Around 2 a.m. on September 16, 1956, a North States Service Station in Loves Park, Illinois, was robbed at gunpoint by two men. One of the robbers remained outside while the other, who was partially masked, entered the gas station. During the robbery, a Loves Park police officer happened to pull into the gas station to fill up his car. The robber who was inside took the station attendant’s hat and tossed it out to his accomplice. The robber outside put on the cap, walked to the police officer’s car, and spoke with him. The police officer soon got sidetracked by a woman who pulled into the station and wanted assistance with making a bank deposit at a night repository. Once the woman and police officer left, the two robbers drove away with the contents of the service station’s cash register.
Two weeks later, police from nearby Rockford arrested two men they suspected in a string of robberies. At the time of their arrest, the two men were reportedly playing cards with 24-year-old Theodore Sabin. Sabin, a former resident of Rockford, had been convicted of stealing a car in Rockford as a teenager, and Rockford police included him in a lineup for witnesses to the various robberies.
The Loves Park police officer and the woman with the bank deposit both identified Sabin as the robber who had posed as the station attendant. Sabin was charged with armed robbery.
Sabin told his appointed attorney, John J. Foley, Jr., that he had been hitchhiking back to Rockford from California at the time of the crime. Around the time of the robbery, Sabin said he was in two small towns near Bloomington, Illinois, and had spoken with several people around that time, including a police officer. He had used a pay phone in one of the two towns that was on the front porch of a private residence. However, he could not remember the names of the towns. Foley spent several days checking for a front porch pay phone in towns in that vicinity but had no success locating it. The court refused Foley’s request to delay the trial so that he could continue his efforts to confirm Sabin’s alibi.
Sabin’s trial began in February 1957 in Winnebago County Circuit Court. The prosecution’s case relied upon the identification of Sabin by the police officer and the woman in the parking lot. Sabin testified to the same alibi he told Foley. After Sabin’s testimony, the judge called a one-day recess for personal reasons. Foley made one last-ditch effort to confirm Sabin’s alibi, spending the day traveling again to the small towns in the area where Sabin said he stopped the night of the crime. He stopped in the town of Rutland, Illinois, and his inquiries about a front porch phone booth led him to a house that functioned as a local telephone exchange, explaining the pay phone on the porch. The house and its surroundings fit the description provided by Sabin. Finding this location allowed Foley to determine the other town Sabin had stopped in – El Paso – and he attempted to locate the police officer with whom Sabin said he had spoken that night. Foley was able to track down the officer, El Paso Police Chief Louis B. Waters. Waters agreed to come to Rockford in the morning to testify that Sabin had been in El Paso, approximately 115 miles from Rockland, at the time of the crime.
Waters testified the following morning, identifying Sabin in the courtroom and describing the distinctive jacket Sabin had been wearing, which was then produced in court. The prosecutor, State’s Attorney John B. Anderson, cross-examined Waters, suggesting Waters was mistaken about the time at which he had spoken with Sabin. The jury believed the testimony of the local police officer over that of Waters and found Sabin guilty of armed robbery on February 20, 1957.
Foley continued his efforts to prove Sabin’s innocence. He reached out to newspapers that served Rutland and El Paso to publicize Sabin’s story. Five additional witnesses quickly came forward and said they had seen Sabin late that night in and around Rutland and El Paso. These new witnesses included Dale Snyder, who had driven Sabin north from Rutland to Rockford just after the time of the robbery.
On April 25, 1957, Foley presented the additional evidence he had gathered. After interviewing several of the new witnesses, Anderson told Judge William Dusher he believed Sabin was innocent. Anderson requested a reversal and dismissal of the charge against Sabin. Judge Dusher dismissed the charge on April 29, 1957. “Frankly, I thought the guy was guilty,” Anderson said afterward. “I’m glad Foley did such a good job on the case.”
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.