CHICAGO --- Attorneys from the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at Northwestern University School of Law recently filed an expansive motion in the Circuit Court of Peoria County requesting advanced DNA testing that they contend can prove that CWC client Johnnie Lee Savory did not commit a 1977 double murder for which he spent more than two-thirds of his life behind bars -- from age 14 to age 44 -- before he was released on parole in 2006.
Savory has sought DNA testing since 1998, but Peoria County prosecutors opposed it and the courts denied it on the grounds that the requested testing could not yield a result relevant to his claim of actual innocence. Now, however, the technology has advanced to a point that it potentially would be conclusive, according to Laura Nirider, one of Savory’s CWC attorneys. “The new technology not only could prove our client innocent, but it also could identify the actual killer,” Nirider said.
Savory was twice convicted of the 1977 murders of siblings James Robinson Jr., 14, and Connie Cooper, 19, who were found stabbed to death in their Peoria home Jan. 18, 1977. The first conviction rested almost entirely on an alleged confession that the Illinois Appellate Court threw out in 1980 on the grounds that the confession had been involuntary.
In the face of the appellate court’s holding, then-Peoria County State’s Attorney John Barra was quoted by the Peoria Journal Star as saying that without the confession “there is no substantial evidence to tie Savory to the crime or the scene of the crime [and] I don’t know how it would be possible to try him without it.”
Barra soon changed his mind, however, deciding to try the case again based on statements attributed to Savory by three of his acquaintances -- siblings Ella, Frankie and Tina Ivy. The Ivys claimed that Savory had made statements to them indicating that he had committed the murders. The retrial was moved to Lake County, where Savory was convicted in 1981. Since then, the Ivy siblings have on various occasions recanted their testimony. Moreover, at a hearing following the second trial, one of the original prosecutors -- Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Gibson -- testified that prosecutors had chosen not to present the Ivys’ testimony in 1977 because it was “too shaky.”
The only evidence other than the illegally obtained confession and the Ivys’ testimony was inconclusive. It included the alleged murder weapon -- a knife found in Savory’s possession bearing then-untestable trace amounts of blood; a pair of bloodstained pants several sizes too large for Savory seized from his home; and several hairs found at the murder scene said to microscopically resemble Savory’s hair.
In 1998, shortly after the Illinois General Assembly enacted a law giving convicted defendants the right to test physical evidence relevant to claims of actual innocence, Savory’s then-lawyers filed a motion for DNA testing of the bloodstained pants. The blood was of a type shared by Savory, the victims and, importantly, Savory’s father, Y.T. Savory, who had suffered an injury consistent with the positioning of the blood and who had testified he used the knife to undo the stitches.
The then-attorneys attempted to supplement the motion with a request to test fingernail scrapings from Connie Cooper. The scrapings previously had been thought to be of no evidentiary value. That request was rejected by the Peoria County Circuit Court, and the testing of the pants ultimately was denied by the Illinois Supreme Court, which held that the bloodstain was only “a minor part of the state’s evidence.”
Since then, however, advances in DNA technology have made testing of the knife, the hairs and the fingernail scrapings possible, according to the CWC motion, which contends that, if the testing of those items revealed a common DNA profile that was not Savory’s, the “redundant hits” would be “practically irrefutable evidence of Savory’s innocence and of another man’s guilt.”
Two friend-of-the-court briefs were filed in support of the CWC motion -- one prepared by lawyers from the law firm of Sidley Austin on behalf of leading Illinois lawyers -- including former Gov. James R. Thompson, former U.S. Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III and former U.S. Attorneys Thomas P. Sullivan and Dan K. Webb -- and one prepared by lawyers from the law firm of Baker & McKenzie on behalf of men who have been exonerated by DNA testing in Illinois.