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Wednesday, July 16, 2008 06:57 pm

Glimmer of hope

Appeals court orders a hearing in the 1996 Karyn Slover murder case

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To the average motorist, the difference between clear car windows and slightly tinted windows is hardly worth noticing. To Mike and Jeanette Slover and their son, Michael Jr., however, this minor difference offers a glimmer of hope that they won't spend the rest of their lives in prison.

The Slovers, formerly of Decatur, are each serving 60 to 65 years for the 1996 murder of Michael Jr.'s ex-wife, Karyn Hearn Slover — a beautiful 23-year-old blonde who was shot seven times in the head and dismembered. Prosecutors never produced a murder weapon, a chainsaw, or a coherent theory on how the Slovers could have committed the gruesome crime without leaving bloodstains on their property. Nevertheless, six years after Karyn's death a Macon County jury found the Slovers guilty.

Last week, the 4th District Appellate Court referred their case back to Macon County for a hearing on the Slovers' postconviction petitions. In December 2006 a lower court had dismissed the pleadings as "frivolous and patently without merit." Citing the window-tint question, the appellate court reversed that decision, thereby putting all six issues raised in the Slovers' petitions up for rehearing.

John McCarthy, the attorney who represented the family, says the question of the car-window tint wasn't necessarily the most substantive issue, but it was the simplest.

"It was the most straightforward and least complicated," he says. "It was all wrapped up in a nice, neat little package. It was the cleanest issue we had."

The Slover family has always denied any involvement in the murder. The Macon County prosecutors have consistently declined to answer questions from Illinois Times [see Dusty Rhodes, "Karyn's killers?" Oct. 6, 2005].

Karyn was killed sometime after 5 p.m. on Sept. 27, 1996, when she left the Decatur office where she worked to shop for a dress to wear to a wedding. Prosecutors theorized that she went first to the Slovers' home in Mount Zion to pick up her then-3-year-old son, Kolten,and that the Slover family killed her at that time.

The defense presented at least two witnesses who said they saw the car she was driving — a Pontiac Bonneville with personalized plates — on the road between Cerro Gordo and Bement around 5:25 p.m., suggesting that Karyn had headed straight to the mall, in the opposite direction from the Slovers' house. A school-bus driver testified to the precise time she saw the car and described the vehicle as having "slightly tinted" windows. The bus driver's testimony was discredited by that of Karyn's boyfriend, David Swann, who mentioned — without being asked — that the car's windows were clear.

The discrepancy between Swann's testimony and the true tint of the windows was discovered in 2006 by Mark Camper, then a student involved in the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at University of Illinois at Springfield. Camper, a 45-year-old ex-military man who describes himself as "a staunch conservative Republican," took the class because he thought "it would be an easy A." He says he dove into the Slover investigation to prove that the justice system doesn't convict innocent people.

"Much to my surprise and horror, I came to the conclusion that they were innocent," Camper says.

He became curious about the windows after finding numerous witnesses who described the car, which was owned by Swann, as having tinted windows. Camper took the car VIN number to a Pontiac dealer, who accessed a factory database and determined the windows were indeed tinted. When he received those results, Camper says, he cried.

"I believe in our system, and my faith in the system cracked," he says. "It broke my heart."

The students also conducted two time trials, driving from Karyn's office, and discovered that they arrived at the point where the bus driver said she saw the Pontiac within 30 seconds of the stated time. The original jury never heard the defense team's timeline.

McCarthy, an attorney with the Office of the State Appellate Defenders, used the work of Camper and other Innocence Project students to draft the petitions, which were filed pro se by the Slovers. McCarthy had handled the Slovers' unsuccessful direct appeal and had to question his own effectiveness in the postconviction petition.

"I got permission from my boss to help them out with this petition. I did most of it on weekends," McCarthy says. "It's the first and only one I've ever done for a [former OSAD] client. I just became more and more convinced that these people didn't get a fair shake."

The appellate court's recent ruling means that McCarthy's involvement with the case will end, because the Slovers will have a new attorney appointed by a Macon County judge. This attorney will have subpoena power and with it the ability to get answers to other issues in the postconviction petition, such as testing on a fingerprint that was found on a bridge near a smudge of Karyn's blood.

McCarthy notes that this ruling came at the same time new DNA evidence in another notorious murder case cleared a family accused of killing a relative.

"All I can say to people is: What about JonBenét Ramsey's parents? How many people were ready to hang them out to dry? Had they gone to trial, they would've been convicted," McCarthy says, "but after nine years [prosecutors] figured out they got it wrong."

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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