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Keith Mitchell

Other Cook County Exonerations with False Confessions
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On the afternoon of July 22, 1992, two gunmen opened fire on a group of people standing on the corner of 79th Street and Ellis Avenue on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. Thirty-seven-year-old Howard Shell was killed and two others—72-year-old John McDaniel and 22-year-old Kevin Braham—were wounded.

Witnesses said the two gunmen were between the ages of 18 and 24. They said that one ran up to a car on nearby Dobson Street, took off his jacket, and placed it in the vehicle. One witness, Joseph Tribett, said he would recognize the gunmen if he saw them again.

Police immediately suspected that Jermaine Bates was responsible.  A day earlier, Shell and others had forced their way into the Bates family home and robbed Jermaine’s mother, Debra, in a dispute over missing narcotics. Debra Bates had called police to report the incident, but then changed her mind about pressing charges. She told police she would handle the matter herself.

About a week later, Chicago police detective Michael McDermott brought Jermaine Bates in for questioning. Jermaine told police that he was a member of the Vice Lords street gang and admitted that he had handled the guns used in the shooting.  He said, however, that the gunmen were 15-year-old Keith Mitchell and 19-year-old Tyce Dove, and that 19-year-old Lanell Townsend drove the getaway car. Jermaine said all three were also members of the Vice Lords. Shell was a member of the Gangster Disciples, a Vice Lords rival.

On the morning of August 1, 1992, Dove and Townsend were arrested. Dove signed a statement at 5:30 a.m. implicating himself, Townsend, and Mitchell. He would later testify that McDermott and detective Jack Wilkins choked him and gave him nothing to eat or drink until he gave a statement based on facts the detectives fed to him.

Townsend denied involvement. He later asserted that McDermott hit him in the face, choked him, and banged his head against the wall of the interrogation room. When Townsend refused to confess, McDermott called him a “young, dumb nigger.” Ultimately, McDermott wrote a police report saying that Townsend had confessed, claiming that Dove shot Shell and that Mitchell fired gunshots into the crowd of people.

Mitchell, who had never before been inside a police station, learned that police were looking for him. Shortly after midnight on the morning of August 2, 1992, Mitchell and his mother, Audrey Mitchell, went to the police station where they met with McDermott and Wilkins. Audrey said she was going to get a lawyer and told Mitchell not to talk to the detectives. After she left, the detectives began talking to Mitchell anyway. Although Mitchell denied involvement, the detectives told him, “You might as well go ahead and tell, you will get probation.”

When Mitchell’s mother returned to the interrogation room, she found the detectives interrogating Mitchell. She again asked them to stop and went to answer a page from her sister’s husband. Mitchell later testified that the detectives left, but returned as soon as Audrey was gone and the interrogation changed tone.

The detectives told him that he wasn’t going to leave the station, and that he was going to tell them what happened whether he liked it or not. They repeatedly popped their knuckles, made fists, and drew their guns.

Mitchell’s mother returned once more to the interrogation room and reported that a lawyer had been contacted. She then left in response to a page from the lawyer, Fredrenna Lyle, who told her that she would come to the police station. When Audrey was walking up the stairs to return to the interrogation room, a different detective told her she was no longer needed. When she insisted she be allowed to return, she was told that she would be arrested if she didn’t leave.

Audrey called attorney Lyle, who called the station to let them know that she was on her way and to ask that the interrogation cease. The detectives, however, ignored her. Instead, they told Mitchell that he didn’t have to worry about his mother being present—now he could tell them the truth.

Not long after, a prosecutor, Sharon Jefferson, came into the interrogation room and a youth officer arrived, but remained only briefly. Then, not long after, Audrey Mitchell and Lyle arrived. Lyle instructed that the questioning should stop and that if the detectives wanted to question him, they needed to contact her.

Despite this instruction, McDermott and Wilkins resumed interrogating Mitchell as soon as Lyle left the station. They subsequently reported to the prosecutor that Mitchell had orally admitted involvement in the shooting. Jefferson, the prosecutor, later testified that Mitchell admitted that he told the detectives the truth about his involvement, but that he did not want to give or sign a written statement.

Mitchell was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated battery. Prior to trial, his defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the alleged confession.

McDermott testified and denied that Audrey Mitchell ever said she was going to get an attorney, and denied that Mitchell said he did not want to talk to them. McDermott said that Mitchell told them he wanted to tell the truth—that he was involved—but did not want to say it in front of his mother. McDermott said that Mitchell confessed at 3 a.m., although police reports showed that the youth officer wasn’t contacted until after 3 a.m.

Wilkins testified and said that McDermott had pulled him aside not long after Mitchell and his mother arrived. He said that Mitchell wanted to confess, but not in front of his mother. Wilkins produced notes that he said he made of Mitchell’s admission, but conceded he had never shown them to Mitchell or asked him to sign them.  Moreover, no police report referred to Mitchell’s alleged admissions.

Mitchell testified and denied involvement in the crime. He also denied implicating himself in the crime. He said he did tell the detectives he had heard shots that night from a distance, but asserted that he only told the police that because he was scared. He said those “little things” were false and the result of being threatened and coerced.

The court denied the motion to suppress the confession, and in the spring of 1995, Mitchell and Townsend went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. Townsend chose to have his case decided by the trial judge without a jury and Mitchell chose to have a jury decide his case. The two surviving victims testified about the shooting, but were unable to identify who shot them. The detectives testified that Mitchell had confessed. Inexplicably, no evidence was offered regarding Townsend’s alleged oral confession.
 
Mitchell testified about how the detectives refused to stop questioning him, and that they intimidated and threatened him. He denied any involvement in the crime. He said that while he had visited the Bates home at various times, it was only to exchange video games. His mother and the attorney, Fredrenna Lyle, testified about their efforts to stop the interrogation and how those efforts were ignored.

On April 7, the trial judge acquitted Townsend and declared a mistrial in the case against Mitchell when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Mitchell went to trial a second time in July 1995 along with Tyce Dove. Separate juries were empaneled to hear each of their cases at the same time.

The evidence against Mitchell was virtually the same as in the first trial. However, after the defense finished presenting its evidence, the prosecution called a new rebuttal witness. Gene Keller testified that Mitchell was a member of the Vice Lords street gang—the gang that police believed was responsible for the shooting and whose members included Jermaine Bates. Keller said that he and Mitchell were initiated at the same time.

Keller testified that two days after the shooting, he told police that he was in a car with Townsend on the day of the shooting when Dove ran up and gave a bundled-up jacket to Townsend. The prosecution contended that this supported Dove’s confession.

Keller admitted that he had recanted that statement almost immediately afterward, but said that he did so because he was afraid of retaliation from fellow gang members. Keller admitted that he had been subpoenaed to come to Mitchell’s first trial, but did not appear and was still facing a contempt of court petition for that failure to appear. He also admitted that in May 1995—a month after his failure to appear—police spotted him and he fled in a car, escaping but striking another vehicle in the process. He said he turned himself in the following day and was later placed in a witness protection program. Keller testified that he was not charged in the hit and run accident, and that he had been promised that the contempt petition would be withdrawn after he testified.

Unlike Mitchell’s attorney, Dove’s defense attorney presented testimony pointing to Jermaine Bates as the real criminal. McDermott admitted that Bates’s mother had been robbed the day before the shooting by Howard Shell, the man who was fatally shot. McDermott also admitted that Debra Bates initially called police to report the robbery, but then said she did not want to press charges because she would handle the matter herself.
 
McDermott testified that he believed Jermaine Bates had knowledge of the shooting, but was not involved because he lived too close to where the shooting occurred. He conceded that Bates had flunked a polygraph when asked about involvement in the shooting and that witnesses said the getaway car was gray—the same color as Bates’s car.

During closing argument, the prosecution argued—improperly—that McDermott would never lie because if he were to frame an innocent 15-year-old, McDermott “would have been in prison a long time ago.”

On July 24, 1995, Mitchell’s jury convicted him of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated battery. Dove’s jury acquitted him. Mitchell was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Mitchell’s convictions were upheld by the Illinois Court of Appeals in 1998. In 2002, Mitchell filed a post-conviction seeking a new trial on the ground that his confession was false and should have been barred from his trial.

In 2008, he was released on parole but continued to fight to prove his innocence. In October 2008, Mitchell, represented by lawyers for the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, filed an amended post-conviction petition seeking a new trial.

By that time, Joseph Tribett—the witness who told police on the day of the shooting that he saw the gunmen and could recognize them if he saw them again—had provided a sworn statement that Mitchell was not one of the gunmen. The petition argued that Mitchell’s trial attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by never contacting Tribett to testify at either of Mitchell’s trials.

In addition, Keller had recanted his testimony that Mitchell was in a gang. He said that he was initiated when he was 11 years old—at a time when Mitchell was only 7 years old. Keller admitted that he gave false testimony after McDermott threatened to charge him with the murder. Keller said that he turned himself in after police claimed falsely that someone had died in the hit-and-run accident and that he would be charged with murder unless he cooperated.

Numerous gang members stated that Mitchell was never a gang member. Jermaine Bates, who provided the initial tip that the shooting was gang-related and that Mitchell was involved, told the defense lawyers that Mitchell was never in a gang. Bates said that Mitchell “wouldn’t do anything like that. He was a regular kid. He liked sports and video games.”

Even one of the victims—Kevin Braham—who was a member of the Gangster Disciples, said that he never knew Mitchell to be a member of the Vice Lords. In a statement, Braham said, “To this day, I don’t know how he got mixed up in this.”

Evidence supporting Mitchell’s alibi also was discovered. A cousin of Jermaine Bates who was at the Bates home on the day of the shooting came forward to say that Mitchell was there that day to exchange a video game—as Mitchell testified at his trials.

Mitchell’s attorneys also assembled evidence of 20 allegations “of misconduct by Detectives McDermott and Wilkins, each of which demonstrates the same inhumane methods of fabricating confessions” as alleged in Mitchell’s case.

In 2006, following an investigation of allegations that detectives were torturing suspects to confess, a special report was issued detailing scores of cases where detectives physically abused suspects and coerced confessions, many of them false. Specifically, the report documented “specific evidence” that McDermott tortured suspects and that Wilkins engaged in other misconduct.

In some of the cases, suspects said officers pointed guns at their heads and threatened to shoot them unless they confessed. In at least eight cases, suspects said they were denied an opportunity to contact a parent or attorney.

In 2010, the petition was dismissed. In May 2012, the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal and sent the case back for a hearing. The appeals court specifically cited evidence that McDermott had lied at Mitchell’s trial. Eventually, a lengthy hearing was held during which numerous witnesses testified, including Fredrenna Lyle—the attorney (who had since become a judge) who came to the police station and demanded that Mitchell not be interrogated.

The defense presented evidence regarding testimony that McDermott gave under a grant of immunity at the federal perjury trial of Jon Burge. Burge was convicted in 2011 for lying in a civil lawsuit alleging that Burge and detectives under his command tortured suspects. McDermott admitted that he had testified falsely in the case of Anthony Pinex in 1985 when he said he did not physically and psychologically coerce Pinex. A judge had suppressed Pinex’s confession and the murder case against him was dismissed because the judge ruled that McDermott had in fact physically abused Pinex. McDermott admitted that he lied at the Pinex suppression hearing because he “believed Pinex was a murderer and I didn’t want him to get off.”

In 2016, after Kim Foxx was elected Cook County State’s Attorney, the prosecution conducted an independent review of Mitchell’s case. In October 2017, the prosecution made an oral motion to vacate Mitchell's convictions, but the trial court declined to grant it, saying that the prosecution should return with a written motion.

On November 6, 2017, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Mitchell’s lawyers, Gayle Horn and Tara Thompson, filed a joint motion to vacate the convictions and to dismiss the charges against Mitchell. The motion said that the prosecution, following its review of the case, had concluded that Mitchell had “made a substantial showing that his constitutional rights were violated.”

– Maurice Possley
 

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Posting Date: 11/16/2017
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:1992
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:30 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:15
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No