In the early morning of March 10, 1985, 28-year-old Debra Smith was sexually assaulted and murdered on the south side of Chicago. Her body was discovered in an alley. She was naked from the waist down except for one sock, she had been beaten, and there were stab wounds to her face and neck. There was a trail of blood leading to the abandoned Crest Hotel, and the soles of her sock and bare foot were dirty, suggesting that she had walked from the Crest Hotel after she had been assaulted. Further investigation showed that there was semen in her vagina and that she was drunk at the time she was murdered.
On May 25, a 33-year-old woman called the police to report that she had been raped at knifepoint. Several weeks later, she identified 35-year-old Ronald Jones as the assailant. Jones was arrested on June 4, but was released after the evidence was found to be insufficient. However, the prosecutor continued to believe that Jones was guilty. It was the similarities in the cases that led authorities to arrest Jones for the rape and murder of Debra Smith.
Jones was taken into custody again on October 4, 1985, and, following an 18-hour interrogation, he signed a confession that he consistently maintained had been beaten out of him by Chicago Police Detectives John Markham and Steven Hood. Jones testified at his 1989 trial that one of the detectives struck him with a “small black object, about six inches long,” giving rise to a large bump on his head. A photo of the bump was introduced into evidence. Markham testified that the confession was voluntary and the prosecution called a physician who testified that the photo was “a textbook picture of a sebaceous cyst.”
Jones’s confession said that Smith agreed to have sex with him for $10. Afterward, when he refused to pay, she attacked him with a knife, a struggle ensued, and she “apparently got stuck.” Forensic tests included Jones as a “possible” source of the semen, and prosecutors argued that it was in fact his. After the jury found Jones guilty, Judge John E. Morrissey sentenced him to 60 years for aggravated sexual assault and to death for murder. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the conviction in 1993.
In 1994, Jones sought DNA testing. Judge Morrissey refused to grant it, asking Jones’s lawyer rhetorically, “What issue could possibly be resolved by DNA testing?” When his lawyer, Richard Cunningham, responded, Morrissey told him, “Save arguments like that for the press. They love it. I don’t.”
The Supreme Court overturned Morrissey in 1995, allowing the testing. In 1997, DNA testing definitively eliminated Jones as the source of the semen. It took another two years for prosecutors to dismiss the charges, and Jones was released on May 17, 1999.
Jones brought a federal civil rights suit against the police. The City of Chicago settled the case for $2.2 million in 2003.
—Center for Wrongful Convictions