On April 19, 2016, the Winnebago County, Illinois Circuit Court denied the State’s motion to dismiss Jenner & Block pro bono client Patrick Pursley’s Post-Conviction Petition Based on Actual Innocence, clearing the way for Mr. Pursley to proceed to an evidentiary hearing at which the firm will present powerful new forensic evidence of his innocence.
In 1994, Mr. Pursley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. At trial, the State’s firearm and toolmark expert testified that markings on the bullets and shell casings recovered from the crime scene matched the gun linked to Mr. Pursley “to the exclusion of all other firearms.” This ballistics testimony was the linchpin of the State’s case. No eyewitness placed Mr. Pursley at the scene, nor was there any fingerprint, DNA, blood or other biological evidence linking him to the crime. The State’s other evidence at trial was the testimony of a paid informant and a second witness who recanted under oath at trial.
Mr. Pursley has always maintained his innocence and for years, he worked tirelessly to have the ballistics evidence from his case retested. When the Illinois Post-Conviction Testing statute was passed in 1997, it permitted defendants to move for fingerprint or DNA testing that had not been available at trial and could prove actual innocence, but the law did not include ballistics testing. From his prison cell, Mr. Pursley collaborated with outside advocates to lobby for an amendment to the statute adding ballistics testing, and in 2007, he was finally successful in convincing the Illinois Legislature to amend the law.
But Mr. Pursley’s motion for post-conviction testing under the new law continued to be denied until Jenner & Block Partners Robert R. Stauffer and Andrew W. Vail, former associate Kyle A. Palazzolo and Professor Steven Drizin of Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions convinced the Illinois Second District Court of Appeals, in 2011, to order post-conviction testing – the first time that post-conviction ballistics testing would actually be performed under Illinois law. This hard-won development was covered by The National Law Journal in an article titled, “This Win Required a Trip to the Legislature.”
Based on the new testing, two new experts analyzing the ballistics evidence – one from the State and one from the defense – agreed that the State’s original trial expert overreached in his testimony. The new Illinois State Police forensic report concluded that the bullets recovered from the crime scene could not be “identified or eliminated as having been fired” from the gun belonging to Mr. Pursley. The defense expert’s opinion was that neither the cartridges nor the bullets came from the gun linked to him. Armed with the new ballistics test results, Mr. Pursley filed a petition seeking a new trial based on actual innocence; the State filed a motion to dismiss. With the denial of the State’s motion, the case now advances to a third-stage evidentiary hearing.
Mr. Vail and Associate Ashley Waddell Tingstad argued in favor of a new hearing for Mr. Pursley with assistance from Mr. Stauffer and Professor Drizin. Legal Secretary Michelle M. Churlin, Project Assistant Eric T. Herling and Paralegal John M. Sachs provided valuable support.