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Patrick Pursley

Other Murder Exonerations with False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
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At about 10 p.m. on April 2, 1993, 22-year-old Andrew Ascher and his girlfriend, Becky George, were sitting in a parked car in front of George’s brother’s apartment on Silent Road in Rockford, Illinois when a masked gunman yanked open the driver’s side front door and announced a stickup.

As Ascher dug for his wallet, George offered $60 from her purse, but the robber did not take it. Instead, George heard two gunshots and Ascher slumped down. The robber fled on foot. George ran to her brother’s apartment and called police.

George said the robber was wearing dark clothing, a blue ski mask, and a hoodie with a zipper. She said the man was black, but could not otherwise identify him.

Ascher was shot twice in the head. Police recovered one of the bullets from the dashboard of the car. Another bullet was recovered during the autopsy. Two shell casings were recovered as well.

On June 8, 1993, Marvin Windham called Crime Stoppers and said that the day after the shooting, 28-year-old Patrick Pursley admitted that he killed Asher.

On June 10, 1993, Rockford police set up surveillance of an apartment Pursley shared with Samantha Crabtree. At 1:25 p.m., Pursley and Crabtree left the apartment and drove off with Crabtree behind the wheel. While the officers were following in an unmarked van, Crabtree stopped suddenly and Pursley jumped out and eluded the officers.

The police said Crabtree voluntarily agreed to go to the police station.

On the way to the station, the police stopped and searched Crabtree's apartment with a warrant they had already obtained. They recovered a nine-millimeter pistol, a pull-over-style black hooded sweatshirt, black jeans, and a document from the Illinois Department of Employment Security with Pursley’s name on it.

Police later said that Crabtree told them that Pursley told her that if she ever said anything to the police he would kill her. Police said that Crabtree admitted that on the night of the murder, she and Pursley were driving around looking for a house to rob. She said Pursley was wearing black combat boots, black jeans, a black hooded sweatshirt, and was carrying a navy blue ski mask.

Crabtree said Pursley told her to pull over to the side of Silent Road and wait, but to keep the car running. Pursley got out and walked toward some apartment buildings. Two or three minutes later, she heard gunshots and then Pursley returned to the car carrying her nine-millimeter gun. She said that while she was driving home, she made several wrong turns because she was nervous and that Pursley threatened several times to kill her.

In the statement, Crabtree said that when they got back to her apartment, Pursley took what looked like about $100 from his pocket. She said that later that night, she and Pursley saw a television news report of Ascher’s murder and Pursley told her not to say anything to anyone.

On June 12, 1993, Windham called Crime Stoppers again and gave a statement to police.

On June 16, 1993, in response to a notification from Crime Stoppers that said Pursley was at the Fairgrounds Valley low income housing project, police spotted him hiding under a ramp of an abandoned building and arrested him.

In April 1994, Pursley went to trial in Winnebago County Circuit Court. Windham testified that in April 1993, Pursley showed him a newspaper clipping about the murder and admitted that he had robbed and killed Ascher. On cross-examination, Windham admitted he had received $2,650 in reward money for his information. He said he called Crime Stoppers two months later because Pursley threatened him. Windham also admitted that he had two criminal charges pending against him.

Crabtree testified and recanted her statement to police as well as her testimony to the grand jury that mirrored the statement. She said that in fact Pursley was home with her on the night of the murder.

She told the jury that police had threatened to take away her three children unless she implicated Pursley. She said she was two months pregnant at the time, and was feeling sick and scared. The detectives kept yelling at her, she said, and one officer declared, “I can make it so you don’t see your children until they are 40.”

Crabtree finally relented and agreed to make a statement implicating Pursley. “I would have said anything to make them stop yelling at me so I could go home and be with my kids,” she testified.

The prosecution was allowed to impeach her testimony with her police statement and her grand jury testimony. In that testimony, she said the gun seized during the search of her apartment was hers and that Pursley used it to shoot Ascher.

The detectives testified that they did not threaten or mistreat Crabtree.

Daniel Gunnell, a crime lab analyst for the Illinois State Police, testified that he examined the gun seized from Crabtree’s apartment and the two recovered bullets. He told the jury that he had compared test-fired bullets to the recovered bullets, as well as the casings recovered at the scene to casings from the test-fired bullets. He said that the gun, a Taurus nine-millimeter pistol, was the murder weapon “to the exclusion of all others.”

The defense called several witnesses, including Myra Foster, the grandmother of Pursley's nine-year-old son, and Tracy Foster, the boy’s mother. They testified that on the day of the murder, Pursley was in Rockford with his son and Myra’s seven-year-old son. However, during cross-examination they admitted that two weeks earlier, they told the police that they were not sure that Pursley came to Myra's home on April 2.

Penny Bunnell, testified that on April 2, 1993, she was visiting Myra Foster when Pursley came and picked up the two boys around 5:30 p.m. The boys testified that Pursley took them to his residence the night of April 2, and that they all played with a chemistry set until 11 p.m. On cross-examination, however, they both admitted that they told the police two weeks before their testimony that Pursley had picked them up in the afternoon, not at night.

Sixteen-year-old David Bodell, who lived in the neighborhood where Ascher was killed, testified that he heard three gunshots and a woman scream. Shortly after, he said he walked outside and saw a man crouched down in front of a dumpster that was about 30 feet away. Bodell testified that the man began running toward an open field when police sirens could be heard. The man was about 6 feet 3 inches tall—about five inches taller than Pursley.

The defense presented a ballistics expert, David Boese, who testified that he was unable to make a conclusive identification that the bullets from the scene were fired from Crabtree's gun. He testified that the crime scene bullets were probably fired from a Taurus gun, but not the Taurus seized by police. He could not conclusively exclude the gun, either, saying there were insufficient markings to make a determination.

On April 28, 1994, the jury convicted Pursley of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 1996, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld Pursley’s conviction. In 1997, Pursley, acting as his own lawyer, filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial. The petition was dismissed without a hearing and the dismissal was upheld by the Illinois Appellate Court. In 1999, Pursley filed another petition, but that was dismissed as well without a hearing.

Pursley then filed a request with the trial court asking for ballistics testing under the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS), a ballistics database that can be used to compare casings and bullets. That motion was denied when the trial judge ruled that the Illinois statute allowing for post-conviction testing only applied to fingerprint comparison and DNA testing.

In 2007, prompted in part by Pursley’s advocacy from prison, the Illinois legislature amended the statute to allow for ballistics testing and comparison.

In April 2008, Pursley, still acting as his own lawyer, filed a motion for ballistics testing. In October 2008, Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and lawyers from the law firm of Jenner & Block appeared in court to represent Pursley. In January 2009, they filed an amended motion for testing, which was denied in July 2009.

Judge Joseph McGraw agreed that the new legislation authorized the testing and that the testing was not available at the time of the trial. However, he ruled that even if IBIS testing were used, any potential match would still require hands-on comparison and testing by a ballistics expert.

McGraw decided that IBIS testing was not comparable to DNA testing because it provided “a course or gross collection of specimens for purposes of later refined testing by a well-qualified expert using stereomicroscopy.” He concluded that IBIS testing did not supersede the comparisons performed by ballistics experts, and that at Pursley’s trial, “all the ballistics evidence was tested by firearms experts and nothing was left out.”

McGraw ruled that IBIS testing would not provide a reasonable likelihood of more accurate results, and the evidence would not be relevant to Pursley’s claim of innocence.

In 2011, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed that ruling and ordered that Pursley be given a hearing. The court held that the statute authorized a defendant to petition for testing and that tests be done. Because an IBIS analysis might result in a different weapon being implicated, the court ruled that the hands-on analysis cited by Judge McGraw “would not be the same hands-on analysis that was already performed.”

The ruling was the first in the United States allowing post-conviction ballistics testing.

Ultimately, a hearing was held in December 2016. Gunnell testified that he had re-examined the evidence in 2013 and that while he still believed it was more than likely that the Taurus filed the bullets, he now said his examination was “inconclusive.” Pursley’s lawyers presented evidence from two ballistics experts who said that new testing excluded the Taurus seized in Crabtree’s apartment as the murder weapon.

In March 2017, Judge McGraw granted the petition for a new trial and vacated Pursley’s conviction. The judge concluded that the new ballistics evidence would “likely change the result on retrial.” On April 27, 2017, Pursley was released on bond.

The prosecution appealed the ruling, and in April 2018, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the grant of a new trial.

In November 2018, Pursley’s lawyers filed a motion seeking dismissal of the case. The motion said that the prosecution had recently revealed a statement made 18 months earlier by Lois Ascher, the victim’s mother. In the statement, she said that not long after Pursley was convicted in 1994, a detective told her that the actual murder weapon couldn’t be found, so officers planted the gun that was said to be the murder weapon.

Lois Ascher’s statement was made in April 2017. The prosecutor claimed he did not consider the statement credible at the time, so he did not disclose it.

At a hearing in December 2018, Lois Ascher told a different story. She testified that police never told her that the gun was planted, but that her husband, who had since passed away, told her that he had been so informed by detectives.

Five former Rockford police officers, who were on the force back in 1993, testified that they never spoke with Lois Ascher or her husband about a planted gun. The five also said they never made such statements to anyone.

On December 28, 2018, Judge McGraw denied the motion to dismiss the case. Although the judge found that the prosecution had acted “with gross negligence,” he said that the evidence was “uncorroborated hearsay.”

Pursley went to trial a second time in January 2019, and asked that Judge McGraw hear the case without a jury. The prosecution again called Gunnell as well as another Illinois State Police ballistics analyst. However, both said that their comparisons of the crime scene bullets and casings were inconclusive. The defense presented ballistics experts who testified that the Taurus was not the murder weapon.

On January 16, 2019, Judge McGraw announced his decision. He noted that the “evidence in 1993 was scant by today’s standards, and when you start with scant evidence you’re not in a good position to reevaluate it years later.” Judge McGraw said the defense ballistics experts demonstrated conclusively that the cartridge cases were not fired from the gun attributed to Pursley.

McGraw acquitted Pursley saying, “No one id’d the bullets recovered from the scene as fired from the Taurus.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/4/2019
State:Illinois
County:Winnebago
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:1994
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:28
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No