Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Robert Smith

Other Cook County, Illinois exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Robert_Smith%20release.jpeg
In the early morning hours of September 19, 1987, police and firefighters were summoned to a fire burning in a one-story bungalow at 325 W. 107th Street on the south side of Chicago.

Two police officers who were the first on the scene attempted to gain entry to roust anyone inside. After finding the front and rear doors locked and protected by burglar bars, they noticed a basement door ajar and a light on. They battled heavy smoke to creep up a flight of stairs to the first floor. There, in a large pool of blood, they found the bodies of 55-year-old Edith Yeager and her 87-year-old mother Willie Bell Alexander. Their throats had been slashed.

When firefighters arrived, they forced open the burglar bars, carried the bodies to the back yard and extinguished the blaze. The fire appeared to have been started with gasoline poured on or near a hide-a-bed sofa located near the bodies. A two-gallon gasoline can was found on the floor. The sofa was moved into the front yard and Chicago police bomb and arson investigators, as well as homicide detectives, began processing the scene.

About 5:30 a.m., Diane Yeager Smith, daughter of Edith and granddaughter of Willie Bell, drove up to the home with her 38-year-old husband, Robert Smith. When they entered through the front door, they saw a large pool of blood. Before they could go any further, an officer said, “There has been a tragedy here. Please step outside.”

Diane later testified that she and Robert went to the back of the house and she went to the basement where she saw police officers. “I asked them about where is my mother and grandmother and they told me to go outside and I heard this loud noise.”

Diane then ran out of the basement and up the back stairs that led to the kitchen. There, she saw Smith laying on the floor with officers on top of him, including one who had his knee on Smith’s neck. Diane told the officers, “Don’t hurt him." One officer replied, "We are just restraining him."

According to the police, Smith came into the house and “dove” into a pool of blood. Officers said he began thrashing around in the blood, yelling, “Mama’s dead!”

Smith was subdued, handcuffed, and taken to the police station.

Approximately 24 hours later, detectives claimed Smith had confessed to killing both women by slashing their throats with a razor that he kept in his wallet. The razor was never recovered, even though Smith, in the purported confession, said he left it at the scene. A court reporter took down the statement, but Smith refused to sign it and disavowed it immediately. He contended that he had been punched and kicked in the head and choked until he agreed to confess to the murders and that detectives fed and rehearsed with him the details.

At his first bail hearing, Smith told the judge that he had been beaten. And although he was denied bail, the judge marked on the bail form that Smith needed a medical examination at a hospital. The following day, Smith told a second bail judge and his public defender that detectives had beaten him. This judge ordered that Smith be taken to the hospital. Later that day, Smith was finally taken to a hospital. Records noted that Smith reported being beaten by the police and pain “all over” his body. A bruise sheet noted a prominent bruise on his chest and marks on his left arm and lower abdomen that were listed as “scars.”

Ultimately, Smith alleged that one detective had punched him repeatedly in the side with a fist that was covered with a metal handcuff. Smith said that another detective punched him in the forehead and that a third detective threatened to “slam [his] nigger ass around the room.”

Smith claimed that Lt. Philip Cline, the commander of the Violent Crimes unit overseeing the interrogation, refused to allow him medical treatment until he confessed.

Based almost solely on that confession, Smith was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in August 1990 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The prosecution argued that Smith killed both women, then went to the basement where he washed and dried his clothes. On his way out of the basement, he spotted a gasoline can and decided to cover up the crime by setting the couch and living room on fire. No motive was ever ascribed to the crime. Detectives also said Smith jumped into the pool of blood because he feared he still had blood on his clothing and he wanted to cover it up.

On October 23, 2020, more than 33 years after the murders, Smith’s convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. Smith was released from prison. He was 72 years old.

With his release, Smith joined a group of more than 20 defendants whose convictions were vacated on evidence that they were physically abused—some were subjected to electric shocks—during interrogation by detectives who had worked under the leadership of Lt. Jon Burge. By 2020, more than 100 men claimed they were tortured by detectives. The scandal cost the city of Chicago more than $100 million in legal fees, damage awards, and compensation for torture.

During questioning by detectives, Smith’s wife told police that on the morning of Friday, September 18, 1987, she and Smith left their home in Lansing, Illinois, a southern suburb of Chicago to drive to her job as a nurse practitioner at Grant Hospital on the Chicago’s North Side. On the way, she dropped Smith off at the Safer Foundation, an organization located in downtown Chicago that helped people, especially those with prior convictions, find jobs. At the time, Smith, who had prior convictions several years earlier for burglaries, was attempting to recover from a vicious assault that occurred months earlier when three men robbed and badly beat him. He had suffered a fractured skull that resulted in chronic migraine pain.

She said that she didn’t hear from him again until around 3 a.m. on Saturday, September 19, when he called to ask for a ride home. She said she went back to sleep and then arose around 5 a.m. when he called again. She said she picked him up at 83rd Street and Racine Avenue. They decided to drive by the home of her mother and grandmother on 107th Street while on the way to their home further south in Lansing.

Later that afternoon, Diane accompanied police back to the home, where she said that a gun kept in a bedroom was missing as was her mother’s set of keys to the house. Otherwise, she said nothing appeared to be missing. She was then released.

Meanwhile, Smith was in an interrogation room. What transpired there over the course of 19 hours would be bitterly disputed.

In April 1989, a hearing was held before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Howard Savage on a defense motion to suppress the confession. Smith testified that he was taken to an interrogation room, handcuffed to a ring on the wall and kicked in the chest by a detective, who then left the room. Two more detectives entered. One called him a “cold-blooded killer” and said they had found something with his blood on it, which led Smith to scream and call for help from his wife. Smith testified that the officer responded by shoving a handkerchief down his throat and choking him until the second detective told him to stop. The officers then offered him cigarettes and coffee. Not long after, two other detectives came in and accused him of committing the murders. Smith said he cursed the officers and one of them slapped him in the head.

Smith said he asked to see a doctor and his request was refused. They then proceeded to slap Smith again. Smith said he admitted that the men’s boxer shorts that the officer said they recovered from the home were his. He explained that his wife, Diane, would often do laundry at the house and that he kept a change of clothes there. He denied saying that he dropped them while he was washing his clothes after committing the murders. Smith testified that by this time he was very tired, scared, and his sides hurt as if he had some broken ribs. He also said he was coming down from a high.

He said two more detectives came into the room. One forced him to take off his shoes and swabbed his feet. He said that Cline said he could go to the hospital if he gave the statement before a state’s attorney. Smith said that Cline told the officers not to leave any marks on his body—“not in the face.”

Smith also testified that he told the Assistant State’s Attorney Raymond Brogan, who had been summoned to take a statement from Smith, that the detectives had beaten him, to which Brogan replied, “they ain’t doing nothing like this to you.”

Smith said another detective came in and that Smith ultimately agreed to give a statement. He said that by that time, he was exhausted, had not eaten, had been denied his medication and had not slept for more than 40 hours. He said Cline and other detectives advised him to answer “yes” to all questions and that if he did not, he was “going to be one sorry nigger.” So, Smith said, he agreed to say what the detectives told him to say.

Detectives Daniel McWeeney, William Pederson and Steven Brownfield denied physically abusing Smith. Cline testified that when he went into the interrogation and told Smith that his story didn’t add up, Smith said, “I’ll tell you the truth now. I killed them. I slit both their throats with a razor blade.”

Brogan denied that Smith ever complained about his treatment.

On April 13, 1989, Judge Savage denied the motion to suppress the confession.

In August 1990, Smith went to trial before Judge Savage and a jury. He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and aggravated arson. The prosecution sought the death penalty.

Although the police said that Smith had rolled around in the pool of blood for as much as 15 seconds, there was no blood on his clothing that could be identified as belonging to the victims. A police serologist testified that Alexander had type B blood, Yeager had type AB blood, and Smith had type O blood. The serologist testified that human blood was found on Smith’s sweatshirt, jeans, shirt, shoes, and underwear, but that no blood type could be determined. Police had removed the lint filter from the dryer, but no evidence of blood was found there, either.

A fire captain testified that firefighters were slipping and sliding in the blood—contradicting McWeeney’s testimony that officers had no difficulty avoiding getting blood on their shoes or clothing.

The prosecution argued that the lack of identifiable blood was because Smith washed his clothes before leaving the basement. The defense pointed to the lack of forensic evidence—there were no fingerprints identified as belonging to Smith—linking him to what was a violent and bloody crime.

The defense argued that the confession did not match the details of the crime, including that Smith said he slashed each woman twice when one woman was slashed only once and that the statement said Smith left the razor at the scene, though it was never recovered.

Judge Savage granted a motion by defense lawyers Karen Lamping and Philip Mullane for acquittal on the aggravated arson charge.

Shortly after 6 p.m. on August 30, 1990, the jury began deliberating. At 10 p.m., when no verdict had been reached, the jury was sequestered for the night. The jury resumed deliberating at 9:30 a.m. on August 31, 1990. At 1:55 p.m., the jury convicted Smith of two counts of first-degree murder.

The prosecution sought the death penalty at a sentencing hearing on September 28. Asked if he had anything to say, Smith declared, “Judge, what I want to say is part of me wants to say something that will do no good or harm at this time. But I believe in almighty God and if you see fit to…sentence me to death…God’s will be done.”

Judge Savage noted that Smith had a “strong and honorable family” and that he had served in the Army in Vietnam. There, the judge noted, Smith became dependent on drugs. The judge also noted that the evidence showed Smith loved his mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law. “He had helped them, helped see that they got to church on Sunday and did other things,” Judge Savage said.

He noted that there was no evidence of any motive on Smith’s part. “It seemed to be a sudden something that happened,” the judge said, “I just have to say as a father there is so much good in the wors[t] of us and so much bad in the best of us and it hardly behooves the rest of us to talk about the others…Things happen to people.”

The judge then sentenced Smith to life in prison without parole.

The Illinois Appellate Court upheld the convictions in 1995. In 2006, Smith, acting without a lawyer, filed a post-conviction petition alleging his confession was the product of physical abuse. The petition was dismissed in 2007.

Meanwhile, scores of other defendants had raised similar claims of torture, including mock executions, electric shocks to genitals from a hand-cranked generator, and beatings. In one case, a suspect suffered burns after he was strapped naked to a radiator until he confessed.

The allegations of torture all focused on Lt. Burge and detectives under his command, who had become known as the “Midnight Crew” because they worked the night shift. Burge ultimately was fired. In 2010, he was convicted in U.S. District Court in Chicago of perjury for denying torture allegations during questioning in federal lawsuits brought by other torture victims. He was sentenced to 4½ years in prison.

As part of the re-examination of the torture allegations, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC) was established to investigate claims of police torture. Lt. Cline, who in 2003 had become Chicago Police Superintendent, testified during a deposition as part of the inquiry that when he took over for Burge, he saw no need to change procedures or policies.

In 2011, Smith filed another petition claiming his confession was the result of torture, which detectives covered up. That petition was dismissed as well.

Smith also had filed a claim with the TIRC. In July 2013, the commission found there was sufficient evidence to warrant an evidentiary hearing on Smith’s torture claims. The evidence included contemporaneous medical records corroborating the torture claim. The commission noted that Detective McWeeney had played a role in the physical torture and beating of Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley and Stanley Howard—all of whom had been pardoned based on actual innocence in 2003 by Illinois Governor George Ryan. In addition, McWeeney had been accused in 14 other cases of brutalizing defendants. Moreover, Detectives Pederson and Brownfield also had been accused of abusing suspects during interrogations.

In November 2013, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the dismissal of Smith’s post-conviction petition, and Smith moved to consolidate both his TIRC claim and his reinstated post-conviction claim into a single petition in the Circuit Court. As part of that Circuit Court proceeding, Lt. Cline, who in 2003 had become Chicago Police Superintendent, testified during a deposition that when he took over for Burge he saw no need to change procedures or policies.

In February 2020, Smith’s attorneys, Stuart Chanen and Ariel Olstein, filed a memorandum outlining the evidence they intended to present at a hearing that was scheduled for March 2020 on whether Smith’s convictions should be vacated.

They contended that not only was Smith forced to falsely confess, but that the detectives had planted the bloody underwear that they claimed they found on the top of the basement stairs. None of the crime scene photos showed the underwear on the stairs, they noted.

They also said McWeeney’s claim that Smith dove into the pool of blood and thrashed around for 15 seconds was false. None of the officers who were present when Smith was arrested that morning put anything in any report that corroborated McWeeney’s claim.

The hearing was postponed as a result of the shutdown of the courts because of the COVID-19 virus.

But on October 23, 2020, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office moved that the convictions be vacated. The motion was granted and the charges were dismissed. Smith was then released.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 11/5/2020
Last Updated: 11/5/2020
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1990
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No