Two men shot gas station attendant Ronnie Bell to death as he walked under a viaduct on the south side of Chicago on June 18, 1983. Three witnesses to the murder told police that the shooting took place from a brown Buick Riviera.
became a suspect when police learned that his brother’s car was used in the crime. Four police officers went to J.L. Houston’s address and were informed that his brother, Elton, had the car. Elton Houston met with the police and told them that after J.L. denied having the car, he had reported it stolen.
Robert Brown was discovered eavesdropping with a doctor’s stethoscope during a police interrogation of the girlfriend of Louis Lomax, another person of interest. This suspicious activity led to his arrest and, on June 19, Brown was identified in a lineup by one of the witnesses as the man who shot Ronnie Bell.
Despite inconsistencies in witness descriptions of the suspects and a lack of physical evidence against either co-defendant, Brown was found guilty of murder on April 24, 1984, following a bench trial, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Elton Houston’s first jury trial resulted in a mistrial. Then, despite a strong alibi from family and friends, and his claim that he was mistaken for his brother, J.L., Houston was convicted of murder on August 9, 1984, and also sentenced to 35 years in prison.
In May of 1985, Anthony Sumner, a high-ranking El Rukn gang member cooperating with authorities, told police and prosecutors that J.L. Houston confessed that he, Earl Hawkins and Derrick Kees had fatally shot Bell, a rival gang member. Prosecutors failed to share this evidence with Brown and Houston or their defense lawyers, and the Illinois Appellate Court proceeded to affirm the convictions.
In February of 1989, Earl Hawkins confessed to Chicago Police that he, along with J.L. Houston and Kees, had committed the Bell killing. J.L. Houston and Kees, imprisoned at the time, gave detailed accounts of the crime. In light of the confessions, Elton Houston and Brown filed post-conviction petitions in Illinois state court and were released from prison in October 1989, more than five years after their initial incarceration.
After Brown and Houston were released and exonerated, they sued the prosecutors who illegally withheld the exculpatory information for four years. The prosecutors did not deny withholding the information, but claimed immunity from civil liability. The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, holding in 1992 that the suit could proceed. The City of Chicago settled the case for $1.1 million in 1993.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions