After seven residents of an apartment building on the south side of Chicago died in an apparent arson fire in 1987, suspicion fell on Madison Hobley, who had escaped the flames without shoes and wearing only underwear. His wife and infant son were among the victims, and the police theory was that he wanted to shed his family responsibilities to clear the way for an unfettered affair with another woman.
Hobley was arrested and taken to Chicago Area 2 police headquarters where he claims that he was beaten, kicked, and suffocated him with a plastic typewriter cover until he passed out. Chicago police officers claimed that Hobley made “admissions,” but there was no record of the purported statements. One officer said that he took notes of Hobley’s confession, but threw them away after something was spilled on them. Based on the alleged confession attributed to him by the police officers, Hobley was indicted for seven counts of felony murder, one count of arson, and seven counts of aggravated arson.
At Hobley’s 1990 trial, the purported confession was the centerpiece of the prosecution case. The case was buttressed by three other witnesses, two of whom claimed to have seen Hobley buy gasoline in a can shortly before the fire. The third was a purported arson expert who claimed—erroneously—that a burn pattern on the floor in front of the Hobley apartment indicated that gasoline had been poured there. A can that police claimed to have found not far from the supposed point of ignition was introduced into evidence. The jury found Hobley guilty on all counts, and Judge Christy S. Berkos sentenced him to death.
The conviction was affirmed in 1994 by the Illinois Supreme Court, which found the evidence against Hobley “overwhelming.” The following year, Hobley’s attorneys filed a petition for post-conviction relief alleging that the authorities had illegally withheld exculpatory police reports showing that the fire had not been started in front of the Hobley apartment. New evidence suggested that the fire had actually originated, probably accidentally, in an apartment on a lower floor.
Judge Dennis Porter denied Hobbley’s post-conviction petition in 2002, but the following year Governor George H. Ryan granted Hobley a pardon based on innocence. A federal civil rights suit brought by Hobley against the police was settled for $7.8 million in 2007.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions