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Darien Harris

Other Cook County, Illinois homicide exonerations
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Shortly before 8:30 p.m. on June 7, 2011, police were summoned to a shooting at a BP gas station at 6600 S. Stony Island Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. When they arrived, they found 23-year-old Rondell Moore had been fatally shot. Fifty-one-year-old Quincy Woulard, a mechanic at the station, was wounded.

Moore’s 27-year-old brother, Ronald Moore, said the gunman had driven off in a black Lexus automobile. A police radio alert was broadcast, and a black Lexus was stopped nearby. Moore ran up to the vehicle shouting, “You killed my brother!” The driver, 23-year-old Aaron Jones, was taken to the police station for questioning.

At the police station, Jodie Toney, who also was working at the BP station, told police that he was inside the station at the time of the shooting. Toney said he saw Rondell standing by his car, which had stopped near a gas pump. He saw a Black man fire numerous shots at Rondell, who took off running behind the station. Toney said the gunman had been in the station about an hour earlier and threatened to “blow [Toney’s] head off.”

The investigating officers at the scene were then informed that 50-year-old Dexter Saffold had called police and reported that he was a witness to the shooting. Officers interviewed Saffold at his apartment, where he said he was returning from a Popeye’s restaurant on his motorized scooter. He said he had reached one of the driveways into the station when he saw the shooting. Saffold said the gunman was a black male with a dark brown complexion. His hair was in twists (braids), and he was wearing a black tank top and green shorts. Saffold said Rondell ran behind the station, and the gunman ran past Saffold while chasing Rondell.

Police interviewed friends and family members. Two of them, interviewed at different times and places, independently said that two days earlier, Rondell had a confrontation with some Gangster Disciples street gang members. One of the gang members, known as “Dooney,” had fired shots at Rondell. This lead, however, was not pursued.

At the police station, Ronald Moore said that he was in the rear of the car and Marcus Diggs was in the front passenger seat when Rondell, who was driving, pulled into the station. Woulard was looking under the hood, and Rondell was next to him when the Lexus drove up. The gunman pointed a gun out of the car and fired about a dozen shots. The gunman then got out and fired a half-dozen more shots at Diggs while chasing after him on foot across the street toward a McDonald’s restaurant. Ronald said the gunman then ran back to the station and got into the Lexus, which drove off. Ronald said the gunman was 17 or 18 years old, 5 feet 7 inches to 5 feet nine inches tall, had dark skin, was skinny, and wore his hair in a mohawk.

Police said they received a tip that the gunman was known as “King Chucky.” An officer searched Facebook and MySpace and printed pages and gave them to detectives. There was a photo of 18-year-old Darien Harris, a high school student who had never been arrested.

Police interviewed Jones, who was driving the Lexus. According to their reports, Jones said that just prior to the shooting he was driving nearby when Harris flagged him down and asked for a ride to the station. As he entered the station, Harris told him to stop, according to the reports. Harris got out, and Jones drove off. Jones denied any knowledge of why Harris wanted to go to the station, according to the reports.

Craig Knowles told police he was standing in front of Rondell’s car when the shots were fired. He dropped to the ground and covered his head. He said he saw Rondell run down an alley, while the gunman ran south on Stony Island Avenue, chased by Ronald.

Woulard said he heard shots and felt pain, but did not see anything, including the shooter.

Diggs told police he was rolling a marijuana cigarette while sitting in Rondell’s car when he looked up and saw the gunman holding a chrome handgun aimed at Rondell. Diggs said he yelled at Rondell to run. The gunman then began firing. Diggs got out and began to run and the gunman fired at him, too, Diggs said. Diggs said he did not see the gunman’s face. Diggs said the gunman had a white tank top with jean shorts.

On June 14, 2011, Harris, who did not have a mohawk, turned himself in to police after hearing they were looking for him.

Police said that Jones identified Harris in a photographic lineup and a live lineup. Ronald was brought in and now said that he did not see the gunman get back into the Lexus. He said he assumed the gunman got back in. Ronald then viewed photographic and live lineups and identified Harris as the gunman.

Saffold was reinterviewed by police prior to his identification of Harris in both a photographic and live lineup. Saffold repeated that the gunman was wearing a black tank top and “camping style” shorts. He now said he saw the gunman standing near a bike and a car with three other people. He said he saw fire from the shooter’s hand, and that when the gunman ran past Saffold, the gunman almost dropped the gun. Saffold could not describe the gun.

On June 15, 2011, a Cook County assistant state’s attorney interviewed Saffold and Ronald Moore. Saffold gave a third, even more dramatic account. He said he chased Harris south on Stony Island Avenue on his motorized scooter, calling 911 enroute. Saffold said Harris crossed the street at 6650 South Stony Island Avenue, jumped a small fence, and entered a Chase Bank parking lot and escaped.

Moore, in his statement, no longer claimed he chased Diggs before going behind the station. Now Moore said the gunman also aimed the gun at him through the rear passenger window and fired, but the gun was empty. Ronald now said he saw the Lexus pull through the Chase parking lot as he ran after his brother.

These statements were not true. Security camera video would show that the shooter never stopped to try to shoot into the back of the car. The videos showed the Lexus entering the parking lot on the north side of the station at 20:27:14 p.m.—14 seconds after 8:27 p.m.

The gunman got out of the car on the south side of the station and walked north. He walked out of view as he neared Rondell’s car. At 47 seconds after 8:27 p.m., the shooter was seen running toward the back of the station—not chasing Diggs across Stony Island Avenue. At 56 seconds after 8:27 p.m., the gunman was seen running out of the back of the station, heading south on Stony Island Avenue.

Saffold was not seen riding up to the station on his scooter prior to the shooting. He was not seen there during the shooting, nor was he seen chasing the shooter. He was first seen pulling into the station at 8:28:55 p.m., about a minute after the gunman was seen running from the rear of the station. The gunman is not seen almost bumping into anyone, let alone someone on a scooter. Moreover, at the time, there was a 10-story apartment building behind the gas station, which meant that Saffold would have to have ridden south nearly the length of a football field before he could see the Chase bank fence or parking lot.

Toney, the gas station employee, also viewed a lineup containing Harris. Toney said the gunman was not in the lineup.

Nevertheless, on June 15, 2011, Harris was charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated battery with a firearm.

Jones, Ronald Moore, and Saffold all testified before a Cook County grand jury. Their accounts changed in some areas once more. Jones now said Harris got out of the car, and Jones drove away. He did not pick up Harris again at any point.

Ronald told the grand jury that he saw the shooter and recognized him as Harris from an online rap video. That was false, however, because Ronald had not seen the video until after the shooting. Ronald told the grand jury the gunman was “like two feet away.” He said the gunman was wearing a black t-shirt with gold writing. This contradicted his earlier statements in which he said at one point the gunman was wearing a black and blue striped hoodie and at another point a Hollister brand t-shirt.

When Saffold appeared before the grand jury, the prosecutor asked if he suffered from “certain health conditions.” Saffold said he had diabetes and had suffered a stroke. As a result, he used the scooter to get around. Now, Saffold said he saw the gunman fire two or three shots. He said the gunman had a black shirt, shorts, and short hair.

Saffold then gave an account of watching the gunman run away and almost drop the gun out of the pocket of his shorts. “And he was running and I spun around in the chair to follow him and at the same time…I was going to try to scoop it up because he almost dropped the gun out of his pocket,” Saffold said. “And he grabbed the gun…and was holding onto his pants and steady [sic] running. And I started talking to 911 on the phone as well, trying to give them the exact location…”

Saffold said the gunman “ran over by the Chase Bank right there and out of my view, you know, by where the ATM machine. I guess he went over a fence, but he was out of my view after that.”

Jones, Ronald, and Saffold all affirmed their identifications of Harris.

The grand jury indicted Harris on the charges of murder, attempted murder, and aggravated battery with a firearm. On March 24, 2014, he went to trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Nicholas Ford who heard the case without a jury.

Ronald testified and identified Harris as the gunman. Saffold also testified and gave an account that, like his earlier versions, had numerous inconsistencies. At one point, he referred to multiple perpetrators, saying “[w]hen they started shooting,” “[a]s they was firing,” and “they all ran past me, I like turned around to see if I could make an ID and see which they were going.” He added, “They ran—they went behind a Chase Bank, out of my view.”

He asserted he had a clear view of the shooting from 18 feet away. He asserted that he spoke to police at the station, although police reports said he was interviewed at his apartment several hours after the shooting.

During cross-examination, the defense attorney asked, “And you suffer from diabetes, is that correct?”

A prosecution objection was overruled.

“Is that correct?” the defense lawyer asked.

“Yes,” Saffold said.

“And based on the diabetes that you suffer from, sir, do you have any vision problems?”

The defense lawyer then said, “Judge, the witness keeps looking at the prosecutor. I’m asking that he look at me.”

Judge Ford told Saffold, “You could answer the question, sir, whatever the answer is. They’re allowed to ask it.”

Saffold replied, “Because I thought medical was private, what why—”

“Yeah,” Judge Ford interjected. “And generally, it is, but in this circumstance your ability to see is part of the evidence.”

The defense lawyer said, “And you do have difficulty seeing, is that correct?”

“No,” Saffold replied.

Woulard testified that he fell to the ground after being shot and did not see who shot him.

Jones, the driver of the Lexus, then took the witness stand and delivered a profanity-laden speech. Asked by the prosecutor if he remembered telling detectives how when Harris got back into the Lexus, he ducked down in the back seat, Jones erupted.

“Hey, you know what? F--- this, man,” he said. “He wasn’t never in my car. He wasn’t never in my car. He wasn’t never in my car. The detectives told me to say this. Put me in jail.”

“Sit down right now,” Judge Ford declared. “Sit down. Who do you think you are, huh? You understand those words?”

“Man, they said they gon [sic] put me in jail for the rest of my life,” Jones said. “I got a brand new baby. What do you expect me to do? Yeah, I signed the papers, yeah, I told them whatever they wanted to hear. I can’t sit here and see nobody—"

Judge Ford interrupted. “He’s held in direct contempt.”

Jones was undeterred. “Do whatever ya’ll want to do to me. I don’t give no f--- no more, man.”

Judge Ford ordered Jones to answer the questions put by the prosecutor.

“I’m not scared no more, man,” Jones replied. “Send me to jail for the rest of my life. Where the detectives…threatened me. They told me word by word what to say here today.”

The prosecution asked no more questions.

During cross-examination, Jones elaborated, saying that the police told him what to say or he would “rot” in prison for the rest of his life. “They made it clear, if I didn’t tell them what they wanted me to tell them, basically what ya’ll got on them papers, all that shit, that I was gonna do the rest of my life. He said, ‘I got the power to do it.’”

Jones said the police showed him Harris’s photograph and told him to pick him as the gunman.

Detective Devin Jones testified that he interviewed Jones multiple times and that he never threatened him. The detective said he was not aware of any officers threatening Jones.

Evidence was presented that fingerprints had been lifted from the Lexus, but Harris was excluded as the source of them. The prosecution and defense stipulated to the medical examiner’s report that Rondell died of a gunshot wound.

The defense did not call any witnesses.

On April 1, 2014, Judge Ford convicted Harris of murder, attempted murder, and aggravated battery with a firearm. He said the case, “especially when you consider the testimony of Saffold, was not a particularly close one.”

“Mr. Saffold was an honest witness,” the judge said. “I watched him testify closely. And I reached, based on his testimony, in lieu of the corroboration from all the corners that it comes, and it comes from many. It causes me to reach the conclusion today that he [Harris] is guilty of all the offenses charged in the indictment.”

On May 7, 2014, Judge Ford imposed the minimum allowable sentence: 76 years in prison.

In 2016, the First District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the convictions and sentence. In 2017, after being granted leave to appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court also affirmed the convictions and sentence. The court said that Harris’s claim that his sentence was unfair, particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing life sentences to juveniles, should be addressed in a post-conviction petition.

In February 2022, Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, an attorney at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, and attorney Jodi Garvey, filed a post-conviction petition seeking to vacate Harris’s convictions.

The petition outlined an array of evidence pointing to Harris’s innocence. The most significant claim was that Saffold was legally blind at the time of the crime and lied about that when he testified. The petition cited a report from Dr. Veena Raiji, an ophthalmologist and professor of ophthalmology. Dr. Raiji said that in 2011, Saffold had advanced glaucoma, a degenerative vision disease. She said Saffold had “less than 10 degrees of central vision in both eyes and poor visual acuity.” Dr. Raiji also said, “At dusk or at night, whatever vision he did have would have been even more limited by poor contrast sensitivity—make it difficult to discern details.”

The petition noted that Saffold had filed numerous federal lawsuits alleging he had been discriminated against because of his legal blindness. Many of the suits had been filed in the decade prior to Harris’s trial. He attached reports from physicians attesting to his “permanent, legal, and industrial blindness—as far back as 2002,” the petition said.

In an interview with a defense investigator in 2018, Saffold had confirmed that he was legally blind, the petition said. Asked during the interview to view a photograph, Saffold “held the picture close to his eyes” and stated “that he cannot see the picture or determine the image in the picture without having a special apparatus on his computer that magnifies the image,” the petition said.

A defense review of the scene based on the video surveillance showed that instead of being 18 feet from the gunman, the closest Saffold could have been was closer to 80 feet. That, the petitions said, is a distance where an identification of Harris “belies all known medical and scientific understandings of progressive glaucoma and visual acuity.”

The defense also unearthed court records showing that Saffold had made false allegations in the past. In one instance, he had been accused of engaging in deceptive practices and he had pled guilty in another case to making threatening phone calls to shoot a police officer.

Toney, the gas station employee who had not identified Harris in a lineup, gave an affidavit to the defense saying that the police “were trying to force him to identify someone who was not the shooter.” Toney identified a photograph of the person he said was the real gunman, Devonte Pippen. Pippen was killed in a shooting in 2014 at a different gas station on Chicago’s south side.

The petition also cited an analysis of the case by Dr. Nancy Franklin, an eyewitness witness expert, who concluded that Ronald Moore’s and Saffold’s identifications “were at high risk of being erroneous and the product of post-event influence.”

The petition cited the police coercion of Aaron Jones and also said that the prosecution knew at the time of the trial of Saffold’s vision deficiencies, but failed to disclose the information to the defense.

The petition also said that Harris had received an inadequate defense, noting that his trial defense lawyer could have called Toney to testify that Harris was not the gunman, and could also have called Harris’s girlfriend, Kenicia Irvin, who would have testified that they were watching a professional basketball game at Harris’s home at the time of the crime. The trial defense failed to find the many lawsuits filed by Saffold as well as the criminal charges against him that would have revealed his history of vision problems as well as making false claims.

The petition also requested an evidentiary hearing on Harris’s claim that his 76-year prison sentence was unconstitutionally harsh.

On December 5, 2023, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office agreed that Harris’s convictions should be vacated. On December 19, 2023, the prosecution dismissed the charges, and Harris was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/3/2024
Last Updated: 1/3/2024
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Assault
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2014
Exonerated:2023
Sentence:76 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No