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Eric Blackmon

Other Cook County Exonerations with Official Misconduct,%20Eric.jpg
On July 4, 2002 at about 4:30 p.m., two men shot Tony Cox to death while he stood outside a restaurant called Fat Albert’s on Chicago’s West Side. He was 36 years old.

The Chicago police believed the homicide was gang-related. Cox was a member of a gang called the New Breed, and the initial investigation suggested he owed money to another gang member and that one of the shooters might be that man’s nephew. But no arrests were made.

Two motorists had briefly seen the events. In addition, Cox had been outside Fat Albert’s with its owner, Richard Arrigo. Arrigo said he didn’t recognize the shooter.

At some point in August, police turned their attention to Eric Blackmon as a suspect. Initially, police said Blackmon was also a member of New Breed, but prosecutors would later concede that no evidence supported that claim. A photo of Blackmon, then 21 years old, was placed in an array. Police said that the two motorists, Frenschun Reece and Lisa McDowell, each picked him as the second shooter.

Blackmon was arrested on September 5, 2002, when he came to court on an unrelated matter. Reece and McDowell then each picked him from separate live lineups that Blackmon and his attorneys would later assert were tainted. Three days later, Arrigo also viewed a lineup. He did not make an identification.

From the beginning, Blackmon said he was innocent. There was no evidence he knew Cox, and the police offered no motive or theory of the crime. Blackmon said that at the time of Cox’s death, he was helping host a Fourth of July party at a house about a mile away. He said he had arrived there around 2 p.m. and stayed until 10. He asserted that he had been an active and visible host—cooking food, flirting with a woman, and playing cards.

While awaiting trial, Blackmon assembled a list of potential alibi witnesses who could confirm his attendance at the party. He said he gave this list to his attorney, Bruce Cowan, who said he would take care of getting these witnesses to court.

Blackmon’s bench trial was in September 2004. The state’s two main witnesses were Reece and McDowell. Each saw only a few seconds of the events outside Fat Albert’s, but both testified that Blackmon was one of the shooters. Cowan neglected to secure the alibi witnesses. At the last minute, Blackmon’s mother found two attendees from the party to testify on her son’s behalf, but Cowan didn’t adequately interview them prior to trial. On cross-examination, the prosecution was able to call their credibility into question, as one was a relative of Blackmon’s and the other had a criminal record.

Blackmon was convicted of murder on September 27, 2004, and ultimately sentenced to 60 years in prison. He began the appeals process on his own, filing a series of unsuccessful pro se motions in the Illinois appellate courts. While in prison, he earned a paralegal certificate, and with the help of his family, he collected affidavits from people at the party as well as potential new witnesses to the shooting.

In 2011, he filed an extensive pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, claiming that Cowan’s ineffective representation had violated his rights to a fair trial. The motion asserted that his trial attorney was ineffective because he failed to call Arrigo to testify, never found the two people who were in a barbershop next to Fat Albert’s and saw the shooting, and failed to secure the testimony of the alibi witnesses on Blackmon’s list. In addition, Blackmon alleged that prosecutors failed to turn over the name of one of the barbershop witnesses.

Those claims were denied in 2014, and Blackmon appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. At this stage, attorneys in private practice in cooperation with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions began representing him. In 2016, the appellate court reversed the lower court ruling and ordered an evidentiary hearing on one part of his appeal, whether Cowan’s failure to secure the alibi witnesses had jeopardized Blackmon’s right to a fair trial. That hearing was held over two days in May 2017.

Separately, Reece had recanted. She told Blackmon’s legal team that her testimony at trial was false and that she had never actually identified Blackmon as the shooter. She said she had told police only that when she saw Blackmon in the lineup, he was familiar because she had seen his picture in an earlier photo array. But she said the police later insisted to her that she had identified Blackmon and pressured her to testify that he shot Cox. McDowell’s identification was also later found to be flawed. She had told police the shooter had braids, and in the lineup she viewed, Blackmon was the only person who fit that description.

On February 7, 2018, Judge Ronald Guzman granted Blackmon’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered him free on bond pending any retrial.

Blackmon was released from prison on March 30, 2018.

In June 2018, his unrelated gun possession conviction dating from 2002 was vacated and dismissed because the statute underlying the conviction had been declared unconstitutional. On August 14, 2018, Blackmon was awarded a certificate of innocence in the gun case and received $10,000 in state compensation.

On January 16, 2019, the prosecution dismissed the murder conviction.

In the months between his release and his exoneration, Blackmon worked as a paralegal at a law clinic in Chicago. Speaking after his charges were dropped, Blackmon said he wanted to go to law school, to fight for others who have been wrongfully convicted. “It’s great for me to be here, but I just think about all the other guys,” Blackmon told the Chicago Tribune.
“A lot of work still needs to be done, so we can change the system.”

In February 2019, Blackmon filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago seeking damages for his wrongful conviction. He received a certificate of innocence from the state of Illinois in 2020 and in 2021 was awarded $239,306 in state compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 1/28/2019
Last Updated: 10/12/2021
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2002
Sentence:60 years
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No