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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012 07:34 am

Fighting for exoneration of a convict long dead

A veteran cop. A reporter. Students bent on exposing flaws in the criminal justice system.

An unusual alliance has teamed up to prove the system got it wrong three decades ago when Grover Thompson, a mentally ill man with few chances in life, was sent to prison for 40 years.

Redemption, if it comes, will be too late for Thompson, who died 15 years ago in prison, still a quarter-century short of completing his sentence for attempted murder in the stabbing an elderly woman in Mt. Vernon. So, why bother?

“The simple answer is, it’s the right thing to do,” says Paul Echols, a former lieutenant for the Carbondale Police Department who was scheduled to testify this week in a hearing before the state Prison Review Board. “When all the facts are put together, it’s blatantly obvious the wrong man went to prison.”

Twelve minutes – that’s all that those who believe in Thompson’s innocence are allowed to make their case in a hearing before the review board that will make a recommendation to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has the ultimate power to decide whether to grant clemency.

It is, Echols and others say, a classic case of wrong place, wrong time.

Thompson, a drifter born in Mississippi, was spending the night in the lobby of the Mt. Vernon post office in 1981 when he was arrested on suspicion of stabbing Ida White, 73, who had been attacked in her apartment across the street less than 40 minutes before police found him. Police took Thompson, a man of “dull normal intelligence” in the words of a doctor who examined him prior to a diagnosis of schizophrenia in the late 1960s, to the police station, where he was placed alone in a room. That’s him, confirmed one of White’s neighbors, who told investigators that he had struggled with the attacker after rushing into the apartment in response to screams.

Three months later, an all-white jury convicted Thompson, who didn’t have a drop of blood on him when he was arrested. A spot of blood found on a pocket knife Thompson was carrying proved so small that authorities could not identify a blood type, according to research by the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, a University of Illinois Springfield program aimed at reversing wrongful convictions.

Thompson might be forgotten but for the work of the Innocence Project, Echols and a television journalist. In 2007, Echols, who retired in 2009, used DNA evidence to pin an unsolved homicide on Timothy Krajcir, who eventually confessed to nine murders and dozens of rapes in a deal with prosecutors who allowed him to dodge the death penalty if he cooperated with investigators to solve crimes.

Krajcir confessed to assaults in Mt. Vernon, but local police said they couldn’t find any cases that corresponded with the killer’s disclosures, and so Echols told reporters that the killer had confessed to stabbing a woman in an apartment across the street from the Mt. Vernon post office. Carly O’Keefe, a Cape Girardeau, Mo., television reporter, subsequently found news clippings about Thompson’s case in a public library.

Mt. Vernon police chief Chris Mendenall could not be reached for comment, but he has rejected the notion that Thompson was innocent. For one thing, Thompson was black, Krajcir is white and the woman’s neighbor testified that he struggled with the attacker and got a good look. Although Krajcir knew details of the crime, Mendenall has pointed out that he and Thompson were confined together in a prison psychiatric facility, where the serial killer could have learned about the crime from Thompson.

Echols says that he believes the neighbor never saw the attacker’s face; rather, he told police that he fought with the stabber because he wanted to be regarded as a hero. Nicole LaForte, a Southern Illinois University law student who helped prepare Johnson’s clemency petition while working as an Innocence Project intern, says that Johnson, who came of age in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era, wasn’t the type to share information with a white man.

As evidence of Thompson’s innocence, LaForte, who interviewed Thompson’s relatives and reviewed the trial transcript, also points to a leg injury he suffered when he was hit by a car six years before the attack. The leg never fully healed, which made walking difficult. But the attacker had jumped in the basement-level apartment through a window, then jumped back out when the neighbor interrupted the assault.

“The crushed leg was the big kicker,” LaForte says. “How can we have this guy jumping in and out of a below-grade apartment?”

LaForte credits Echols and luck for giving Thompson a posthumous chance. She had taken her children to McDonald’s for ice cream last year when she picked up a newspaper while they ate and saw a story about a book Echols had written about Krajcir. The newspaper story mentioned Thompson’s case, and LaForte, who had recently signed up for the Innocence Project, latched onto the words “wrongful conviction.”

“It’s almost like serendipity, the way we found it,” LaForte says. “Usually, cases come from attorney referrals or even inmates writing us. Without Echols, we would not be in this position now.”
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