In late January 1993, Lafonso Rollins, a 17-year-old special education student in the ninth grade, was arrested and charged with a series of robberies and sexual assaults involving four elderly women who lived in the same public housing complex in a Chicago neighborhood. Two of the victims gave descriptions of their attacker to an artist who created a composite sketch of the suspect. The manager of the housing complex told police that the sketch looked like Rollins, who regularly visited a man living on the 8th floor.
Based on the manager’s identification, police apprehended Rollins. One rape victim, a 78-year-old woman, attended a lineup, but failed to identify him. Police then showed Rollins himself a series of photos of elderly women and Rollins purportedly selected the photos of the victims. The investigators were the only witnesses to this “reverse lineup.”
Rollins was held for 13 hours at the Chicago Police Department’s Area 2 Violent Crimes Division, and told by investigators that if he admitted to the crimes and submitted to DNA testing, he could go home. Rollins confessed to three of the assaults and was charged with all four.
At trial, Rollins’s lawyer was Madison Gordon, who was suspended from the practice of law by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1995 “for multiple acts of neglect” — and for failing to appear at his own disciplinary hearing. Although DNA samples had been submitted to the lab, Gordon failed to obtain results. Serology testing had excluded Rollins, but the results were not disclosed to the defense.
Rollins was convicted primarily on the basis of his signature on a written confession that detailed the attacks, which included two sexual assaults. In March 1994, he was sentenced to 75 years.
In 2004, after Rollins had been demanding DNA testing for years, the court appointed a new lawyer to assist him. On June 22, 2004, Rollins finally obtained DNA test results that excluded him as the perpetrator of the sexual assault for which he was convicted.
On July 12, 2004, the Circuit Court of Cook County, with no objection from the State, vacated Rollins’s conviction, dismissed the charges against him, and ordered him released. He walked out of prison with no family to greet him. His grandparents, mother and sister had all died while he was incarcerated. On January 6, 2005, Rollins received an executive pardon from the Governor of the State of Illinois, based on grounds of actual innocence.
Rollins received $145,837 through the Illinois Court of Claims and pursued a federal civil claim against those who extracted the false confession. In January 2006, the City of Chicago settled Rollins’s claim for $9 million after documents were discovered that revealed improper handling of cases by the Chicago Police Crime Laboratory.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions