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Robert Britton

Other No Crime Exonerations with False Confessions
On July 14, 1995, an 18-year-old woman with cerebral palsy reported that she had been sexually assaulted by 38-year-old Robert Britton, the driver of a van for a medical transport company. The complainant was being treated in a day treatment program for depression at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago.

The woman said she was the last passenger to be dropped off and before arriving at her home, Britton asked her if she wanted to go out with him. She said that she refused and that's when the van arrived at her home, Britton sexually assaulted her in the van and then, after escorting her into her home, sexually assaulted her in her bedroom.

Britton was arrested later that day and charged with sexual assault. A detective and an assistant Cook County State’s Attorney said that Britton told them during questioning that he had consensual sex with the woman. The prosecutor and the detective, however, only had notes of their interviews; both said they had not written up formal reports and never asked Britton to sign any statement.

When Britton went to trial in Cook County Court Circuit Court before Judge Ronald Himel, he elected to have the case decided by Himel without a jury.

The complaining witness testified that Britton had raped her in the van—although she admitted that she initially told police that the first assault occurred in the van in the alley behind her house, and later said the first assault took place in the van in the front of her house. She also acknowledged that when she called her grandmother right after the event she reported only that Britton had “bothered” her.

The complaining witness said she that she then called the transportation company dispatch office and reported that Britton had raped her and after that she called police. When she spoke with employees at the transportation company, she only reported being raped in the van, not in her house. She testified that Britton threatened to kill her if she reported being raped.

The complainant was taken to a hospital for a medical examination, but the exam was not completed because the woman said she was in too much pain.

She also identified a pair of underwear that she said Britton had removed and then put back on her after raping her in the van. The underwear had been examined by the Chicago Police crime laboratory and blood of undetermined origin was found on the waistband. Vaginal swabs were taken. No semen was found and no physical evidence linked to Britton was found. The woman admitted that she had been fondled in 1994 by a relative.

Pamela Rakestraw, the owner of the transportation company, testified that after returning from his route that day, Britton appeared nervous and frightened. Rakestraw said that Britton told her that the complaining witness was crazy, confused and a liar and that Rakestraw could expect trouble from her.

The prosecution did not present testimony from the detective or the prosecutor who claimed that Britton told them he had consensual sex with the woman after Britton’s lawyer, Anthony Basile, said his defense would be that Britton had consensual sex with the woman.

Britton would later testify at a post-conviction hearing that prior and during the trial, he repeatedly told Basile that he never made such admissions to the detective or the prosecutor, and that he consistently told Basile that he never touched the woman consensually or otherwise. Basile, however, kept forgetting what Britton told him because at the time, Basile was heavily addicted to cocaine and was suffering the adverse affects of serious illnesses, including AIDS, syphilis and dementia.

As a result, Basile did not present any defense evidence. Basile did not point out that a crime lab report said blood was found on the waistband of the complaining witness’s underwear, which was not where the witness said she had bled. And Basile did not investigate the complainant’s psychiatric history or cross-examine her regarding it. At the time of trial, the woman was taking several anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medications.

On March 21, 1996, Judge Himel convicted Britton of sexual assault and sentenced him to 50 years in prison.

In 2000, after Britton’s convictions were upheld, Basile was suspended from practicing law by the Illinois Attorney Disciplinary Board. Basile, the disciplinary board found, was a cocaine user, had failed to appear in court repeatedly in multiple cases and was severely hampered by his health problems. The suspension was never lifted.

Britton filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial alleging that Basile had provided an inadequate legal defense because he failed to investigate the complaining witness’s medical and psychiatric records. The petition was denied without a hearing, but in September 2006, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed that decision and sent the case back to the trial court for a hearing on the petition.

At the hearing, new defense counsel for Britton presented the testimony of Dr. Mark Thomma, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Northwestern University. Thomma testified that the medical records of the complaining witness at the time of trial showed that she suffered from auditory hallucinations (hearing voices) and delusions (false beliefs) on numerous occasions. In one instance she claimed that she saw a nurse throwing a baby out of a window. She also said she believed her parents “flew” into camp to see her, that she had been burned in a shower, someone had come and duplicated all of her clothes.

Thomma also testified that the woman suffered from a personality disorder, which caused her to suddenly and for no reason to falsely conclude that other people were out to harm her. She suffered from severe depression with psychotic episodes and experienced suicidal symptoms, along with auditory hallucinations just 12 days before she accused Britton of rape.

In November 2011, Judge Rosemary Higgins granted Britton’s motion to vacate his convictions and ordered a new trial. The prosecution appealed and the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the order granting a new trial in 2013.

The appeals court pointed to Basile’s admission at the post-conviction hearing that he had “no strategic reason” for failing to investigate the complaining witness’s psychological history. He did not investigate, he said, because he was too busy with other cases. Basile also said, however, that he didn’t feel it was necessary to examine those records because “she wasn’t accusing him of raping her mentally. She was accusing him of raping her physically.” Basile also said he did not want to spend the money to subpoena the complainant’s psychiatric records.

In November 2014, Britton went to trial for a second time. The woman had died in 2004 when she choked to death on food. Her testimony from the first trial was read to the jury over the objection of Britton’s lawyers, Elizabeth Wang and Gayle Horn, who argued that the testimony should be barred because Basile had failed to cross-examine her about her medical and psychiatric history. However, the evidence of the woman’s psychiatric problems was presented to the jury.

On November 5, 2014, the jury acquitted Britton and he was released after more than 19 years in prison.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/12/2014
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:50 years
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No