Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015 12:01 am
An end to 30 years of hell
Illinois Innocence Project frees a wrongly convicted man
The morning of Feb. 11 started like any other for Christopher Abernathy: wake up at 6 a.m., make coffee in his prison cell, then get ready to work on the prison grounds at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, where he spent much of the past 29 years in maximum security lockup. Around 9 a.m., Abernathy received an unexpected call from his attorney that would change his life. He was to be released later that day after spending more than 60 percent of his life in prison for someone else’s crime.
Abernathy was freed last week with help from the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield, making him the group’s seventh client released from prison. His case is one of many nationwide in which DNA evidence belatedly ruled out a suspect who had already paid a heavy price.
On the night of Oct. 3, 1984, 15-year-old Kristina Hickey of suburban Park Forest was supposed to walk straight home after singing in a choir concert at Rich East High School. She never made it home that night. Instead, her body was found in the bushes by a department store near the school. She had been brutally beaten, sexually assaulted and stabbed multiple times. Her throat had been slashed, and it was clear from the disturbed dirt around her body that she had fought for her life.
At the time of Hickey’s murder, Abernathy was 17 and had dropped out of high school as a sophomore because of a learning disability. He was working at a restaurant, learning how to be a cook. Abernathy had dated Hickey and had attended her funeral while drunk, where he jokingly told a news photographer that he had a rifle in his car and was going to fire a 21-gun salute in her honor. The police checked Abernathy’s car and found no firearm, but it was the first time his name became attached to the case.
More than a year after Hickey’s murder, the police hadn’t arrested a suspect and were facing significant public pressure to solve the case, says Lauren Kaeseberg, an Illinois Innocence Project attorney. In December 1985, police working on an unrelated case picked up Alan Dennis, who knew Abernathy and was wanted on burglary charges. In exchange for favorable treatment in his own case, Dennis pointed at Abernathy as Hickey’s killer, Kaeseberg says. Dennis told the police that he had asked Abernathy whether he killed Hickey, and that Abernathy said yes and began crying.
After Dennis told the police about Abernathy’s supposed confession, Abernathy was brought in for questioning. He repeatedly denied killing Hickey and cooperated with the investigation, agreeing to let the police search his car and take DNA samples. He even offered to take a polygraph test or truth serum. Abernathy later testified that he repeatedly asked for an attorney and was not given one, but the detective in his case claimed Abernathy never asked for an attorney while being questioned.
When Abernathy was picked up for questioning, the police found a card from Hickey’s funeral in Abernathy’s wallet, right next to another card that said, “I am so sorry for what I did. I still love you. Christopher Abernathy.” To the police, it seemed like a confession of guilt over Hickey’s murder, but Abernathy told the police he had recently had a fight with his girlfriend, and the card was meant to accompany flowers for her. The police actually confirmed Abernathy’s story with the florist, but the detective on the case was later allowed to bring up the card at Abernathy’s trial as evidence against him.
The photographer at Hickey’s funeral bolstered the case against Abernathy when she told the police that he had scratches on his nose and lip when she encountered him. The police saw the scratches as sure signs that Abernathy had been involved in a struggle – the kind of struggle that occurs during an attempted rape and murder. Again, that seemingly damning evidence had an explanation: Abernathy told the police that he had been attacked by a group of teens who threw eggs at him, and he ran into a tree while trying to escape. The police investigated his story and confirmed that Abernathy was taken to the hospital by paramedics after running into a tree, but the photographer’s account of scratches on Abernathy’s face were still allowed to be introduced as evidence at his trial.
“I think Chris has the worst luck in the world,” Kaeseberg said.
After two days of constant questioning at the police station – possibly without an attorney – Abernathy signed a confession admitting to killing Hickey. He was tried and convicted of murder, attempted aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault and armed robbery. For the murder, he was sentenced to spend life in prison with no possibility of parole, plus two additional sentences of 30 years for the armed robbery and the aggravated criminal sexual assault. If Abernathy had been just one year older when the crime occurred, prosecutors almost certainly would have sought the death penalty in his case. It’s possible that Abernathy would have been executed for someone else’s crime.
Kaeseberg first encountered Abernathy’s case even before she started working for the Illinois Innocence Project. In 2009, Kaeseberg was working at a small law firm in Chicago when a group of journalism students from Northwestern University investigating the case brought it to her attention. She says the case had stalled for several reasons, including a lack of funding to do DNA testing, which she says can cost tens of thousands of dollars. When she joined the Illinois Innocence Project at UIS in May 2013, however, she made Abernathy’s case a priority for the organization.
Kaeseberg says the first time she read Abernathy’s signed statement of guilt, she recognized the hallmarks of a false confession. In the document, Abernathy stated that he followed Kristina Hickey home and tried to have sex with her, but she resisted. At that point, Abernathy supposedly forgot that he had a knife in his hand and accidentally stabbed Hickey several times.
“The statement was just absurd,” Kaeseberg said. “It reeked of coercion. Having had experience with a number of other innocence cases where a false confession was in play, you recognize them. You can see how the police crafted a statement that was just enough for him to feel like he could sign it and still explain it later. It was just ridiculous.”
When Kristina Hickey’s murder occurred in 1984, DNA examination was still a new technology, Kaeseberg says. Even though there was plenty of potential DNA evidence to examine related to Hickey’s murder, the case was considered closed by the time forensic DNA became common in the early 1990s. In 2001, the Illinois State Police tested human cells found under Hickey’s fingernails, but the results were inconclusive.
Abernathy’s big break came in August 2014, when the Illinois Innocence Project got a judge’s permission to test eight pieces of evidence for DNA. Included in the samples were a swab from Kristina Hickey and her concert dress, which had been torn down the front by the assailant and folded over to expose part of her chest. The DNA profile obtained from the evidence was not a match to Abernathy, proving that someone else had committed the gruesome act.
For several years prior to the DNA testing, private investigator Sergio Serritella of Chicago had been in contact with Alan Dennis, the acquaintance of Abernathy who implicated him in the crime 30 years before. Dennis had recanted his story unofficially before, but in November 2014, Serritella worked with Dennis to record a formal recantation of the story Dennis told police in 1985.
“It’s never easy to get a trial witness to admit to giving false testimony, but I said a prayer, trusted my instincts and dove into the interview,” Serritella said. “We talked about everything from how he came to the attention of investigators more than 30 years ago to the Golden Rule. … I’m grateful that he stood up and did the right thing.”
Serritella first started working on Abernathy’s case eight years ago while working for Northwestern University with the investigative journalism class looking into the crime. Serritella later took the case on pro bono because he always knew Abernathy didn’t do it.
“Giving up was never an option for me,” he said.
Serritella says Abernathy’s confession to the police came after 40 hours of interrogation of a learning-disabled teenager, and it lacked details of the crime that the killer would have known. On top of that, Serritella says his “gut instinct” told him Abernathy was innocent.
“I’ve never doubted that he was wrongfully convicted,” Serritella said.
A free man
Abernathy, now 48, spent more than 29 years in prison, but the court hearing to free him on Feb. 11 took less than one minute at a courthouse near Chicago. In light of Dennis’ recantation and the DNA evidence ruling out Abernathy, his signed confession was deemed false, and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez agreed to drop the charges against Abernathy. Cook County Circuit Judge Frank Zelezinski signed an order confirming Abernathy’s innocence and ordering his release from prison, and Alvarez’s office immediately sent an agent to Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet with a certified copy of the order to verify Abernathy’s release order.
Abernathy found out about the hearing around 9 a.m., only about an hour before it happened, when Kaeseberg called the prison on her way to court. Abernathy walked out of the prison lobby at 1:48 p.m on Feb. 11. After more than 29 years in custody, Abernathy was freed in less than four hours.
Ann Kolus, Abernathy’s mother, always knew it would end this way. On the day her son was convicted, she confronted the prosecutor in his case, telling him he helped convict the wrong man. She recalls the prosecutor replying that her son would die in prison. She hit him so hard that she knocked his glasses off.
“Nobody’s going to tell me my kid’s going to die in prison for something someone else has done,” she said defiantly after the hearing at the Cook County Courthouse in suburban Markham.
Throughout the ordeal, Kolus counted the days of her son’s incarceration: 10,666 days from his arrest on Nov. 30, 1985, until his release from prison on Feb. 11. She visited him in prison 966 times, and on that final visit, she walked him out of Stateville Correctional Center a free man.
“This day is more than 10,000 days overdue,” Kolus said in a public statement. “I always knew in my heart that Chris was innocent, and I’m so thankful that my prayers have been answered and he is finally coming home.”
Abernathy walked out of the small prison lobby at Stateville in the subzero wind, wearing only a few thin shirts and accompanied by his mother, his brother, other family members and his legal team, which included members of the Illinois Innocence Project. He grimaced in pain at a shoulder injury sustained while working in the prison, and although he cradled his disabled right arm with his left, he still managed to smile and joke with the media swarm surrounding him. He didn’t make a statement to the throng of cameras, but he didn’t need to. His smile and his knowing glances to his supporters said enough.
Serritella, the private investigator, says Abernathy now faces a tough transition back to society.
“Chris has been through almost 30 years of hell paying for someone else’s evil,” he said.
Reopening the case
Abernathy’s release raises the question of who actually killed Kristina Hickey. Lauren Kaeseberg with the Illinois Innocence Project says there were alternate suspects in the case, and the recently tested DNA evidence may help identify the real killer or at least eliminate other suspects. In a public statement, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez acknowledged the mistakes made in Abernathy’s case by her predecessors and vowed to reopen the investigation into Hickey’s murder.
“It is my hope that some measure of justice is being served today, but there are no doubt many extremely sad and difficult aspects to this case,” Alvarez said. “This is difficult for all parties involved, including the victim’s family, but I cannot and will not let a wrongful conviction stand.”
Serritella says walking Abernathy out of prison was “electrifying,” but as he drove Abernathy away from the prison, the mood became somber.
“One of the first things we talked about in the car was how our prayers were with the Hickey family, who suffered an unimaginable loss,” Serritella said. “The actual offender can’t be brought to justice soon enough.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.