry, however – neither of whom had a criminal record – were tried and convicted. On May 27, 1977, they were sentenced to concurrent terms of 200 to 400 years for murder, 75 to 150 years for aggravated kidnapping, 75 to 150 years for rape, and 50 to 100 years for deviate sexual assault.
On December 4, 1979, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the convictions, holding that “Januszewski’s testimony, if believed, was not so improbable, doubtful, or vague as to raise a reasonable doubt as to defendants’ guilt.”
In 1994, Thomas Breen, once the lead prosecutor in the case, now a defense attorney, revisited the convictions and asked Karen Daniel, Center on Wrongful Convictions staff counsel, to look into the possibility of obtaining DNA testing on semen recovered from the victim. In September of 2002, DNA results excluded Evans, Terry, and Davis as sources of the semen. However, it was not until August 22, 2003, that prosecutors dismissed the charges and Evans and Terry were freed.
On January 6, 2005, Governor Rod Blagojevich pardoned Evans based on actual innocence. Evans received $161,005.24 from the Court of Claims, but in 2006 he lost a federal civil rights suit against the Chicago Police Department and various officers. Terry also received $161,005.24 from the Court of Claims, and, having observed Evans’s failure to win his civil rights suit in federal court, settled a claim in state court in 2009 for $2.7 million.
—Center on Wrongful Convictions