By the time of his release—June 6, 2003—35-year-old Dana Holland had served more than a decade behind bars as a result of wrongful convictions for two separate crimes. One of the crimes was a rape, of which he was absolved by DNA. The other was an armed robbery and attempted murder in which he became a suspect only because of his arrest for the rape he did not commit.
The crimes occurred two weeks and a block apart in an alley on the south side of Chicago in 1993. Holland received sentences totaling 118 years—consecutive terms of 30 years for each of three counts in the rape case and 28 years in the armed robbery and attempted murder case.
Shortly before 4 a.m. on February 8, 1993, 38-year-old Ella Wembley—bleeding from slash wounds to her face and neck—flagged down a police squad car near 79th Street and Ashland Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. After she was treated for her wounds, she told police she had been picked up by two men in a car near 76th and Halsted streets around 3:30 a.m. and taken to an alley off 78th Street near Paulina Avenue, where the men tried to rape her. When she resisted, she said, both men beat her, and one slashed her with a box cutter.
Two weeks later, on February 22, police were summoned to an alley off 77th Street near Paulina Avenue, where 22-year-old Dionne Stanley was being sexually assaulted. When officers entered the alley, Stanley, who was pregnant, jumped out of a 1981 white Oldsmobile and ran toward them. A man jumped out of the car and ran the opposite direction. One of the officers chased the fleeing man, but lost sight of him. The officer then followed footprints on the snow-covered ground to an apartment building at 7821 S. Paulina Avenue, where he saw Dana Holland putting some things into a garbage can. Inside the building, police found a pair of wet gym shoes that appeared to match the footprints in the snow.
Holland was taken into custody. Stanley initially said Holland was not the man who attacked her, but minutes later said he was the man after all and Holland was charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault.
Inside the white Oldsmobile police found a wallet belonging to Ella Wembley. The car was owned by Gordon Bolden, Dana Holland's uncle, but was registered to Jerald Bolden, another nephew of Gordon Bolden. All three of the men lived at 7821 S. Paulina Avenue.
On March 6, 1993, Wembley identified Holland, who was then 25, and Gordon Bolden, 31, as her attackers. Both men were charged with armed robbery and attempted murder.
In February 1995, Bolden and Holland waived a jury and went on trial together before Cook County Circuit Court Judge David Erickson for the armed robbery and attempted murder of Wembley.
Wembley testified that as she waited for a bus at about 3:30 a.m. two men pulled up in a car. Wembley said a man got out of the passenger seat and forced her into the front seat, holding a box cutter to her throat. When they stopped in the alley, she escaped but the men caught her. She was beaten and slashed as she resisted being forced back into the car and managed to flee. She identified Bolden as the driver and Holland as the passenger with the box cutter.
Bolden did not testify, but Holland took the stand and denied involvement in the attack. Holland said that Bolden and someone else had attacked Wembley.
The prosecution argued that the physical evidence purporting to connect Holland to the white Oldsmobile in which Wembley’s wallet was found corroborated Wembley’s identification of Holland as the man in the passenger seat when she was attacked. There was nothing, however, to corroborate her identification of Bolden. As a result, Judge Erickson acquitted Bolden and convicted Holland.
Holland protested that Bolden could “clear me out of this,” and he pleaded with Bolden to speak up. On advice of counsel, however, Bolden stood mute. As deputies led Holland from the courtroom, he continued to plead with Bolden. “This is my life,” said Holland. On March 24, 1995, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison for the armed robbery and attempted murder of Ella Wembley.
Seven months later, Pamela Fish, a Chicago police crime laboratory analyst, filed a report that falsely stated that the quantity of the semen recovered from Dionne Stanley was insufficient for DNA testing.
In April 1997, Holland went on trial for the rape of Stanley before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Themis N. Karnezis who heard the case without a jury after denying a defense request for a delay to obtain private DNA testing.
Stanley would not appear voluntarily to testify against Holland, so prosecutors had her arrested and jailed as a material witness to compel her testimony. By the time she finally testified, she had been in custody 30 days. Conceding that she initially had said Holland was not the man, Stanley identified him in court as the man who raped her three times.
By then, the statute of limitations for the prosecution of Gordon Bolden had expired and so Bolden gave the testimony he had been advised against two years earlier. He testified that he had had consensual sex with Stanley. He also testified that the wet gym shoes police found immediately after the crime were his—not Holland’s.
Holland testified that he was awakened about 6 a.m. on February 22, when Bolden came into the apartment building. Holland said he gathered up some garbage in his room and took it outside, where police spotted him and took him into custody.
The prosecutor, Assistant State's Attorney Lauren Freeman, branded Holland's and Bolden's testimony “absolutely preposterous.” Karnezis convicted Holland and sentenced him to 30 years in prison on each of the three counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault for a total of 90 years. Karnezis directed that the sentences be served upon the completion of the 28-year-sentence imposed in the Wembley case two years earlier.
After his convictions and sentences were affirmed by the Illinois Appellate Court, Holland wrote to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law asking for help. After an investigation, Center staff counsel Karen Daniel filed a motion seeking DNA testing.
On September 23, 2002, tests excluded Dana Holland as the source of the sperm sample recovered from Dionne Stanley. The testing refuted Pamela Fish's 1995 claim that the seminal sample had been too small to test.
By that time, false forensic testimony by Fish had been exposed in several other cases in which DNA led to exonerations. Her most notorious fabrication was largely responsible for the wrongful convictions of four youths—Marcellius Bradford
, Omar Saunders
, Larry Ollins
and Calvin Ollins
On January 30, 2003, after additional DNA testing established that Gordon Bolden was the source of the semen recovered from Dionne Stanley, prosecutors belatedly conceded Holland's innocence in the rape case and Circuit Court Judge James B. Linn vacated that conviction.
On February 11, Linn granted Holland a new trial in the Wembley case and on June 4, 2003, Judge Linn began hearing the case without a jury. Wembley again identified Holland as the man with the box cutter. The defense established that Wembley had given conflicting descriptions of the lighting in the alley as well as first telling police she was unemployed and later saying she worked in the Chicago system as a receptionist.
Holland testified and asserted his innocence. Gordon Bolden, who after avoiding prosecution for the Wembley and Stanley crimes was later convicted of a series of felonies, including vehicular invasion and armed robbery, also testified. He said that, shortly after his arrest for the Wembley crime in 1993, he told his lawyer that he had committed the crime not with Holland but with someone else. Because Bolden was on trial himself for the crime, however, he followed his lawyer’s advice not to testify, even though his innocent nephew was on trial beside him.
At the close of the evidence, Judge Linn acquitted Holland.
On January 6, 2005, Governor Rod Blagojevich granted Holland a pardon based on innocence and four months later the Illinois Court of Claims awarded Holland $138,000 for his wrongful imprisonment—roughly $37 for each day he languished behind bars for crimes he did not commit. Holland filed suit against the city of Chicago and the police officers who arrested him for malicious prosecution, but the case was dismissed.
At Holland’s behest, the Center on Wrongful Convictions took on the representation of his former cellmate, Christopher Coleman
, who was exonerated in March 2014 after serving nearly two decades behind bars for an armed home invasion and related crimes in Peoria County.
— Rob Warden