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Jason Strong

Other Illinois Exonerations with False Confessions
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On December 9, 1999, the body of an unidentified woman was found in a forest preserve near North Chicago in Lake County, Illinois.

Two weeks later, police charged 24-year-old Jason Strong, who worked in an adult bookstore, with first-degree murder and concealing a homicide. Two other men—21-year-old Jeremy Tweedy and 27-year-old Jason Johnson—were also charged with concealing a homicide.

Lake County Sheriff’s Police said that all three confessed and said that Strong had picked up the woman, who was appeared to be homeless, and took her back to his room at a motel where he lived next to the adult bookstore and a strip club called Baby Dolls. When the woman microwaved a burrito that belonged to Strong, he whipped her, poured molten wax over her body and bashed her head with a bottle of tequila. The three then took the woman—who they said was still alive—and dumped her along a road in the forest preserve.

Strong (who disavowed his confession) and the other two men lived in separate rooms in the motel. Johnson, like Strong, worked in the adult bookstore; Tweedy was married to a stripper at the club.

In July 2000, Tweedy pled guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to two years in prison after agreeing to testify for the prosecution against Strong. In September Johnson pled guilty to concealing a homicide and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Strong went to trial in Lake County Circuit Court in October 2000. The victim remained unidentified. Johnson had recanted his confession by that time and was not called as a witness. A female sheriff’s deputy testified that she was working undercover posing as a prostitute shortly after the victim’s body was found. She had a conversation with Tweedy during which he spoke of the murder. Tweedy had later been questioned and after giving at least six different statements implicated himself, Strong and Johnson in the murder.

A detective testified that Johnson and Strong then were brought in for questioning and that both admitted involvement in the murder. Strong’s former girlfriend testified that he told her he liked watching crime shows on television because he learned how to cover up a murder.

Tweedy—whom the prosecution conceded was “truthfully challenged”—admitted that much of what he had initially said about the murder was false.

In his first statement to the police, Tweedy said he was living at the motel at the time of the murder. Later he said he didn’t move into the motel until after the murder and learned of it only from Strong and Johnson. In another statement, Tweedy said he helped load the woman into Strong’s van while she was still alive and jumped out of the van at a stoplight before the body was dumped. And in another statement, Tweedy said the woman had come to the area with Strong and Johnson from Fort Lauderdale several months prior to the murder. In yet another statement, Tweedy said he met the woman for the first time on the night she was killed. At trial, he testified that Strong whipped the victim with a braided metal fishing downrigger and hit her in the head with a tequila bottle.

Dr. Mark Witeck, a forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on the victim, testified that the woman died of blunt force head injuries, particularly from a blow to the left side of her head. An injury to her forehead was consistent with a blow from the edge of a square bottle. Although Witek did not give a specific time of death, the state argued that based on the testimony of Tweedy and the state of the body, she had been killed either in the late evening of December 8, 1999 or in the early hours of December 9, 1999—less than 12 hours before the body was found.

Witeck also testified that the victim had sustained other injuries just prior to her death. Witek said the body showed areas of red-orange discoloration on the back, buttocks and thighs. Witeck told the jury that “[b]ased on the pattern of injury, it would have been a liquid or molten substance” and “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty” these burns “were consistent with having been caused by molten wax.”

Witeck also described “loop-shaped pattern” injuries on the victim’s body, which he said were inflicted when she was still alive from being whipped with a braided metal cord, like a bicycle brake line or a fishing downrigger. The defense challenged Witeck about the loop marks because autopsy photographs showed several similar loop marks that were composed of white-grey scar tissue in contrast to other loop marks that appeared to be red or blue-black. Witeck admitted those appeared to be scars from prior injuries, but said they were not related to the other marks, which he said occurred shortly before her death.

On October 18, 2000, the jury convicted Strong of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 46 years in prison.

In 2005, authorities finally buried the victim’s body although she remained unidentified. In 2006, police in Wisconsin investigating another unrelated murder, connected the unidentified body from Strong’s case to a missing person’s report filed in December 1999 in Carpentersville, Illinois, for 34-year-old Mary Kate Sunderlin, a developmentally disabled woman. Dental records confirmed that the victim was Sunderlin, who had secretly married Gonzalo Chamizo three weeks prior to her death.

In 2010, Thomas Geraghty, an attorney at Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, filed a motion for a new trial, citing new evidence, including a recantation by Tweedy. Geraghty also said that a mother and daughter who had a record of preying on elderly and disabled people had befriended Sunderlin in the spring of 1999 and forbade her from contacting her family, had used Sunderlin’s bank card to withdraw large amounts of cash from her account and had tried to get a new bank card in her name a year after her death.

Geraghty also claimed that the women had arranged Sunderlin’s marriage to Chamizo. In 2002, Chamizo had been committed to a psychiatric hospital in Florida and during an interview with Carpentersville police investigating Sunderlin’s disappearance had said he killed her and buried her in his backyard. The yard was excavated and no body was found; the Carpentersville police were unaware that Sunderlin’s body had been found in 1999.

Geraghty’s motion was denied. When Assistant State's Attorney Michael Mermel, who led Strong’s prosecution, was asked why the state did not re-open the case after Sunderlin was identified as the dead woman, he said, “Her identity had nothing to do with who killed her, how she was killed or what happened. Jason Strong confessed to her murder and showed police where he dumped the body. So explain to me what difference it makes who she was. ... The taxpayers don't pay us for intellectual curiosity. They pay us to get convictions.”

In 2013, Michael Nerheim was elected State’s Attorney of Lake County and created a conviction integrity unit to review questionable convictions. By that time, Mermel had retired due to public controversy over his statement in the Strong case and similar statements in other cases. Nerheim agreed that the conviction integrity unit would review the Strong conviction.

In 2014, three medical experts independently reviewed the autopsy reports and photographs and all concluded that Sunderlin had been dead for several days when her body was discovered—which meant that the confessions by Strong, Tweedy and Johnson were all false. Some of her injuries were probably weeks or months old, the experts concluded.

The findings were brought to the attention of the federal district court in Chicago where a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Strong’s behalf was pending. On May 28, 2015, District Attorney Nerheim and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which was defending the habeas case, agreed that Strong’s conviction should be vacated. On that date, United States District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly signed an order vacating the conviction, the murder charge was dismissed and Strong was released.

Strong was granted a certificate of innocence in April 2016 and he was awarded $222,939 in state compensation. In May 2016, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Lake County. The lawsuit was settled for $9 million in September 2017.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/30/2015
Last Updated: 1/15/2018
State:Illinois
County:Lake
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1999
Convicted:2000
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:46 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:24
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No