Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Lee Harris

Other Cook County, Illinois exonerations with jailhouse informants
Shortly before 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 18, 1989, a single gunshot echoed through the canyon of high-rise buildings in the neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois known as the Gold Coast for its luxury apartments and homes.

A police officer on patrol who heard the shot cruised the alleys and cross streets without success. Not long after, a taxi driver was driving on Goethe Street as he circled back to nearby Rush Street, the city’s busiest nightlife district, in search of customers. A man emerged from an alley between Dearborn and Clark Streets and flagged down the taxi. The man was hysterical and said there was a body of a woman in the alley. The taxi driver drove down to Division Street where he knew that mounted police maintained posts for crowd control. He led the officers to the alley where they found the body of 24-year-old Dana Feitler.

Feitler had been shot once in the back of the head. She was still alive, but would never regain consciousness. She died July 9.

Her driver’s license listed a Wisconsin address. Inside her purse, tucked in her billfold were two neatly folded receipts from a cash station located at 1536 N. Clark Street. Each receipt indicated a withdrawal of $200. One was time-stamped at 1:50 a.m. The other was time-stamped at 1:54 a.m. There was no cash. A grainy bank surveillance video only showed Feitler withdrawing the cash.

Within about 24 hours, police determined that Feitler was living in an apartment at 1446 North Dearborn. She was found at 1322 north in the alley between Clark Street and Dearborn, about a block south of her apartment. A graduate of Colby College, Feitler had been working in a trainee program at Continental Bank and was about to start a graduate program at the University of Chicago to obtain an MBA in business.

The entrance to her apartment building had a lobby area where mailboxes lined one wall. This entrance was not locked. On a shelf under Feitler’s mailbox, police found a stack of cassette tapes and some pieces of Feitler’s mail.

Police soon learned that Feitler had spent that Saturday with Steven Palmer, a fellow bank trainee who was also admitted to the MBA program. Palmer said they had spent the day looking at prospective apartments in the area near the University of Chicago, they had dinner with another friend, went to have a drink at a nightclub. Palmer said he paid the tab because Feitler only had $7 left. He said he dropped her off at her apartment shortly after 1:30 a.m. Palmer said there was no place to park and that he last saw Feitler just as she was about to enter the lobby.

The crime dominated the headlines for months in a city where homicides were rising compared to the previous year. By the end of 1989, nearly 750 murders were reported. Debates raged over the automated teller machines (ATM), which were a relatively new phenomena in Chicago. There were calls to bar access to them between midnight at 6 a.m. Some politicians demanded the cash machines be banned entirely. ATM safety was the focus of an article in the New York Times.

Days later, when police went to the building where Feitler had lived, they discovered workers were relocating the mailboxes into an interior second lobby that was accessible only by someone with a key to the building.

Witnesses began to come forward. John Regas told police that at about 1:30 a.m., he and a friend were walking south on Dearborn Street about a block and a half north of Feitler’s building. They saw a white car that he thought looked out of place for that neighborhood. There were two Black men inside, and both ducked down as if to shield their faces as Regas and his friend passed by. A third man was behind the car and also bent over as if to conceal himself. Regas and his friend hustled away, fearing they might be robbed. Regas would later testify that his friend talked him out of calling the police. A bouncer at a nearby bar reported that two Black men in their 20’s entered the bar after 2 a.m. flashing a large amount of cash. One was wearing a large Cadillac medallion.

Several days after the shooting, Diana Sepielli came forward. She was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked as a waitress at Shaw’s Crab House. She told police that she was walking her dog southbound on Dearborn Street when she saw a white woman with three Black men walking north. The woman was in the middle, holding the hand of one of the men. She made eye contact with the woman and told police that she sensed that the woman may not have been there by choice. After seeing Feitler’s photograph in the media reports, Sepielli realized that Feitler was the woman walking with the men. She said one of the men had an odd gait.

Several blocks west of the Gold Coast neighborhood was the Cabrini Green public housing development, consisting of several high rise buildings spanning several blocks. It was notorious for crime, including murders, shootings, stabbings and drug sales and use. In 1981, seven years before Feitler was killed, Jane Byrne, then Chicago’s mayor, moved into an apartment in Cabrini with her husband, Jay McMullen, to draw attention to the problems there.

Among those who became friendly with the Mayor’s police entourage was Lee Harris, who helped organize youth athletic events. Harris also eventually became an informant for two officers assigned to the housing development, John McHugh and James Ward. McHugh and Ward knew Harris well. Ward had loaned Harris money for Harris’s window washing business. Harris maintained that the officers came to his wedding.

With the descriptions of three Black men from Regas and Sepielli, police directed their focus west to Cabrini. A few days after Sepielli’s first conversation with the police, she returned, this time carrying some charcoal sketches of what she had seen. She admitted that portraiture was not her specialty and that the drawings were rough. She only drew features for one face and she would never identify anyone as being that individual.

On June 22, 1989, Sepielli viewed several photos of Black men from Cabrini. She selected the photograph of Ronald Grant as one of the three men she saw with Feitler. Police reports showed that Grant walked with a limp because of a prior gunshot wound. She returned the following day and viewed a live lineup and again selected Grant. She said that on a scale of one to 10, her confidence level was 9½. Grant denied being involved in the crime. He was given a polygraph examination, which indicated deception. But he had an alibi — his girlfriend — and she passed her polygraph exam. Still, police went to her apartment, and that of her cousin, and retrieved several pieces of clothing belonging to Grant, including a blood-spattered red sweatshirt.

On June 29, Detective McHugh, who was on furlough, reached out to his former partner, Ward, and suggested they talk to Harris. At that time, Harris was 34 years old, and he had just been released from prison in May 1989 after serving time for a burglary conviction. By that time, the Feitler family had offered a $25,000 reward for information in the case.

Harris first said he would see what he could find out. Thereafter, he said he had some information, and McHugh took him to speak to the homicide detectives who were in charge of the investigation, including the lead detective, Richard Zuley. In the first of what would become numerous conversations with the police, Harris said that on the night of the crime, he was sitting in a coffee shop at the corner of Division and Clark Streets, south and west of the alley where Feitler was found. He said he saw three men run out of the alley. One got on a bus, and the other two ran in different directions.

Zuley paid a visit to the coffee shop and realized that the mouth of the alley was not visible from inside the store. Harris, confronted with the information, said he was outside the store.

Grant’s name surfaced again in late July. After two teenagers from Cabrini were arrested for trying to steal a bike, a police officer asked if they knew anything about the Feitler case. One of them, Eric Taylor, said a man they knew as “Red” had mentioned shooting a white woman on the Gold Coast. The boys identified a photograph of Grant as “Red.”

Over the next several months as no more leads developed, police embraced Harris as an informant, and over this period of time, Harris gave more than 20 different versions about what happened that night. When Harris said he was fearful for his safety as that of his family, he was moved — at police and prosecution expense — to two different hotels. And then the department reached out to Vince Lane, head of the Chicago Housing Authority, and arranged for Harris and his family to be moved to a unit in a different public housing development on the south side of Chicago.

Police attempted to confirm some of the details that Harris was providing, and, as with the story about the coffee shop, some of the details were wrong. Defense lawyers for Harris would later claim that he was a con artist who dug himself into a hole trying to get the reward money. When the murder remained unsolved after several months, they would argue, the detectives solely focused on Harris’s statements as an informant and did not pursue leads pointing to Grant.

Ultimately, according to the police, Harris gave a statement that he had bumped into three men two of whom he knew as Cheese, whose real name was Vincent Hills, and Chuck-a-luck, whose real name was Charles Guyton, and a third man he did not know. They were walking with a white woman. According to the statement, they walked her south and into the alley where Hills said they were going to “knock” her. Harris said he was present when Hills drew a .22-caliber revolver — a Saturday Night Special, according to Harris — and shot Feitler in back of the head. Harris said he had turned and begun to run away before the shot was fired.

Harris was given two polygraph examinations. The results were mixed. The examiners said some of his statements indicated deception, and some statements did not. Police had determined that Hills drove a white car that fit the description of the white car given by Regas. Zuley’s reports indicated that Harris said Hills said he could not wear his Cadillac medallion anymore because someone saw him come out of the alley. Harris also said that he met up with Hills near a white car.

Zuley took Harris on a drive through the neighborhood to bolster Harris’s credibility. Zuley later reported that Harris had pointed out the precise location where Feitler’s body had been found.

In mid-September, the police sought charges against Hills. When the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office rejected the charges, Harris changed his statement again. He said the unnamed third man was a man he knew only as “Dino.” Police searched records for anyone using that name and eliminated all possibilities.

At that point, the informant became a suspect. In the eyes of the detectives, the unnamed third man became Lee Harris.

On October 26, 1989, Sepielli viewed a lineup and tentatively identified Harris as the man who was holding Feitler’s hand. Police reports said it was a positive identification – at trial, Sepielli would only say she was “pretty sure.”

Harris was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, and armed robbery. The state said it would seek the death penalty.

When Harris went to trial in February 1992, the prosecution's theory was that Harris and others had ambushed Feitler in the lobby of her apartment building. Finding she only had $7, they then marched her to the cash station on Clark Street where she made the withdrawals. Then, they took her to the alley and shot her. The prosecution was not only armed with Harris's statement and Sepielli’s identification. They also had a witness who said Harris had confessed.

On November 3, 1989, David Toles had been in Cook County Jail after being charged with burglary of an automobile. On that day, he called police and said that two days earlier, he was in the same unit with Harris, and, while they were playing blackjack, Harris admitted committing the crime. According to Toles, Harris said he was in the back seat of a car with two other men in the front seat. And, according to Toles, after getting the money from the cash machine, they drove into the alley. There, Harris said he wanted to have sex with Feitler. When she refused, Harris said he shot her in the head and shoved her out of the car.

The defense lawyers, Andrea Lyon and Shelby Keisman said Harris was a scapegoat for the police's failure to find the real killers. Keisman, in her opening statement, told the jury that a murder in the Gold Coast was different from most other murders in Chicago.

“Gold Coast,” Keisman said. “The name speaks for itself and the person to whom this happened came from a family of affluence, of prominence. And what the evidence will show is that when you combine these two things, what you have is a crime that will not be tolerated, a crime that must be avenged…and what develops is an atmosphere of pressure, of panic, and desperation on the part of the community, on the part of the police. And the evidence will show that what results is a desperate prosecution such as this.”

Lyon and Keisman said Harris’s statements had been pieced together from media accounts and from tidbits fed to him by detectives eager to solve the case.

At the trial, Sepielli tentatively identified Harris and said she never told police that she was certain one of the offenders was Harris. She said she was “pretty sure” of her identification, which is what she said she originally told detectives.

The prosecution presented Harris’s many statements.

Toles testified to Harris’s admission and denied that he received any benefits. Toles testified he was in the Cermak Hospital unit at the Cook County Jail when he saw Harris. Harris had been sent there because of fears that he would be attacked as a snitch. Toles said that because he had previously helped federal prosecutors convict some jail guards of smuggling narcotics to inmates, he had lied when he first came to the jail, saying he felt suicidal so that he would be placed in the hospital unit. In reality, he was fearful of being identified as a snitch.

Toles said Harris told him that after shooting Feitler, he threw the gun, a Saturday night special, into Lake Michigan.

Although no weapon was recovered, Richard Chenow, a Chicago police officer in the crime laboratory, testified that he had examined the bullet and two bullet fragments recovered from Feitler’s head. He said he determined by microscopic analysis that all three were part of the same bullet at one time. He also said that based on his examination of the lands and grooves on the bullet, that it was a .22-caliber bullet. He said that he also conducted test firings on a gun from the laboratory's firearms collection, “from one of the cheaper made guns that we have been encountering since the fifties.”

Chenow said that the gun was a Rohm which was made by a German company. He said that the rifling on the test-fired bullet was “consistent with the rifling” on the bullet recovered from Feitler. Asked if he knew how the gun was referred to on the street, Chenow said, “Well, yes, they refer to this type of weapon as a – I'm trying to think of it — a Saturday night special is the common term for it.”

John Regas, who had told police about seeing three men in a white car on Dearborn street, testified that he viewed a lineup and did not identify Harris as one of the three men.

A stream of detectives testified about how Harris came forward and later was moved from one hotel to another and then to a Chicago Housing Authority home on the South side to protect him as their informant.

McHugh testified, ‘Mr. Harris stated on the first time that we met, if he said anything about this case or told about this case, he would be killed.” McHugh added that “I did state that I thought there was a reward,” but he denied telling Harris an exact amount.

Detective Zuley testified that he told Harris, shortly before Harris was charged, that the reward offer had been withdrawn, even though it had not been withdrawn. And Harris told his lawyers that Zuley never told him the reward had been withdrawn. Zuley said Harris at first said that he came upon Hills, Guyton, and the third man with Feitler just as they were going into the alley. And Harris had interpreted Hills’s comment that he was going to “knock” the woman to mean that they intended to rob her.

But on September 17, according to Zuley, Harris now said that he had been outside the cash station when Feitler was inside making the withdrawals. And now Harris interpreted the “knock” comment to mean Feitler was going to be killed. Zuley said Harris’s statements had evolved from being an innocent bystander to actively being involved.

The prosecution responded to Sepielli’s testimony that she never said she was positive about her identification of Harris by calling detective Terry O’Connor to testify. O’Connor said that he drove Sepielli home after the lineup. During the drive, O’Connor claimed, Sepielli told him she was “positive” that Harris was one of the men with Feitler.

Harris’s defense lawyers presented witnesses who testified that Harris might have been a thief and a liar and a con artist, but he was a gentle person who avoided confrontation and was not a violent man. They said he was well known in the Gold Coast area because he washed windows to earn a living and washed windows of many businesses, including taverns.

The defense sought to present testimony from Chicago police crime laboratory analyst Pamela Fish that Fish had performed serology tests on Grant’s sweatshirt. Fish had reported that she found blood on the sweatshirt but was unable to determine a blood type. An enzyme test revealed a marker that Grant and Feitler had in common. The same marker was present in 40 percent of white people and four percent of Black people. Assistant Cook County State’s attorneys Scott Nelson and Anthony Calabrese objected to the evidence, and Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Crilly refused to allow Fish to testify.

Judge Crilly also refused to allow the testimony of Anthony Jackson, a friend of Feitler, who had dinner with Feitler and Steven Palmer on Saturday evening, hours before she was shot. According to Jackson, who was Black, he was questioned on numerous occasions by the detectives. On one occasion, Jackson was kept in a room for 12 hours. He told the defense lawyers that one of the detectives called him a racial slur and demanded to know why he had a bank account with $35,000. The defense contended this showed how police were using unsavory tactics to try to solve the crime.

On March 6, 1992, the jury convicted Harris of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, and armed robbery. Judge Crilly rejected the prosecutors’ plea to impose the death penalty, and sentenced Harris to 90 years in prison.

In September 1994, the First District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the convictions and sentence. In December 1994, the Illinois Supreme Court denied Harris’s petition for leave to appeal.

In the meantime, Harris had picked up a most unlikely ally. In 2001, 23-year-old Robert Chattler, a white man from a Chicago suburb, was assigned as Harris’s cellmate at the Joliet Correctional Center after being convicted of burglary and drug possession. The two men got along, and after Harris shared details of his case, Chattler made a promise to help Harris when Chattler was released on parole. Prior to his release, they were reassigned to different locations and lost track of one another. By 2003, Chattler had been released, and he was working for his father. He looked up Harris on the Illinois Department of Corrections website and saw he was still imprisoned.

Chattler recalled how Harris had told him about David Toles, the jailhouse snitch. Chattler tracked down Toles in a prison in Wisconsin and wrote him a letter. Toles, Chattler later reported, wrote back, though the letter was not signed or dated. The letter said, “I was twenty-four when this happen and each year following it I’ve lived in pure hell. Don’t worry Mr. Harris I’m coming to get you my brother. I know you [won’t] ever be able to forgive me for what happen but I want you to know I’m so very sorry for what you had to face all those years of your life . . .”

Chattler and Toles began a correspondence, which Chattler reported to Harris, and it appeared that Toles might come forward. But then Toles stopped communicating.

Then, in 2004, Toles consented to an interview with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. During the interview, Toles said that when he was in the Cook County Jail in 1989, he was visited by Detective Zuley and Sergeant Thomas Keane. Toles said they showed him a photograph of Harris and asked if he knew the man in the photo. When he said he didn’t, one of the officers replied that Toles was about to get to know him.

Toles said the officers told him to talk to Harris and then to call the police to report that Harris had confessed. Toles said his testimony was scripted and that it was all a lie.

Chattler continued to try to help Harris. He started an online campaign to raise money for Harris's defense and eventually received nearly $4,000 in donations.

In 2001, Harris filed a motion for DNA testing of the cuttings from Grant’s sweatshirt. In 2004, in light of the recantation from Toles, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office agreed to the testing, but the cuttings could not be found. The sweater was located and was sent to Bode Technology Laboratory which took samples from the periphery of the sweatshirt. The testing identified mixed profiles containing the DNA of multiple people. At the time, Bode said Feitler was excluded, though years later, the analyst who reviewed the results would say that based on advances in knowledge, the result was inconclusive.

In 2005, a motion for fingerprint testing was filed. Testing of Feitler’s purse and its miscellaneous contents along with her ATM card and ATM receipts revealed that there were latent impressions suitable for comparison on a dry cleaner’s receipt. A search of the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System did not result in an identification.

An attorney for Harris, Kathleen Zellner, brought the case to the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in the state’s attorney’s office. Zellner had assembled a list of cases involving Detective Zuley, following the exoneration of one of her clients, Lathierial Boyd, who had been convicted of murder in 1990, two years before Harris was convicted.

The CIU had begun re-investigating Boyd’s case in 2011, and in 2013, the prosecution agreed to vacate and dismiss it because Zuley had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence about the nine witnesses who had failed to identify Boyd.

In 2016, after the case appeared stalled, Harris obtained new counsel – Jennifer Blagg, who began her own re-investigation of the case. Chattler sent her a check for $5,000. During the CIU review, gunshot residue testing performed on Grant’s sweatshirt was positive. Eric Taylor confirmed that Grant had admitted shooting a white woman. Sepielli also admitted that a black man – now believed to be Harris – was present at the police station when she was there.

Ultimately, however, the CIU declined to agree to vacate Harris’s case.

In 2018, independent journalist Tori Marlan produced a nearly 14,000-word account of Harris’s case and Chattler’s extraordinary efforts. The article was published by the Marshall Project, a non-profit criminal justice journalism organization. Harris said during an interview for the article, “I was going to do just enough to get my 20 grand. They kept assuring me: ‘We almost got this wrapped up.’”

In 2021, Blagg filed a 371-page petition seeking to vacate Harris’s conviction. The petition detailed evidence that Zuley had failed to disclose to the defense. Blagg’s investigation uncovered evidence that Zuley “re-wrote” his progress reports “in an effort to bolster the veracity of Harris’s statements to comport with the evidence the prosecution was presenting at trial.”

Blagg presented evidence indicating how the police manipulated the evidence. For example, an early police report quoted Harris as saying the gun used was a .38-caliber. When evidence showed it was a .22-caliber, his statement was changed. After Feitler’s mother reported that Feitler’s watch was missing, a report was written saying that Harris had previously mentioned that the killers took Feitler’s watch.

The petition noted that Zuley had 16 complaints filed against him, and four had been sustained, including “for lying in police reports and to his supervisors, physically abusing suspects and omitting exculpatory evidence from police reports.”

Zuley had been criticized after Harris’s conviction for his conduct in the investigation of the murders of seven people at a Brown’s Chicken restaurant in Palatine, Illinois. Zuley was part of a task force assembled to investigate the crime. He said an informant had named the killer (who was never charged – DNA evidence implicated two other men), and when his informant was discredited, Zuley pushed back. He was kicked off the task force and later leaked information to the media and lied about having done so, the petition noted.

The petition also noted that Zuley, who was in the Naval Reserve, had “masterminded the torture of Mohamedou Ould Slahi at Guantanamo Bay.” The interrogation of Ould Slahi included “sexual assaults, sensory deprivation, threats against family members, beatings and rendition,” the petition said. Ould Slahi had been released in 2016 after 14 years in custody – the purported confession was deemed worthless. Ould Slahi provided an affidavit describing his treatment and said that he finally cracked when Zuley claimed, falsely, that Ould Slahi’s mother had been brought to Guantanamo and implied she likely would be raped.

The petition said that Detective McHugh had been involved in the interrogations that led to false confessions in the prosecution of four teenagers from Cabrini for the 1986 murder of Rush University medical student Lori Roscetti. Like the Feitler murder, the Roscetti murder was a high-profile case. Fifteen years after the four young men – Calvin Ollins, Larry Ollins, Marcellius Bradford, and Omar Saunders – were convicted, they were exonerated by DNA testing. The first of the youths to confess was Calvin Ollins, who was 14 when officers yanked him out of bed in his home in Cabrini and coerced a false confession from him.

The petition noted that Detective O’Connor was among detectives who participated in the investigation that led to the wrongful conviction of Daniel Taylor, who, along with three others – Deon Patrick, Lewis Gardner and Paul Phillips – was wrongly convicted of a 1992 double murder on Chicago’s north side.

According to the petition, the prosecution had failed to disclose that Toles was released on a non-cash bond based upon a request by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. The motion came at the request of federal authorities investigating the sale of drugs by guards at the Cook County Jail. In addition, the prosecution had not disclosed that Toles had been paid at least $1,000 for his cooperation in the earlier federal investigation of the guards.

The petition also cited Toles’s recantation and his account of how Zuley and Sergeant Keane put him up to falsely incriminating Harris.

“Detective Zuley was given credit for solving the Feitler murder,” the petition said. “Time and time again, Detective Zuley was the detective that [Chicago police] and the mayor could rely upon to solve high profile crimes. However, since Harris’s trial, it has become apparent that Detective Zuley was not the crackerjack detective he was once portrayed to be.”

“Instead, evidence shows he ‘solved’ high profile cases by engaging in deceitful and coercive tactics to convict innocent men and women,” the petition said.

“Everything changed for Harris on September 15, 1989, when the [Cook County State’s Attorney’s office] refused to charge…Vincent Hills, with Feitler’s murder,” the petition said. “The [prosecution] refused charges based on Harris’s statements alone and demanded more corroborating evidence. Thereafter, Harris became the sacrificial lamb.”

In 2022, Blagg filed a supplement to the petition stating that during an interview with the CIU in 2017, Sepielli reported that sometime prior to Harris’s trial, she was in an office with the prosecutors, Nelson and Calabrese, preparing her testimony. She said she saw an 8 x 10 photograph of a male Black man on a desk and “immediately recognized” him “as one of the males walking with Feitler.

Sepielli said that she told Nelson and Calabrese, and they informed her that they knew who the person was and that he was out of town at the time of the murder. Sepielli said the man in the photo was the person she had mistakenly said was Harris. Sepielli said Nelson told her “[N]o, that’s not him. Lee Harris is the guy.”

The prosecutors did not disclose this to the defense, the supplement declared.

On the morning of March 16, 2023, the prosecution assented to post-conviction relief. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diana Kenworthy granted Blagg’s petition and vacated Harris’s conviction. That afternoon, the Cook County State’s attorney’s office dismissed the case, and Harris was released.

Harris had spent 31 years and 11 days in prison since the day of his conviction. “I’ve been unjustly convicted of a crime I had no part in,” Harris said upon his release. “I trusted the wrong people and that’s what got me a 90-year sentence.”

In May 2023, the murder conviction of Carl Reed , which had been based on a false confession obtained by Zuley and other detectives was vacated and the charges were dismissed.

In September 2023, Harris filed a federal lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

In November 2023, Harris died of natural causes. He had been free for eight months.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 4/8/2023
Last Updated: 2/4/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1989
Sentence:90 years
Age at the date of reported crime:34
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No