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Sammie Garrett


After a bench trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, Sammie Garrett, a twenty-one-year-old black man, was convicted in 1970 of the murder of Karen Thompson, a twenty-eight-year-old white woman with whom he had been having an affair. The charges against him were dismissed six years later based on newly obtained evidence that Thompson had committed suicide.
 
Garrett and Thompson, both of whom were married with children, began their affair in August 1969 after meeting in an evening class at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights. The following November 9, Garrett appeared at a City of Chicago police station, saying that the night before he and Thompson had checked into the Ford City Motel under phony names. They had smoked marijuana and drank alcohol until he fell asleep. When he awoke in the morning, he said that Thompson was lying in a pool of blood, a shotgun by her side, although he had not heard a shot.
 
The motel was in the jurisdiction of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police, who were notified immediately. Within minutes, sheriff’s officers were at the motel, where, in Room Five, they found Thompson’s body and a note saying, “I killed myself, Karen.” There was no shotgun, but Garrett directed officers to it, saying he had hidden it in panic. When asked where the shotgun had come from, he claimed to have found it in an alley shortly before his rendezvous with Thompson. The claim seemed dubious, to say the least, but it would be corroborated by several witnesses; perhaps, in retrospect, it was simply too preposterous to have been made up.
 
Edward J. Shalgos, a pathologist in the Cook County Coroner’s Office, performed an autopsy on Thompson’s body. Two days later, he wrote a report saying that Thompson had died of a shotgun wound to the head and that, because there were no powder burns on the body, the shot had likely been fired from several feet away. This supported the theory that Thompson, therefore, could not have committed suicide, and prosecutors accordingly charged Garrett with murder and armed violence.
 
When the case came to trial in April 1970 before Judge Philip A. Romiti, the prosecution conceded that Thompson had signed the suicide note but theorized that Garrett had fired the fatal shot. Shalgos, the pathologist, testified unequivocally – repeating his assertions in the autopsy report – that Thompson’s death had resulted from a shotgun wound to the head and that there were no gunpowder burns. He stated that he had removed Thompson’s palate and tongue as part of his regular autopsy routine and sent it to a state toxicologist, Frank F. Fioresse, for analysis. Shalgos did not, however, disclose his contradictory autopsy notes indicating “blue-black discoloration whose appearances raise the question of a possible burn identity” and that the removal of the soft palate and tongue were to investigate “possible powder or other burns on soft palate mouth aspect, etc.”
 
Seymour D. Vishny, Garrett’s privately retained lawyer, had not sought an independent expert opinion. When the prosecution rested, Vishny made a perfunctory motion for a directed verdict of acquittal, which Romiti quickly denied. Vishny then rested the defense case without calling a single witness. Romiti proceeded to find Garrett guilty and sentenced him to twenty to forty years for murder and one to five years for armed violence, the terms to be served concurrently.
 
In 1972, two years after the conviction, Cook County Public Defenders James J. Doherty and Matthew J. Beemsterboer read Shalgos’s report notes regarding soft palate burns and, realizing their ramifications, filed a petition asking Romiti to set aside Garrett’s conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Such burns would be consistent with a finding of suicide. Romiti denied the petition without a hearing. Expert opinions from pathologists in various other counties were sought and obtained to confirm that the report supported a finding of suicide. After a series of drawn-out appeals, on November 26, 1975, the Illinois Supreme Court remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing and ordered Garrett freed on bond pending the hearing.
 
After the Supreme Court denied a request to reconsider on January 11, 1976, prosecutors dropped the charges against Garrett, thereby avoiding a hearing at which Doherty and Beemsterboer would have had an opportunity to explore the circumstances behind Shalgos’s apparent perjury for the prosecution.
 
Garrett filed a federal civil rights suit seeking damages for malicious prosecution, but it was dismissed in 1980. He received no compensation from the state, and there was no investigation into official wrongdoing in the case.
 
- Dolores Kennedy and Rob Warden
 
State:IL
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1969
Convicted:1970
Exonerated:1976
Sentence:20 to 40 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:21
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Inadequate Legal Defense