At about 8:45 p.m., on November 16, 1992, 41-year-old Jeffrey Lassiter, a drug dealer, and 37-year-old Sharon Haugabook, a prostitute, were fatally shot in Lassiter’s apartment on the North Side of Chicago, Illinois.
A neighbor who saw men leaving the apartment building identified one of them as Dennis Mixon. Police also learned that a few weeks earlier, Mixon and Lassiter got into an altercation over a VCR. Mixon could not be found, however.
On December 2, police officers saw 15-year-old Lewis Gardner and 19-year-old Akia Phillips selling drugs on a street corner in the neighborhood of the double murder and arrested them. During interrogation, Gardner, who had an IQ of 70, said he got his drugs from Deon Patrick and that Patrick had been involved in the murders of Lassiter and Haugabook. Gardner said he had acted as a lookout outside the building when the killings took place. According to the police, Phillips admitted that he too had been a lookout, and said he would help solve the murders.
Gardner and Phillips then implicated Mixon, Phillips’ brother Paul, Patrick and three others—Rodney Mathews, Joseph Brown, and 17-year-old Daniel Taylor.
At 2 a.m. on December 3, 1992, police detectives found Taylor, who had been taken from his mother at age 11 because of her drug use, in a state juvenile home and took him into custody. Three hours later, Taylor gave a confession that was transcribed by a court reporter.
In his confession, Taylor said that he, Mathews, Patrick and Mixon went to the apartment to collect a drug debt Lassiter owed to Mixon. Gardner, Brown and the Phillips brothers remained outside as lookouts. Taylor said that when Lassiter said he didn’t have the money, Patrick shot him – and then shot Haugabook as Taylor and Mixon held her arms. Prior to the shooting, Taylor said he met with the others in a park at 7 p.m. to plan their visit to Lassiter.
That same night, Mathews, Brown, Patrick and Paul Phillips were arrested and gave recorded confessions that conformed to Taylor’s statement.
As Taylor was being taken the police lockup, he told detectives that the confession was false and that he was in jail at the time of the murders after being arrested in a nearby park for fighting. Following up on Taylor’s claim that he was in jail at the time of the murders, police found jail records showing that Taylor had indeed been arrested at 6:45 p.m. on November 16, 1992. A bond slip with Taylor’s signature was time-stamped at 10 p.m.—more than an hour after the murders.
On December 12—less than two weeks later, two police officers filed a belated report saying that on the night of the murders, they saw Taylor in an alley near the shooting at about 9:30 p.m.
Three months later, Mixon was arrested and police said he confessed as well. In his confession, Mixon said that he had met with Taylor and the others in a park just prior to the murders and they discussed going to the apartment to confront Lassiter.
Taylor went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court in August 1995 on charges of murder, robbery and home invasion. By that time, Brown, Mathews and Akia Phillips were no longer in custody. Mathews had been acquitted by a jury after he testified his confession was coerced. The charges against the other two were dismissed—one because he was illegally arrested and the other because the police improperly promised him leniency in return for this confession.
At Taylor’s trial, prosecutors presented his confession, as well as the testimony by police officers at the station where Taylor had been locked up on the evening of the shooting. The officers testified that it was likely that Taylor had signed the bond slip and was released prior to the shooting. They speculated that the slip was time-stamped at 10 p.m. by an officer who came on duty after Taylor was released.
The two officers, Sean Glinski and Michel Berti, who said they saw Taylor on the street—not in jail—shortly after the murders, also testified. They said that after hearing a radio call about the murders, they went to the scene and saw Taylor run into a nearby apartment, which turned out to be the residence of Akia and Paul Phillips. Glinski said he arrested Andrea Phillips, mother of Akia and Paul, for possession of cocaine and then drove Taylor to the youth shelter where they dropped him off at 10 p.m.
The prosecution also called Adrian Grimes, a convicted drug dealer, who testified that he saw Taylor in the park at about 7:30 p.m.—about an hour before the murders.
Taylor was convicted in September 1995 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His conviction was upheld on appeal.
In December 2001, the Chicago Tribune newspaper published a series of articles detailing false and coerced confessions obtained by Chicago police. In nearly 250 murder cases over a decade, defendants who were said to have confessed were either acquitted or their cases dismissed. The series also included newly discovered evidence of Taylor’s innocence.
By then, Mixon, Patrick, Paul Gardner and Paul Phillips also had been convicted and sentenced to prison.
Grimes, the drug dealer who said he saw Taylor in the park just before the murders, recanted and said he had lied to get leniency on a drug charge. The newspaper discovered that four months before officers Berti and Glinski wrote the report saying they saw Taylor in an alley just after the shooting, Berti had been accused by a judge of lying under oath in court.
Mixon admitted he had been present when Lassiter and Haugabook were killed and said that none of the seven others who gave confessions had been involved.
The newspaper found computer reports at the youth center that showed Taylor had returned to the facility at 3 a.m.—not 10 p.m. as Berti and Glinski claimed. And the newspaper also dug up the police lockup log book listing the names of everyone who was jailed that night. The newspaper located one of them, James Anderson, who recalled being in the lockup with Taylor on the night of the murders.
In response, the Cook County State’s Attorney said it conducted a re-investigation of the case, but concluded that Taylor was guilty.
Taylor filed numerous appeals based on the Tribune’s findings, but was unable to obtain a hearing. In 2011, Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus alleging prosecutors had failed to disclose that prior to Taylor’s trial, police had interviewed Anderson and ignored his statement that he had been in the lockup with Taylor at the time of the shootings. The petition was dismissed, but in October 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit reinstated the petition.
While the case was pending, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office reviewed the State’s Attorney’s trial file and discovered pre-trial notes written by a prosecutor after Taylor was charged with the murders. The notes showed that seven different police officers—two of whom had testified at Taylor’s trial that Taylor was out of the lockup at the time of the murders—had confirmed that Taylor was in fact still in the lockup at the time of the murders. These notes were then turned over to the lawyers representing Taylor in federal court.
On June 28, 2013, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion asking that Taylor’s conviction be vacated. The motion was granted, the charges were dismissed and Taylor was released after more than 20 years in prison.
Lewis Gardner and Paul Phillips were each sentenced to 30 years in prison and were released several years earlier after completing their sentences. Patrick and Mixon were each sentenced to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors said that in light of their decision to dismiss Taylor’s case, they would re-examine Patrick’s case.
– Maurice Possley