On December 15, 1993, 19-year-old Stacy Armstrong fell asleep while her friend, 23-year-old Phillip Atkins, was driving her home from a party. Around 2 a.m., Atkins woke Armstrong in Chicago Heights, a suburb south of Chicago because a gunman was ordering them to get out of the car.
The gunman and three other men ordered Atkins and Armstrong to walk down an alley to a garage where the men took Atkins’ wallet. One of the men asked Atkins if he belonged to the Mickey Cobras street gang. When Atkins said he did, the questioner ordered one of the others to shoot Atkins. That man shot Atkins repeatedly and at the direction of the questioner, also shot Armstrong three times. Armstrong lost consciousness for about 20 minutes, and then managed to get to a nearby house and summon help. Armstrong, though shot twice in the head, survived. Atkins was killed.
Based on Armstrong’s description of the perpetrator questioning of Atkins about his gang membership, police suspected that the four men were members of the Gangster Disciples street gang. Armstrong told Chicago Heights police that the man who questioned Atkins and ordered another man to shoot him was a black man with a medium complexion, about 30 years old, 6 feet tall with a slender build and a mustache.
Police obtained a photograph of Rodell Sanders, a member of the Gangster Disciples and trimmed it to conceal the fact that Sanders was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 200 pounds. They showed Armstrong a photographic lineup to that contained the doctored photograph of Sanders.
Armstrong identified Sanders in the photographic lineup and Sanders was arrested on January 14, 1994. At the same time, the police also arrested Germaine Haslett, who was also a member of the Gangster Disciples. Police claimed that during questioning, Haslett said that he was a lookout while Sanders ordered the shooting. Haslett was a slender black man, almost 6 feet tall. Sanders and Haslett were charged with the robbery and murder of Atkins, and with the aggravated battery and attempted murder and of Armstrong.
Sanders’ attorney hired Marty Mroz, a private investigator, to interview Haslett. During the interview Haslett admitted that he lied about Sanders and that Sanders was not involved in the crime. Haslett also told the investigator that the police told him to implicate Sanders.
On July 29, 1994, Haslett wrote a letter addressed to Sanders’ girlfriend admitting that police told him to falsely implicate Sanders because they needed Haslett as a prosecution witness in another murder case.
Sanders went on trial in Cook County Circuit Court in January 1995. No physical or forensic evidence linked him to the crime. Armstrong testified and identified Sanders as the man who ordered the shooting.
Haslett testified that he was a ranking officer—a “regent”—in the Gangster Disciples street gang, and that Sanders was an “assistant governor” of the gang. Haslett told the jury that the Gangster Disciples decided to retaliate after some of their fellow gang members were beaten by members of the Four Corner Hustlers street gang, which was allied with the Mickey Cobras.
He said that three gang members, including Sanders picked him up and they were driving around when they saw Atkins and identified him as a member of the Mickey Cobras. Haslett testified that he acted as a lookout as the others stopped Atkins, ordered him and Armstrong out of the car and marched them down the alley and into a garage. Haslett said he heard shots and then ran home.
Haslett testified that after he got home, Sanders paged him to come to Sanders’ home. Haslett said Sanders put a gun in his mouth and told him that if he talked about the murders, he and his family would be killed.
Haslett said Sanders and another gang member forced him to write the letter to Sanders’ girlfriend. He testified that he was in a jail holding area after a court appearance on July 29, 1994 when Sanders and the other fellow gang member approached him. Haslett said that Sanders gave him a letter and a blank piece of paper and ordered him to copy it and sign it. Haslett said he refused at first, but agreed when the second gang member pulled out a shank and held it to Haslett’s neck. Haslett said he copied the letter, which was addressed to Sanders’ girlfriend and signed it. In the letter, Haslett admitted he had lied about Sander’s involvement, at the behest of police.
Although Sanders’ defense lawyer cross-examined Haslett, he did not question him about the interview with Mroz, and he did not call Mroz himself to testify about that interview. Nor did Sanders testify in his own defense.
In January 1995, the jury found Sanders guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery, attempted murder and aggravated battery. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison. Haslett pled guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to 12 years.
After Sanders lost his initial appeal, his family raised $1,000 to buy law books for him to study. Sanders spent hundreds of hours reading the books and filed his own post-conviction petition contending that his trial lawyer had provided inadequate legal defense by failing to call Mroz as a witness. The petition was dismissed without a hearing. However, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing.
Sanders amended his post-conviction petition in 2003, and a hearing was held in 2006. Sanders presented evidence of Mroz’s interview of Haslett, and his petition for a new trial was granted. The prosecution appealed, and in 2008, the Illinois Appellate Court sent the case back to the trial court because the judge had not made findings on whether the failure to present the evidence of the Mroz interview had caused Sanders’ trial to be constitutionally unfair.
The trial court held a hearing in October 2010 and only Sanders testified. He said that during the murder trial he consulted with his attorney about whether to testify. Sanders decided not to testify because his counsel failed to introduce into evidence Haslett's statement to Mroz. Sanders testified that he believed that because the Mroz testimony was not offered, jurors would disregard his testimony as uncorroborated and self-serving.
Sanders said he would have testified that because prisoners were strip-searched before they reached the holding area at Cook County Jail, and because 40 to 50 guards constantly walked around the area, it would have been impossible to use a shank to threaten Haslett in the holding area. Sanders also said he would have testified that in July 1994—when the incident about the letter allegedly occurred—but he had no need for a further admission from Haslett because of the Mroz interview. Finally, Sanders said he would also have testified that he was at a party at a friend's house at the time of the murder. He supported the alibi with affidavits from others who attended the party.
The trial court again granted Sanders’s petition for a new trial. The prosecution again appealed but the judge’s decision was upheld in 2011. By that time, Sanders, represented by new attorneys, had discovered evidence that Haslett and his girlfriend had received thousands of dollars from the FBI for his cooperation and testimony against Sanders.
Haslett’s girlfriend signed a sworn statement saying that Haslett had confessed to her before Sanders’ trial that he had ordered the shooting and that Sanders was not involved. She also described the payments from the FBI. Haslett’s sister provided a sworn statement in 2008 saying that when Haslett finished his prison term in 1999, he was flown home and arrived with several thousand dollars that he said came from the government. She testified that at that time he told her that Sanders was not involved in the crime.
Sanders’ attorneys also discovered that at the time of the shooting, police knew Haslett well—he was a witness for the same officers in an unrelated murder case against Bernard Ellis, another member of the Gangster Disciples. Ellis was later convicted, but the conviction was set aside because prosecutors allowed witnesses to lie about whether they received favorable treatment in return for their testimony. In addition, the defense lawyers discovered the prosecution in the Sanders case had failed to disclose that Haslett’s probation in an unrelated drug case was cut short as part of his deal and that Haslett later obtained a two-year sentence reduction on the 12-year sentence.
Sanders went on trial again in July 2014. Armstrong identified Sanders and Haslett again testified and identified Sanders. Haslett was cross-examined extensively about the interview with Mroz as well as the admissions to his sister and girlfriend.
On July 22, 2014, a jury acquitted Sanders and he was released.
In 2013, Sanders filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago Heights and several Chicago Heights police officers. The lawsuit, which was put on hold pending the outcome of the criminal charges, alleges that several Chicago Heights police officers, some of whom were involved in Sanders’ case, were later convicted on federal corruption charges for extorting money from drug and prostitution operations during the time when the case against Sanders was being prosecuted.
– Maurice Possley