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James Allen

Other Cook County, Illinois homicide exonerations
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At 10 p.m. on August 1, 1984, 61-year-old Robert Ciralski Sr., a pharmacist, closed his store for the night at 58th Street and Indiana Avenue on the South Side of Chicago. He then drove to his home in the 4200 block of South Kimbark Avenue. He pulled up, but before he could get out of the car, two men approached and fatally shot him. Ciralski was struck once in the shoulder and once in the head.

The gunshots drew Ciralski’s wife and 14-year-old son to the window. The boy yelled at two men he saw standing by his father’s car. When the boy saw the flash of a shiny object in one man’s hand, the boy fired once with a handgun. The two men fled.

Ciralski was found in the front seat. His pants pocket had been ripped open and other belongings were scattered about.

More than a year later, the crime was still unsolved. In late November 1985, Chicago police detective Michael Pochordo received an anonymous telephone call suggesting that if he wanted to solve Ciralski’s murder, he should look at the men who were involved in the June 21, 1984 murder of Carl Gibson. Pochordo knew the Gibson case well. He had been one of the detectives on the case.

Gibson had been shot four times in the back of the head while riding in a car on the Chicago Skyway. His body was found dumped on an exit ramp. According to police and prosecutors, Charles Ashley, who ran a $1 million-a-year heroin and cocaine operation on the city’s south side, ordered Gibson’s murder because Ashley believed Gibson, who sold drugs for Ashley, had become a police informant.

A longtime police informant, Darryl Moore, told police that he had been offered the murder contract on Gibson, but turned it down. On August 9, 1984—just eight days after Ciralski was murdered—police charged Ashley and two others with Gibson’s murder. Henry Griffin was charged with firing the fatal shots and James Allen, then 34 years old, was charged with driving the car in which Gibson was killed.

In August 1985, Ashley, Griffin and Allen were convicted of Gibson’s murder in Cook County Circuit Court. Griffin was sentenced to death. Ashley, who was dying of cancer, and Allen were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

This was not Allen’s first murder conviction. In January 1969, Allen was 19 years old when he agreed to be part of a plot to rob an armored truck when it arrived to cash paychecks for the night shift at a Bell and Howell plant in Lincolnwood, Illinois, just north of the Chicago city border. Police had been tipped to the plan.

Allen was in the back seat when the car containing Larry Gibson and Tyrone Oby pulled up. When a police officer shouted on a bullhorn to surrender, one of the suspects opened fire. Police responded with a fusillade of gunfire, riddling the car. Gibson and Oby were killed. Allen, whose nickname was “Head,” was wounded and survived.

During the shooting, Chicago police detective Oliver Singleton was shot in the back. He was left paralyzed from the neck down. When Singleton died in December 1969, Allen was charged with murder. Allen claimed that Singleton was a victim of police gunfire--the bullet removed from Singleton was a different caliber than the weapon that Allen had in the car. In August 1970, Allen was convicted of Singleton’s murder and sentenced to 100 to 200 years in prison. He was released on parole in April 1983.

In November 1985, when Detective Pochordo got the anonymous tip, he reached out to Darryl Moore, the informant who had provided information in the Gibson case. Pochordo would later testify that Ciralski’s killing was, like Gibson’s, a contract murder. Moore admitted that he set it up on behalf of Ashley and Willie “Flukey” Stokes, another notorious drug dealer on Chicago’s south side.

For a man who was said to run a lucrative heroin operation, Stokes was a remarkably brash and public individual, who frequently boasted about his gambling escapades. Several months earlier, in February 1984, Stokes’s son, Willie “The Wimp” Stokes, had been murdered.

To the astonishment of the public, Stokes buried his son in what he called a casketmobile. "The Wimp" was seated in the driver's seat with his hands on a steering wheel. Several $1,000 bills were stuck between his fingers. The casket was festooned with a Cadillac grill, whitewall tires and blinking headlights.

According to Moore, Ciralski was a source for quinine, a compound that was used to dilute heroin so that it reduced the drug’s potency and gave dealers more product to sell. Ashley and Stokes, Moore said, were angry and ordered Ciralski killed because he was cutting back on the amount of quinine he was willing to sell them.

Moore said that Allen had been the driver of the car that brought the killers to Ciralski’s home, parking down the street. He said that two other men, Franklin Freeman and Henry Griffin (who had been convicted of shooting Gibson), waited for Ciralski to show up and then killed him.

On December 9, 1985, Pochordo visited Allen at the Stateville Correctional Center. Pochordo said he spelled out to Allen what he knew from Moore. As he related this account, Allen said that Stokes had a contract out on Allen’s life.

Pochordo would later testify that Allen told him that the information was “basically correct.” According to Pochordo, Allen said that two other drug dealers—Harry Scott and Prentiss King—were involved in soliciting Ciralski’s murder.

Allen would deny that he said anything except that Stokes had ordered him killed and that he denied any knowledge of or involvement in Ciralski’s murder.

Pochordo returned to the prison later that December accompanied by Assistant State’s Attorney Rick Bueke. When Allen balked at having a prosecutor in the room, Bueke left. At that point, Allen later testified, Pochordo told him this was his chance to help himself or he would face the death penalty—all he had to do was tell the truth. Allen said he asked what the truth was and Pochordo told him it was the narrative Pochordo had given on the previous visit. At that point, Bueke came back into the interview room and Allen relayed the account that Pochordo had given him.

Allen then engaged in plea negotiations over the next several weeks. He asked for immunity, but the prosecution refused since he had once murdered a police officer. The prosecution offered him a deal to testify as a prosecution witness and in return, plead guilty. He would get a life sentence to be served concurrent with the sentence imposed on the Gibson murder. The prosecution arranged for a transfer to a less onerous prison than Stateville, which had been constructed in 1925 and was one of the last “roundhouse” style prisons—cells were arranged in a circle and a single guardhouse was on a pedestal in the center. Inmates could not see into the guardhouse, but all cells were exposed to view. The prosecution also provided a few thousand dollars to the mother of Allen’s child.

Allen, Freeman, and Darryl Moore testified before a grand jury about the contract on Ciralski's life. Allen's testimony matched Pochordo’s narrative: drug dealers hired Allen, Freeman, and Griffin to kill Ciralski for cutting back on quinine sales. The murder was to look like an armed robbery carried out at Ciralski's home, to conceal that it was a drug-related contract murder connected to his pharmacy business.

On February 3, 1986, a grand jury indicted six men. Stokes, Prentiss King, and Harry Scott were accused of orchestrating the murder. Allen, Freeman, and Griffin were charged with carrying out the murder with Allen behind the wheel and Freeman and Griffin the gunmen. Then Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Daley said Freeman, Griffin, and Allen had been paid an ounce of heroin, an ounce of cocaine, and $10,000.

The case began to fall apart almost immediately. Moore publicly claimed that his testimony had been a lie and that he had been paid $30,000 by the prosecution to implicate Stokes. The prosecution called that an absurd lie. However, in 2002, the prosecution admitted that Moore had received more than $66,000 in cash payments for work as an informant in the Gibson and Ciralski cases.

On the morning that Moore was to testify for the defense at a hearing on a motion to dismiss the charges against Stokes, Moore was moved from the Cook County Jail to a state mental health center in a southern suburb of Chicago. He had been sedated because he was “combative.” Later that day, he was brought to court where he testified: “This case was put together based on total lies.”

On August 18, 1986, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Stokes, King, Scott, and Griffin.

Three months later, in November 1986, Stokes and his driver were shot to death. The 1986 maroon Cadillac Fleetwood was ambushed by two men as Stokes was heading to his girlfriend’s apartment in the early morning hours of November 18. One man armed with a pump shotgun killed Stokes and the other man fatally shot Stokes’s driver in the head with a handgun. Stokes’s bodyguard, who was following in a separate car and said he fired three shots at the fleeing killers, was later convicted of being part of a plot to murder Stokes. Police said Stokes was murdered to avenge a failed assassination attempt that Stokes had reportedly orchestrated on a rival drug dealer.

In August 1987, after Allen backed out of the agreement to plead guilty and testify, he and Freeman went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court for Ciralski’s murder. The evidence was thin. The only witness to the shooting to testify was Ciralski’s son. Prior to the trial, he had identified a black and white photo of Allen as possibly one of the men by the car, but said he wasn’t sure. When he was shown a color photograph of Allen, he had said he was even less sure. On the witness stand, he was unable to identify Freeman or Allen as being at the scene. The prosecution’s theory was that Allen was down the street in a car at the time of the shooting.

Ultimately, the case against Allen was based almost exclusively on the testimony of Pochordo and Bueke, the prosecutor who was at Stateville with Pochordo in December 1985.

Allen testified and disavowed his grand jury testimony. He said he had repeated the story Pochordo told him—first to Bueke and then to the grand jury. He said he had sent a letter to King and Scott telling them he was going to lie to the grand jury. In the letter, Allen said, he told them he was going to falsely implicate them unless they paid him $25,000.

On August 28, 1987, the jury convicted Allen of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit murder. He faced the death penalty, but the jury voted to impose life without parole—to run consecutively with the same sentence he was already serving for the Gibson murder. Freeman, who had recanted his grand jury testimony and denied involvement in the crime, was acquitted. During his testimony, Freeman said that he had testified falsely at the grand jury only after the prosecution agreed to dismiss all his pending drug and other charges.

Allen appealed and in 1991, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed his convictions for murder and armed robbery. The conspiracy charge was vacated and dismissed.

In July 2009, Allen, acting without a lawyer, filed a post-conviction petition challenging his conviction in the Ciralski case. He attached an unsworn statement from Robert Langford, who was in prison. Langford said that he and an accomplice (who had since died) had followed Ciralski and confronted him outside his home. When they told him to empty his pockets, Ciralski refused.

“At that time, I shot him and proceeded to take money from his pocket, several thousand dollars,” the statement said. “Before we could search all his pockets someone inside the house…called something out to us, then fired a gunshot from the house.”

Langford said he and his accomplice then fled. “Mr. Ciralski was killed because of an armed robbery that went bad,” the statement said. “James Allen is innocent of the Robert Ciralski murder.”

The petition was dismissed as frivolous and without merit. The dismissal was based primarily on the fact that Langford’s statement was not notarized. Allen appealed and the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the dismissal. But in 2015, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the petition reinstated. The court held that the dismissal based on the lack of notarization was wrong and that Allen was entitled to a hearing.

Subsequently, in 2019, defense attorney Steven Becker filed an amended post-conviction petition, noting that Langford had given three more statements since his original statement in 2009.

The first contained the same information as the 2009 statement, but was notarized. The second, given in August 2016 said that before Allen was arrested for the Ciralski murder, Langford’s accomplice, “Mr. Kirby,” told a detective and a prosecutor that just before Ciralski was killed, Langford had robbed and shot a man with the same gun used to kill Ciralski. In this statement, Langford said, “Law enforcement personnel wanted to frame James Allen in retaliation for his conviction [for the murder of the police officer] in 1969 and early parole release.”

In July 2018, Langford executed another affidavit in which he said that his accomplice was nicknamed Kirby and that his real name was James Allen—a different James Allen. “Kirby gave up my name to the authorities in connection with the murder of Robert Ciralski,” the statement said. “Afterwards, I shot Kirby, as well as a man named John Goolsby in Chicago. I was later convicted of their deaths.” Langford said that Allen, who he knew as “Head,” was not involved in the Ciralski killing.

The petition also noted that evidence showed that Freeman, who had been acquitted of Ciralski’s murder, had testified falsely before the grand jury—he had been in Georgia at the time of Ciralski’s murder.

In addition, the petition cited a 2002 petition for clemency from Henry Griffin, who had been sentenced to death for the Gibson murder. Griffin claimed that police coerced him to falsely confess to involvement in the Gibson murder by threatening to charge his sister as an accomplice. Griffin claimed that police officers promised to destroy a tape of Griffin’s confession if he would implicate Allen. Griffin said, the police “wanted Allen…because Allen had previously killed a police officer.” Griffin, whose death sentence had been commuted by Governor George Ryan in 2003 along with all other death row prisoners, died in prison in January 2021.

The petition also noted that there was abundant evidence that Ciralski was not involved in selling quinine to drug dealers, but in fact had reported drug activity near his business.

On September 15, 2021, Allen appeared in the courtroom of Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sophia Atcherson. Allen was expecting to begin his long-awaited hearing on the petition. Langford was going to be called to testify.

But when the case was called, Assistant State’s Attorney Linda Walls announced that the prosecution was moving to vacate the conviction. Atcherson granted the motion and Walls said the prosecution would not seek to retry Allen. Judge Atcherson then dismissed the case.

Allen was not released. He was returned to prison to continue serving the life without parole sentence imposed for the Gibson murder. Allen was continuing to fight to overturn that conviction as well. He maintained that he was framed by the false statements of Moore. Allen’s postconviction petition challenging the Gibson murder conviction was denied in May 2021. In September 2021, that ruling was on appeal.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/27/2021
Last Updated: 9/27/2021
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1984
Convicted:1987
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:34
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No