On May 14, 2005, four-year-old Jaquari Dancy was found in his bedroom, asphyxiated by an elastic band that had come loose from a fitted bed sheet. The boy’s parents, Sta-Von Dancy and 23-year-old Nicole Harris, tried to resuscitate the boy and sought medical help, but the boy was dead.
The following day, following an autopsy, a medical examiner declared the death an accident.
During questioning by police Dancy and Harris said they had left the boy and his 5-year-old brother, Diante, alone while they went across the street to launder clothing. Harris and Dancy returned home during the process and found both boys out of the apartment, scolded them and ordered them to bed. Dancy went to take a nap and when he awoke, he found Jaquari with the elastic band wrapped 10 times around his neck.
Police questioned Harris over a period of 27 hours, during which Harris said she was threatened, pushed, called names and denied food, water and use of a bathroom. At first, police said, she told them she had strangled Jaquari with a telephone cord because he would not stop crying after she disciplined the boys for leaving the apartment. Later, Harris gave a video-taped confession saying she had strangled the boy with the elastic band.
Harris, a recent college graduate with a degree in psychology and a job in a nursing home, was charged with first-degree murder and went on trial in Cook County Circuit Court in October 2005. Her defense attorney sought to introduce the testimony of Diante—by then age six. Diante had told an investigator that Jaquari liked to play as if he were Spiderman by wrapping the band around his neck and jumping off the bed.
The prosecution challenged Diante as being incompetent to testify and following a hearing, the judge barred Diante as a witness.
Although Dancy testified that he had seen Jaquari wrap the band around his neck in the past and Harris testified that the confession was false and the product of lengthy and coercive interrogation, the jury convicted Harris on October 26, 2005 and she was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Harris sought help from Steven Drizin, a national expert on false confessions at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Drizin, joined by Alison Flaum, then a Center on Wrongful Convictions staff lawyer, and Robert R.Stauffer, a partner at Jenner & Block working pro bono, filed a post-conviction motion for a new trial, arguing that the judge applied the wrong standard in deciding that Diante was incompetent and that Harris’s defense lawyer had provided inadequate legal assistance by failing to call the investigator who had interviewed Diante the day after Jaquari’s death. That investigator had determined that Diante saw Jaquari wrap the band around his neck and accidentally asphyxiate himself.
The motion was denied, as was Harris’s appeal to the Illinois Court of Appeals. A federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus also was denied, but in 2012 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Harris’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
The federal appeals court ruled that Harris’s trial judge had erroneously placed the burden on the defense—in contravention of Illinois law—instead of the prosecution. The court said the complete exclusion of Diante’s testimony, which it called “critical exculpatory evidence,” was “arbitrary and disproportionate to the truth-seeking and reliability concerns advanced by witness competency restrictions.”
The court ruled that Harris’s defense lawyer at trial had provided inadequate legal assistance by failing to interview Diante, by failing to bring in the investigator “who would have shown that Diante’s recollections of what happened were consistent and credible” and by failing to correct the trial judge’s misapplication of the burden of proof in a witness competency hearing.
On February 25, 2013, Harris was released on bond secured by her signature pending a new trial. The prosecution appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on June 3 refused to hear the appeal. On June 17, 2013, the prosecution dismissed the case.
In January 2014, Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Paul P. Biebel Jr. awarded Harris a certificate of innocence. In June 2014, Harris filed a federal lawsuit against Cook County and the prosecutors and police officers involved in her case for coercing her into giving a false confession.
– Maurice Possley