On January 26, 1983, 18-year-old Steven Dick was at the Wilmette, Illinois, home of a friend, Jeff Donahue, along with an acquaintance, Joseph Hackett, when Donahue asked Dick to give him a ride to a particular address nearby.
On their way Dick’s car was pulled over by Wilmette police and the car was searched. Inside a grocery bag, police found LSD and methamphetamine. Dick was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance. Donahue and Hackett, who was also in the car, were released.
Before his trial began, Dick told his defense attorney that Donahue was in the car. The defense attorney wanted to speak to him and perhaps have him testify. But Cook County prosecutors said there were no witnesses. When the defense attorney insisted that Donahue was in the car, the prosecution conceded Donahue was there, but said he was an informant, not a witness.
Ultimately, the prosecution said they did not intend to call Donahue as a witness and claimed they had no information about how to contact him, except that he was working at a hotel somewhere on Captiva Island, Florida.
Dick went on trial on December 7, 1983. One of the police officers testified that after Dick was arrested, he said to one of the arresting officers that he had made a mistake. The officer said Dick said, “I only wanted to make some fast money because I was kicked out of my house.”
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Earl Strayhorn, who heard the trial without a jury, found Dick guilty the same day and sentenced him to six months in a prison work release program.
After completing his sentence and while on probation, Dick joined the U.S. Army. But his plan to work counter-intelligence was rejected because he had failed to disclose his conviction when he enlisted.
Dick then sought and obtained a pardon in 1990 from Illinois Governor James Thompson based on his changed lifestyle. He returned to the military to begin Special Forces training, but was injured during a parachute jump. He then joined the Army Reserves as a military police officer and applied for a job as a Chicago police officer.
He was rejected by the Chicago Police Department because of his conviction. Dick then sued the police department to try to get hired, but the lawsuit was dismissed.
Dick became a private investigator, but still wanted to be a police officer. So he tracked down Donahue and knocked on his door. He asked Donahue to tell the truth—that the drugs were not Dick’s.
Donahue told Dick that about a month before Dick was arrested, Donahue had been charged with burglary. He said police offered to drop the charge if he would become a drug informant.
On the day Dick was arrested, Donahue said he told Wilmette police that he would put drugs in a grocery bag in Dick’s car and then ask Dick to take him to a specific address. Donahue said he described the route that Dick would be taking so the police could be waiting to stop the car.
Based on this statement, Dick filed a state petition to overturn his conviction. At a hearing on November 28, 2001, Donahue testified to how Dick was set up and arrested. He said that the officers had told him he would not need to be a witness at Dick’s trial and sent him some money for his undercover work.
Hackett testified as well, saying that he was present during Dick’s arrest and that Dick never confessed to selling drugs to make money because he had been kicked out of his house.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Colleen McSweeney Moore granted the motion to vacate the conviction. “Mr. Donahue…testified that he was paid by police, he testified that the police told him to target Mr. Dick, which is substantiated by the fact that Mr. Dick was the only person arrested,” the judge said.
The prosecution then dismissed the case.
Dick later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Wilmette police department—by then one of the arresting officers had become the Wilmette police chief. The lawsuit was settled in 2007 for $200,000.
Dick died of a heart attack in February 2012.
– Maurice Possley