Nineteen years after he was convicted of a rape that occurred in 1987 in the Village of Woodridge west of Chicago, Marcus A. Lyons was exonerated by DNA testing.
The testing linked semen recovered from the victim’s clothing to an unknown man—who subsequently was identified but not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired. Although the crime occurred before the dawn of the DNA forensic age, conventional blood testing in use at the time would have prevented Lyons’s wrongful prosecution — if the clothing had been tested. But the clothing was not tested due to the malfeasance of Woodridge police malfeasance.
The 29-year-old victim, who was white, reported the rape to Woodridge police at 11:20 p.m. on November 30, 1987. She said she’d been relaxing in her apartment—wearing a robe, bra, and underwear—when a man knocked on her door at around 8:30 p.m.
He said he was “Mr. Williams from downstairs” and asked to borrow a plunger. When she told him she didn’t have a plunger, he asked to use her bathroom. She allowed him inside, sat down on her living room couch, and lit a cigarette. The man then forced her to disrobe and raped her.
When he left, the victim put on the robe, bra, and underpants she previously had been wearing, but took them off a little later to shower and left on her bathroom floor. After showering, she dressed, put on clean underwear and called a close friend who came to her apartment, where they talked until the victim called the police. After interviewing her, an officer photographed the garments on the bathroom floor and put them into an evidence bag, which he took to police headquarters and put into a property control locker.
Detective James Grady took the victim to a hospital in nearby Naperville, where a sexual assault kit was prepared. Grady took the kit and the victim’s clean underwear to police headquarters, where they also were stowed in a property control locker.
The victim described the rapist as a black man between 25 and 30 years old, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighing about 200 pounds, having a large belly and hips, and wearing brown polyester pants and a blue parka with a fur collar — which she had burned with her cigarette. Based on her description, police created a composite sketch. The manager of the apartment complex where the rape occurred and the victim’s next-door neighbor both told police the sketch resembled Lyons, who was the only black resident of the complex.
Police went to Lyons’s apartment and he allowed the to search. They found brown polyester pants and a blue nylon jacket, but the pants had a 32-inch waist, too small for a 200-pound man, and the jacket had no fur collar. Lyons, a 29-year-old Navy veteran and reservist with no criminal record, denied the crime, but had no alibi.
On December 3, 1987, Detective Grady showed the victim an array of six photographs, including one of Lyons, which police obtained from AT&T Bell Laboratories, where Lyons was a computer operator. His photo showed him in a white shirt and tie, differing from the other five photos, which were police mug shots. From the array, the victim identified Lyons as the rapist. Grady then took the rape kit and the clean underwear that the victim had put on after
showering—but not the garments she’d left on the bathroom floor before showering—to the DuPage County Crime Laboratory for forensic analysis.
On December 4, at the request of police, Lyons stood in a live lineup with five other men at the DuPage County jail. He was the only man in the lineup whose photo the victim had seen the previous day and — although he was a trim 165 pounds, not the heavy-set man she initially described — she again identified him. Lyons agreed to take a polygraph examination, which was administered the next day, December 5, by Richard O’Brien, a private polygraph examiner.
On December 7, the DuPage County Crime Lab reported finding nothing of evidentiary significance in the rape kit or on the underpants that Detective Grady had submitted for analysis. The same day, O’Brien issued a report saying that the polygraph results indicated Lyons was deceptive when he denied the crime. On December 16, a DuPage County grand jury returned an indictment charging Lyons with two counts of criminal sexual assault and one count of unlawful restraint.
At Lyons’s trial in October 1988, the prosecution, led by Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett, introduced the post-shower underpants and rape kit results into evidence, but said nothing about the garments that had not been tested. Lyons’s defense lawyer, Thomas Freeman, was under the erroneous impression that the underpants entered into evidence were those the victim had put on after the rape and left on her bathroom floor. Both Freeman and Birkett, in fact, explicitly told the juy just that. Detective Grady, who was present in the courtroom and knew that information was erroneous, did nothing to correct it.
The jury found Lyons guilty on all counts and, on October 19, 1988, Judge Ronald Mehling sentenced him to six years in prison. Lyons retained a Chicago lawyer, George C. Howard Jr., to appeal the conviction, but Howard, who recently had been reprimanded by the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission for neglecting another client, failed to file the appeal.
On March 15, 1991, Lyons was released from prison. Thirteen days later, he donned his Navy uniform and went to the DuPage County courthouse, where he tried to crucify himself on a cross he had made from railroad ties. Just as he nailed one foot to the cross, however, the police arrived and forcibly removed Lyons. “Come on nigger,” said one officer. “Your 15 minutes of fame are over.”
In 2005, after learning that not all of the physical evidence had been tested, Lyons turned to a more conventional mean of pursuing justice. He retained the Waukegan law firm of Stone & Associates, which filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing of the untested items. The prosecution had no objection.
In January 2007, testing showed that biological evidence on the previously untested garments “could not have originated from Marcus Lyons.” In addition, the testing determined that if the garments had been subjected to blood testing in 1987, Lyons would have been eliminated as the source of the semen the semen came from someone with Type A blood, but Lyons had Type B.
On July 27, 2007, Stone & Associates filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which Birkett did not oppose. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “Marcus Lyons deserves to have his record cleared.” Six weeks later, DuPage County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Anderson vacated Lyon’s conviction and Birkett dismissed the charges on September 18, 2007.
On December 19, 2008, in response to a petition filed by Jane Raley, senior counsel at Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, and her students, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich granted Lyons a pardon based on innocence, qualifying him for $85,350 in compensation from the Illinois Court of Claims.
The Chicago law firm of Loevy & Loevy brought a federal lawsuit against the Village of Woodridge, Detective Grady, and others, for malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and depriving him of his right to due process of law. During discovery in that case, it was disclosed that the source of the semen had been identified as that of another man whose prosecution was barred by the statute of limitations but who in 1987 was 22 years old and worked at a filling station adjacent to the apartment building in which the rape occurred.
On June 7, 2012, the Woodridge Village Board approved the settlement of Lyons’s federal civil rights suit for $5 million.
— Rob Warden