The Illinois Appellate Court has thrown out a Chicago man’s first degree murder conviction because the state had insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction, and has rebuked a prosecutor for his conduct in the case.
Defendant Anthony Johnson was convicted of murder at a 2012 retrial under Illinois’ accountability law. He was seventeen when the state alleges that he drove Clayton Sims to and from the shooting of the victim, Brandon Baity. In an extraordinary turn of events, Sims was acquitted of the murder by a jury and then testified at Johnson’s retrial that he did indeed shoot Baity and fled on foot (contrary to the state’s argument).
The Appellate Court was so dissatisfied with the state’s evidence against Johnson at his second trial (which hinged on the testimony of an eyewitness in Johnson’s car who was admittedly so high and drunk that he didn’t even hear gunshots or know a shooting had occurred) that it found that a third trial would violate the defendant’s constitutional right against double jeopardy. The state is barred from retrying Johnson a second time.
In it’s conclusion, the Court also noted other aspects of the state’s prosecution that it found “deeply troubling,” taking particular issue with the prosecutor’s comparison of Johnson’s defense and the defense of the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials. The Court wrote:
We do find deeply troubling the fact: (1) that the State in closing made the trial a referendum on Sims, the admitted killer, and whether he would escape with duping a second jury, rather than on defendant’s guilt or innocence; (2) that the State argued that an acquittal would “legalize drive-by shootings in this town”; and (3) that the State compared defendant to “the Nazis” for denying accountability.
On (3), the Court argued:
The State inflamed the passions and prejudices of the jury when it compared defendant to the Nazis, and claimed that his defense was no different than those who were tried in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. In all of history, there was hardly a more heinous group than the Nazis. By invoking the Nuremberg trials of Nazis, the State drew a comparison between defendant and war criminals that were tried for the worst atrocities in modern human history. This type of conduct has no place in the courtroom.
Finally, the Court warned the State, “We want to emphasize that this is not conduct we would want to see again.”
The Chicago Tribune says trial transcripts show that the prosecutor responsible for this misconduct is Fabio Valentini, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s chief of criminal prosecutions. Alvarez was in the news last year for defending the conviction of Michael Taylor and insisting the state had not withheld exculpatory evidence against him, receiving criticism for being “stubborn” and “obtuse” on the matter of false confessions.