On July 9, 1988, 32-year-old Marvin Butler, a drug dealer and Drug Enforcement Administration informant, was shot three times in the head, behind a tavern in Centreville, Illinois. He died the following day without identifying his assailant.
Terry L. Nelson, 38, was arrested eight months later after police received a tip from Fritz Harper, who claimed to have seen Nelson arguing with Butler at the scene of the crime. In July, 1989, a jury convicted Nelson based on the testimony of Fritz Harper and Kevin Stacey, a jailhouse snitch who claimed that Nelson had confessed the murder to him while sharing a holding cell in the St. Clair County Jail. Witnesses who had seen Nelson at another tavern on the night of the murder never testified. Nelson was sentenced to 40 years.
Mearl Justus, St. Clair County Sheriff, maintained throughout the proceedings that he believed Nelson was innocent of the crime. In February of 1990, he requested the help of top defense lawyers Clyde L. Kuehn and Donald M. Samson, who promptly filed a motion requesting a hearing on new evidence. Judge Lloyd A. Karmeier agreed to the hearing, during which the prosecution’s case against Nelson began to break down.
The jailhouse snitch, Kevin Stacey, recanted his original testimony, stating a Division of Criminal Investigation agent threatened him with criminal charges if he did not incriminate Nelson. Fritz Harper testified again, but he gave a wrong location for the crime. Regardless of this error in his story, Harper maintained that he saw Nelson and Butler together. In September of 1990, Judge Karmeier denied the motion for a new trial and Nelson’s attorneys appealed to the Fifth District Appellate Court.
In 1992, while the appeal was pending, two other men – Arnold Madden and William Edwards – were indicted for Butler’s murder in federal court in East St. Louis, Illinois. On July 15, 1993, Madden and Edwards were convicted by a federal jury of “witness tampering by killing” for killing Butler to prevent him from testifying against them in a narcotics case. They were sentenced to life in prison. The evidence in that case contained no reference to Nelson.
After considering the new evidence – and the federal convictions of Madden and Edwards for the same murder– the Illinois Appellate Court overturned Nelson’s conviction in June of 1994, and ordered a second trial. On November 23, 1994, the prosecution dismissed the charges. Nelson remained in prison because of a previous, unrelated, narcotics conviction, and was released on April 18, 1995.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions