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John Fulton

Other Cook County, Illinois exonerations with false confession
At about 3 a.m. on March 10, 2003, Sid Taylor called police to report a fire in the alley in the 5200 block of South Peoria Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. Taylor said he saw two men in the alley, but was unable to identify them or even see what race they were.

When police arrived, they found the partially-burned body of 18-year-old Christopher Collazo in a cardboard box. Collazo had a sock stuffed in his mouth, which was taped shut. His arms and feet also were bound with tape. His body had been stuffed in a plastic bag and then put in the box which had been set ablaze, apparently with gasoline. A medical examiner concluded after an autopsy that Collazo died from blunt force trauma and asphyxiation.

Later that day, police interviewed Marcus Marinelli, a friend of Collazo, who said he saw Collazo at 9 p.m. on March 9. Marinelli also said that about a month earlier, he and Collazo had robbed a black teenager at gunpoint. Marinelli said that a 17-year-old girl, Johnitta “Precious” Griffin, had referred the teenager to Collazo to purchase a gun from Collazo. When the teenager showed up, Marinelli said that he and Collazo robbed him of $300.

Police then interviewed Griffin. She said that she had referred a friend, 18-year-old John Fulton, to Collazo after Fulton said he wanted to buy a handgun for personal protection. She denied knowing any connection between the robbery and Collazo’s death.

At 11 p.m. on March 13, police took Griffin to the police station for a second interview. Griffin later said police put her in an interrogation room and told her she would be charged with Collazo’s murder. At 9:45 a.m., more than 10 hours later, after she was yelled at and shown photographs of Collazo’s body, Griffin signed a written statement. In it, she said that Fulton along with two friends, 17-year-old Anthony Mitchell and 15-year-old Antonio Shaw, had murdered Collazo.

According to the statement, Fulton, Mitchell, and Shaw kidnapped Collazo from a bus stop on the northwest side of Chicago, beat him with a baseball bat and their fists, and kicked him. They then put Collazo in the trunk of Fulton’s car, Griffin said, and drove to a gas station where they bought a can of gasoline. They then used duct tape from a tool box in the trunk to bind Collazo’s arms and legs. They also stuffed a sock in his mouth, which they taped shut. Griffin’s statement said the three put Collazo a plastic bag, taped the bag shut, and then stuffed him in a cardboard box. They dumped the box in the alley in the 5200 block of South Peoria Avenue and set the box ablaze with gasoline, according to the statement.

On March 18, 2003, police arrested Fulton and interrogated him for four days. Fulton insisted he was innocent and said that he was with his girlfriend, with whom he lived and had a child. Fulton said they were at the University of Chicago Hospital emergency room from before 9 p.m. on March 9 and returned home shortly before midnight. He said they remained there until he left for school on the morning of March 10—several hours after Collazo’s body was found. Fulton was taken for a polygraph examination. The police polygraph examiner, officer Robert Bartik, claimed that Fulton spontaneously confessed, so Bartik did not administer a polygraph examination.

Fulton was returned to the interrogation room where, he later said, police threatened him with physical violence and then physically abused him. They promised him leniency and fed him details until Fulton falsely confessed to the crime. When an assistant Cook County State’s attorney met with Fulton to take his confession, Fulton recanted and said he was not involved in the murder. Fulton was then sent back to the interrogation room. After two more days of interrogation and similar treatment, he again confessed to the crime and implicated Shaw and Mitchell.

Police searched Fulton’s home and car but found nothing linking him to the crime. They found no blood in the trunk, despite Fulton’s alleged statement that Collazo, after he was severely beaten, was transported in the trunk of Fulton’s car. A single hair described as Caucasian was recovered from the trunk, however. Although Collazo was Caucasian, no one examined the hair to compare it to Collazo’s hair.

Meanwhile, on March 19, 2003, police arrested Mitchell. Police said that he subsequently confessed and implicated Fulton and Shaw. Mitchell later asserted that he was physically abused, lied to, and fed details. Police then arrested Shaw and got a confession from him, too.

Griffin later testified before a Cook County grand jury, where she repeated her false account of the murder after she was threatened by police.

Police officers then fabricated a report saying that Sid Taylor, the witness who first called to report the fire, had said that the two men he saw in the alley were black, even though Taylor had said he could not tell their race.

Mitchell, Fulton and Shaw (charged as an adult) were indicted on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and concealment of a homicidal death. The charges against Shaw were dismissed after a judge ruled his confession was improperly obtained—police had refused to allow Shaw’s father access to him.

In August 2005, Fulton and Mitchell went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court with separate juries serving simultaneously. Griffin testified and recanted her statement to police. However, she was impeached with her grand jury testimony.

The prosecution presented the confessions obtained from Fulton and Mitchell. There was no forensic or physical evidence linking either of them to the crime. No blood had been found in the trunk of Fulton’s car. There was no testimony presented about the single Caucasian hair found in the trunk.

Detectives denied physically mistreating either defendant, falsely promising leniency, or feeding them details of the crime. Bartik testified that Fulton had confessed to the abduction and murder during preparation for the polygraph.

Fulton’s defense lawyer presented evidence from security video from the building where Fulton and Yolanda Henderson, the mother of his child, lived at 500 E. 33rd Street and sign-in logs at the University of Chicago Hospital. The tapes showed that Fulton and Henderson arrived at the hospital emergency room before 9 p.m. on the night of March 9. Henderson and Fulton returned to their apartment building, arriving at 11:54 p.m.—about three hours before Collazo’s body was found on March 10. Security video at his apartment building also showed Fulton leaving for school at about 8 a.m. on the morning of March 10.

In rebuttal, Eugene Shepherd, an investigator for the prosecution, testified that he visited Fulton’s apartment building and that there were no cameras focused on the back door. The prosecution presented photographs of the back door that Shepherd took. These photographs showed no cameras.

In closing argument, the prosecution told the jury that Fulton left the building through the back door, drove to pick up Mitchell and Shaw, and then went to the north side of Chicago. There, they abducted Collazo and killed him. Then, the prosecution argued, they drove to the alley on the south side, stopping to buy the gasoline they used to set the box containing Collazo’s body on fire.

On August 31, 2006, the juries convicted Fulton and Mitchell of all charges. They were each sentenced to 31 years in prison.

In 2013, after their appeals had failed, Fulton and Mitchell filed petitions for post-conviction relief. The petitions asserted that in fact there was a back door camera and that the prosecution’s investigator had taken the photographs so that the camera was not visible. In addition, the petitions said the back door was secured and required an electric fob to gain entry.

The petitions further claimed that the trial defense attorneys failed to investigate the back door and discover that there was a camera and that an electronic fob was required. Had they done so, they could have shown that Fulton did not slip out the back door to commit the crime and return in time to go to school. The petitions also said the prosecution had failed to disclose photographs taken by its investigator that did actually show the camera.

Subsequently, DNA testing was performed on the Caucasian hair found in Fulton’s trunk, and Collazo was excluded as its source. In addition, DNA testing performed on the sock revealed an unidentified male DNA profile. Mitchell, Shaw, and Fulton were excluded.

In 2016, the prosecution agreed to an evidentiary hearing on the petitions. The hearing was held over three separate days in January, August, and October 2018. Defense attorneys for Fulton, Andrea Lyon and Melissa Matuzak, and Mitchell’s attorney, Robert Kerr, presented testimony from former employees at Fulton’s apartment building at the time of the crime. They said that there was a camera on the back door and that an electronic key fob was required to enter the back door.

In addition, the defense presented photographs that Shepherd had taken at the time of the trial that were not presented in evidence and were not disclosed to Fulton and Mitchell’s trial defense lawyers. Some of these photographs showed the camera—or the housing for the camera—pointed at the rear door.

On February 19, 2019, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Flood granted Fulton and Mitchell a new trial. “What is clear after reviewing the pleadings, exhibits and testimony is that the jury did not receive evidence regarding whether or not there was a functioning camera in the rear entrance of John Fulton’s building, nor did the jury hear about the swipe fob near the rear door,” Judge Flood declared.

A week later, Fulton and Mitchell were released on bond pending a retrial. On June 1, 2019, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

In May 2020, Fulton and Mitchell filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against several police officers, including Bartik, seeking compensation for their wrongful convictions. The lawsuit cited numerous other instances where Bartik claimed that suspects spontaneously confessed before they could be connected to a polygraph machine.

“In the realm of polygraph administration it is extremely rare for someone to confess prior to the examination,” the lawsuit said. “Yet…Bartik has claimed to have obtained more than 100 confessions over a five-year period during this ‘pre-test’ period. For this phenomenon to happen repeatedly to…Bartik defies all statistical probability.”

The lawsuit said Bartik “has a pattern of misconduct related to the unconstitutional questioning of criminal suspects and the improper and corrupt use of polygraph examinations.” Bartik, the lawsuit said, took part in the “physically violent and psychologically coercive interrogation” of Nicole Harris, who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of her four-year-old son in 2005.

In addition, the lawsuit named Chicago police detectives John Zalatoris and Leonard Rolston, who took part in the interrogation and investigation of the case against Fulton, Mitchell, and Shaw. The lawsuit said that Rolston was involved in the prosecution of Eric Kittler, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Chicago in 1999 and in the prosecution of Robert Wilson, who was wrongfully convicted of assault in Chicago in 1999.

The lawsuit also named as defendants officers James Breen, Edward Winstead, and Joseph Struck, all of whom were involved in the case against Fulton and Mitchell. The lawsuit said the officers named in the lawsuit “rank among the most prolific officers in the Chicago Police Department in terms of accumulating allegations of misconduct from members of the public and fellow officers.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/17/2020
Last Updated: 6/17/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Kidnapping, Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2003
Sentence:31 years
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*