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At approximately 2:30 a.m. on March 18, 1979, Michael Grayson was shot and killed outside the Pepperbox Lounge on the West Side of Chicago, Illinois. Police arrested 27-year-old Melvin Sullivan on June 13, 1979 and charged him with murder in Grayson’s death.
Attorney David Weiner was appointed to represent Sullivan in his murder trial. However, due to personal matters, Weiner asked his associate, Mark Lieberman, to handle Sullivan’s trial.
Sullivan decided to have his case tried by a judge, rather than a jury. The case was tried before Cook County Judge Robert L. Sklodowski in November 1979. Elnora Barnes, the prosecution’s primary witness, testified that she had been living at the Westlane Hotel with Sullivan for about two weeks before Grayson’s murder. Barnes, who worked as a prostitute, testified that Sullivan was drinking with Grayson at the Pepperbox Lounge prior to the shooting, and that Sullivan had a gun with him at the time. She testified that she left the Pepperbox Lounge together with Sullivan, Grayson, and another man and woman sometime after 1:00 a.m. Barnes testified that Sullivan told her that “they” were going to “stick up the dude.” Barnes testified that she crossed the street and heard a shot, then saw Grayson fall to the ground. She testified that she ran away after the shooting. According to Barnes’s testimony, Sullivan returned to their hotel room and told her that he had just killed someone, using a racial slur to describe the victim. Sullivan was white; Grayson was Black. Barnes testified that she parted company with Sullivan two weeks later for reasons unrelated to the shooting.
Two additional witnesses testified for the state. Both witnesses testified to seeing Sullivan at the Pepperbox Lounge in the hours before Grayson’s death, but neither witnessed the shooting.
In Sullivan’s defense, Lieberman called Sullivan’s aunt, Kathleen Sullivan, who lived two blocks from the Pepperbox Lounge. She testified that Melvin Sullivan was living with her at the time of Grayson’s death. She testified that the morning of the shooting, he had arrived home around 1:00 a.m. and had gone right to bed.
Melvin Sullivan testified that he left the Pepperbox Lounge alone between 11:30 p.m. and midnight on March 17 and walked to his aunt’s house. He testified that his aunt had thrown the door key down to him because he did not have a key with him. He also testified that while he had been dating Barnes around the time of the shooting, he had not seen her at the Pepperbox Lounge on the night of March 17. He said he had ended the relationship with Barnes in the weeks after the shooting because he had decided to reconcile with his wife.
Lieberman requested a continuance to locate and interview additional witnesses whose testimony, he argued, would contradict the testimony of Barnes. Some of these witnesses had been named in the “State’s Answer to Discovery,” while others had not been identified, and none of these additional witnesses, named or unnamed, had been interviewed by the defense. Judge Sklodowski denied this request and found Sullivan guilty on November 26, 1979, sentencing him to 20 years in prison.
After his conviction, Sullivan retained attorney James Montgomery, who filed a motion for a new trial on February 6, 1980, based on newly discovered evidence. This evidence was testimony from five eyewitnesses to the shooting, each of whom had also viewed photographs of Sullivan. Each new witness had signed an affidavit stating that Sullivan was not the shooter, and the affidavits were included with Sullivan’s motion for a new trial.
Two of these witnesses, Jedda Sullivan (unrelated to Melvin Sullivan) and Vernell Davis, were close friends of Grayson, and both said they had been walking with Grayson when he was shot. Jedda Sullivan’s affidavit described the shooter as a Black man with black hair. In their respective affidavits, Jedda Sullivan and Davis each stated that they had been with Grayson at a bar called Kittie’s Lounge prior to the shooting, and they were singing together when they left. They said the assailant had yelled at them from across the street, telling them to shut up, leading to a verbal altercation between the assailant and Grayson. Both affidavits stated that the assailant had then fired shots at the group from across the street. These shots missed the group, according to the affidavits, and the assailant then ran closer to them and shot Grayson directly. Jedda Sullivan said that neither she nor Davis or Grayson had been at the Pepperbox Lounge between 8:30 p.m. on March 17 and 2:30 a.m. on March 18, 1979. Both Jedda Sullivan and Davis had seen Melvin Sullivan around their neighborhood, though they did not know him. Both said he was not the shooter who killed their friend.
Judge Sklodowski denied the request for a new trial. He said these witnesses did not constitute newly discovered evidence; they could have been available at trial if Lieberman had been diligent in his representation. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed Sullivan’s conviction on April 8, 1981, and the Illinois Supreme Court denied leave to appeal.
After his unsuccessful appeal in state court, Sullivan filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on February 1, 1982. Sullivan claimed he had been denied his Fourteenth Amendment right to a fair trial and his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. District Court Judge Milton Shadur denied the petition in April 1983. But the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed this decision and remanded the case in April 1984.
On remand, the habeas corpus petition was heard by U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Norgle. Attorney Martha Mills represented Sullivan. Norgle held an evidentiary hearing in January 1985. After examining the testimony of the five defense witnesses who had not been interviewed by Weiner or Lieberman, Judge Norgle found “significant reasons to conclude that it would have been believed.” The District Court granted the habeas writ, stating that that Sullivan had been denied his right to effective assistance of counsel.
The state appealed the ruling to the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. On May 22, 1987, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision granting Sullivan’s petition, finding “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional efforts,” Sullivan would have been acquitted. The court ordered Sullivan retried within 120 days or released. The state declined to retry Sullivan, and the charges against him were dismissed.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.