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Capping an extraordinary series of events, on June 17, 2013, Cook County, Illinois prosecutors dropped all charges against Nicole Harris, a pro bono client of Jenner & Block and Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) who was convicted in 2005 of strangling to death her 4-year-old son, Jaquari Dancy.
The most recent decision by prosecutors ends Ms. Harris’ ordeal after numerous appeals, from state to federal courts, over the use of a video-recorded confession and the barring of eyewitness testimony at her initial trial. After spending seven-and-a-half years in prison, she is now free to rebuild her life without the threat of further proceedings.
The Cook County medical examiner initially ruled the boy’s death accidental, but changed the cause to homicide after learning that Ms. Harris, who was 23 at the time, had confessed on videotape. The confession, which Ms. Harris said was false and coerced, came after 27 hours of exhausting, intermittent interrogation by detectives at Chicago Police Area 5 headquarters. The interrogation occurred two months before an Illinois law went into effect requiring police to record the entire custodial interrogation of murder suspects. Although the recording equipment required by the new law was in place, detectives chose to record only Ms. Harris’ statement and nothing that preceded it.
The video-recorded confession was the principal evidence against Ms. Harris at trial. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Lon Shultz barred the exculpatory testimony of the sole eyewitness to Jaquari’s death, Diante Dancy, Ms. Harris’ older son who was 5 at the time of the incident and 6 at the trial, on the grounds that he lacked the ability to accurately remember and describe the events, noting that he still believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Diante had told police that Jaquari accidentally strangled himself with an elastic band from a fitted sheet in the bedroom the boys shared in the family apartment on the northwest side of Chicago.
Jenner & Block and the CWC became involved in the case after the trial, appealing the case through the state and federal systems, but losing at every turn until October 2012, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the trial judge’s exclusion of Diante’s testimony was “arbitrary and disproportionate to the truth-seeking and reliability concerns advanced by witness competency restrictions.” The Seventh Circuit directed U.S. District Court James B. Zagel, who previously had denied relief, to grant Ms. Harris’ petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus, ordering the state to retry or release her within 120 days.
The State of Illinois then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. But, in a rare move while that petition was pending, the Seventh Circuit ordered Ms. Harris released on recognizance bond in February.
On June 3, 2013, the Supreme Court denied the State’s petition, and on June 17, during a brief hearing before Presiding Criminal Court Judge Paul S. Biebel, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office moved to dismiss all charges, officially exonerating Ms. Harris. The State's decision followed meetings with the Jenner & Block team and an interview of Nicole.
The firm’s team was led by Partners Robert R. Stauffer and Sandi J. Toll and included Associates Kara L. Kapp, Andrew D. Kennedy and Elin I. Park. Partners Jeffrey S. Eberhard, Sarah Hardgrove-Koleno and Matthew S. Hellman and Associate Irina Y. Dmitrieva also provided assistance on the matter over the past seven years. The team worked closely with CWC attorneys Steven Drizin and Alison Flaum.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Nicole Harris’ exoneration is the 89th in Cook County since 1989 and the 33rd wrongful conviction based on a false confession. The Illinois law requiring videotaping of custodial interrogations in homicide cases is the result of the work of the Illinois Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment, which was chaired by Jenner & Block Partner Thomas P. Sullivan under then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan.