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Walter Relerford

Other Cook County No Crime Exonerations
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On April 12, 2012, Chicago police arrested 28-year-old Walter Relerford on charges of stalking Sonya Blakey. Blakey was a manager and on-air talent at Chicago radio station WGRB, known as Inspiration 1390 for its location on the dial and its focus on gospel music.

Relerford went to trial in May 2013 in Cook County Circuit Court. He chose to have his case heard by Judge Walter Lacey without a jury.

Relerford was charged with two counts of stalking and two counts of cyberstalking. He was accused of calling Blakey on the telephone and sending her emails. The indictment also accused him of staying outside the radio station, entering the station, and making multiple posts on his Facebook page threatening Blakey's coworkers and expressing his desire to engage in sexual acts with Blakey. The charges alleged that Relerford “knew or should have known” that his conduct “would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress” and “fear for her safety.”

Blakey testified that she worked for Clear Channel Media and Entertainment (CCME), where she managed and appeared on-air. From May 2011 to August 2011, Relerford was an intern at the station. Around September or October 2011, Relerford applied for an open position as board operator at the station. Blakey and a coworker interviewed him for the position.

Relerford did not get the job. In response, he called and emailed Blakey, as well as several of her colleagues, asking whether he could intern at the station again. Blakey said she received five emails from Relerford.

In January 2012, Blakey learned that Relerford was also contacting other CCME employees. Her manager told her to report any emails or phone calls from Relerford to human resources staff. Blakey testified that sometime before March 2012, CCME informed Relerford that he was not welcome at the station and that his calls and emails should stop.

In March 2012, Blakey was leaving her downtown Chicago office. As she looked through a glass window on the ground floor, she saw Relerford standing outside with some friends. Relerford waved at her. Blakey said she did not wave back and continued on her way because she was “scared” and “nervous.”

On April 4, 2012, Blakey was in the studio broadcasting live when Relerford walked unannounced into the studio. She said she felt “startled,” “nervous,” and “violated.” Blakey said she switched to automated programming because she “was very nervous, very startled, shocked, scared, nervous, and…didn’t know what to expect with him being there.” She said that ultimately, she and a colleague escorted Relerford out of the building.

Five days later, on April 9, 2012, Relerford sent Blakey an email apologizing and saying that his intentions “were not to startle you or to catch you off guard.” However, around that same time, one of Blakey's colleagues who was a Facebook friend of Relerford emailed Blakey some postings that Relerford had made about her. Blakey could not see the posts on Facebook because she was not a friend of Relerford.

In the postings, some of which were rambling and almost incoherent, Relerford demanded a job at CCME and threatened CCME employees if he did not get one. He also said, “[t]he order: If Sonya's vagina is not in my mouth by next Friday, bury the entire Michigan State football team from 1993. That's the order. Send it through. One hundred.”

He also described his affection for Blakey and his desire to get a job at CCME. He also stated, “How am I gay? I want to (have sex with) Sonya. There's nothing gay about that.” Lastly, Relerford wrote a post was a bizarre statement about Blakey, CCME, and an unidentified group of “Chinese people” whom he said were “talking about killing everyone” at CCME.

After CCME and Blakey learned the posts, CCME advised Blakey to stay home from work until the police arrested Relerford. After Relerford was arrested on April 12, 2012, Blakey said, she went back to work.

On cross-examination, Blakey testified that she did not recall Relerford making any threats in any of the emails he sent to her and her colleagues regarding employment opportunities at CCME. With respect to the March 2012 incident, Blakey admitted that Relerford did not verbally communicate with her and stayed outside on the sidewalk with friends. She also admitted that the ground level of the building contained several businesses and restaurants.

Blakey conceded that Relerford did not threaten her while he was at the studio on April 4 and that he did not put up a struggle when Blakey and her colleague escorted him from the premises. Moreover, Relerford’s April 9 email to her did not contain any statement threatening her safety or the safety of anyone at CCME. She also acknowledged that Relerford did not send the Facebook posts to her and that she saw them only because a colleague showed them to her.

On May 23, 2013, Judge Lacey convicted Relerford of all the charges. He sentenced him to six years in prison.

On appeal, Relerford’s lawyers argued that the stalking and cyber stalking statutes violated the First Amendment free speech protection and improperly lacked a requirement that the prosecution prove intent.

In June 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the convictions and ruled that the laws were defective because there was no requirement that the prosecution prove the defendant had intent. The court noted that in 2009, the Illinois legislature had amended the stalking statutes and removed language that said that the law was violated if a person transmitted “to another person a threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable apprehension of death, bodily harm, sexual assault, confinement or restraint.” The language was replaced with wording saying that a person commits stalking when “he or she knows or should know” that their conduct would cause another person to fear for their safety or suffer emotional distress.

The court cited a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision—Elonis v. United States—which involved social media postings. That decision held that the prosecution was precluded from “convicting a defendant under a federal stalking statute because the defendant’s conviction ‘was premised solely on how his posts would be understood by a reasonable person.’”

In Elonis, the Court held that the prosecution must prove that a defendant knew a threat was being communicated, saying that “communicating something is not what makes the conduct ‘wrongful.’” The “crucial element separating legal innocence from wrongful conduct is the threatening nature of the communication,” the Court held.

The prosecution appealed and in November 2017, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the reversal of the convictions, although on different grounds. The court addressed the prosecution’s contention that certain communications are exempt from First Amendment protection as a “true threat” or integral to criminal conduct. The court ruled that the prosecution had provided no evidence that communications that might cause a person to feel emotional distress were a “true threat.”

As a result of the ruling, Relerford’s convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed. He subsequently filed a petition seeking a certificate of innocence.

On August 31, 2018, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Leroy Martin granted the petition, clearing the way for Relerford to seek compensation from the state of Illinois for his wrongful imprisonment.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/18/2019
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Stalking
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2012
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:6 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:28
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No