The law students and their professor were in a conference room on a phone call with the man whose testimony helped convict their client of first-degree murder.
Then he said the magic words.
“He was like, ‘You know what? Everything I testified to was false,’” said Brian J. Nisbet.
Today, Nisbet is an associate at Winston & Strawn LLP. But in the spring of 2009 — when the phone call took place — he was a third-year student at Northwestern University School of Law in the Bluhm Legal Clinic working on the case of convicted murderer Jason Strong.
Nisbet, fellow student David Luger and professor Thomas F. Geraghty were speaking with Jeremy Tweedy, whose testimony formed the foundation of the state’s case against Strong.
Last week, after nearly 15 years in state prison, Strong walked out of Menard Correctional Center a free man. The clinic had represented him for seven years, ever since U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly appointed Geraghty to represent him on what the judge considered a routine matter.
“It’s one of these little fortuities,” Kennelly said. “If this case hadn’t had this interesting statute of limitations issue, God only knows what would have happened.”
An unidentified victim
When a woman’s decomposing body was discovered in a North Chicago forest preserve in December 1999 — she wouldn’t be identified for six more years — Tweedy told police he knew exactly what happened.
He said Strong and another man, Jason Johnson, abused the victim and dumped her in the Greenbelt Forest Preserve, an act Tweedy said he observed.
Pathologists agreed that the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the head and pneumonia in both lungs.
But Tweedy’s story kept changing.
At trial, he testified that he witnessed Strong and Johnson torture the victim at a motel with hot wax, a fact he omitted from four previous statements.
He told police that the victim was alive when Strong and Johnson allegedly put her in Strong’s van for the drive to the preserve and later said she was dead in the van.
The only alleged physical link between Strong and the victim was a sweatshirt the victim was wearing, which witness Margaret Hipps alleged belonged to Strong. In May 2003, she recanted.
Johnson was not called by the state and, at his first court appearance, said he gave a false statement and was coerced into confessing. He signed an affidavit in June 2003 recanting his statements and died before the case ever got to Northwestern.
Strong also later said his confession to police was coerced.
In an October 2000 trial before Lake County Circuit Judge James K. Booras, a jury convicted Strong of two counts of first-degree murder of the still-unknown victim. Booras sentenced him to 46 years in prison. Two years later, the 2nd District Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.
Strong’s first break came in 2006 when authorities identified the woman in the forest preserve as Mary Kate Sunderlin, a developmentally disabled woman who lived about 40 miles from where her body was discovered.
Sunderlin, the clinic learned, did not drive and rarely traveled far from home. Further investigation revealed that in the spring of 1999, she would come under the influence of a mother-daughter team of con artists who arranged a marriage for her with a schizophrenic man, court records indicate.
That marriage was later annulled by Sunderlin’s family.
A year after Sunderlin’s death, the mother-daughter team was caught trying to duplicate an ATM card in Sunderlin’s name.
“All of these facts raised issues regarding Strong’s involvement in this case,” Geraghty said, “and strongly suggested that there were alternative perpetrators who more likely than not were responsible for the victim’s death.”
Strong thought so too.
In January 2007, after learning Sunderlin’s identity, Strong filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The state filed a motion to dismiss the petition as time-barred — the one-year statute of limitations that applied, the state argued, had passed in 2004.
Strong argued that he could not gain timely access to the law library at Menard due to prison lockdowns and a long waiting list.
When the habeas case was assigned to Kennelly in early 2007, the judge decided Strong had a right to a hearing and that he, Kennelly, would appoint a lawyer.
Kennelly knew of Geraghty’s work with Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and told him that he needed him for the statute of limitations issue.
“I also told him that I thought the case on its merits looked pretty interesting, but it would be up to him whether he would take the case for all purposes,” Kennelly said. “He agreed on the spot to take the case — on the phone call.”
In August 2008, Geraghty and Northwestern began representing Strong. The case on its merits did indeed strike the Northwestern team as pretty interesting.
A clinic’s persistence
Luger estimates that from the time he joined the clinic until last week, he donated nearly 900 hours toward freeing Strong.
His tasks included drafting several documents; preparing depositions of witnesses in the habeas case; preparing a presentation to the Illinois attorney general’s office and the Lake County state’s attorney’s office; and traveling to Florida and throughout Illinois for investigative work.
Most crucially for Strong, the clinic found new evidence that contradicted the state’s time of death.
Joining Geraghty, Luger and Nisbet were two Northwestern clinical attorneys and 13 law students during the seven years — including Charles A. DeVore, who was two years behind Luger and Nisbet in school.
Geraghty estimates case hours reached into the thousands. Nisbet estimates that the total bill would hypothetically reach hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
DeVore, Luger and Nisbet all started their careers at Winston. DeVore and Luger later moved to Katten, Muchin, Rosenman LLP, where they now work.
“It’s a credit to these firms to put their money where their mouth is in terms of pro bono work,” DeVore said.
The clinic gained two more advantages in 2012: First, Tweedy signed an affidavit — three years after the fateful conference call — officially recanting his original testimony.
Second, Michael G. Nerheim was elected Lake County state’s attorney. The clinic contacted him shortly after he took office and asked him to look at the case.
“What I look at when I am going to review a case where there’s an allegation of a wrongful conviction, I’m looking at actual evidence of innocence. And I am looking at evidence that the original jury didn’t have,” Nerheim said.
“When we looked at everything together, it was clear that this was a case that needed to be explored.”
‘You’re a free man’
While Nerheim’s office reviewed the case and the clinic continued gathering evidence, the attorney general’s office was reviewing the case as the representing attorney for the Illinois Department of Corrections in any habeas matter.
In the fall of 2013, Strong presented his innocence claim to representatives of the attorney general’s office, who then agreed to re-investigate.
“It really was an extraordinary example of our office, the state’s attorney’s office in Lake County and the Northwestern Bluhm Clinic working together to try to do what was right in this case,” said Assistant Attorney General Vincenzo Chimera, deputy chief of the office’s criminal enforcement division.
In December 2014, the clinic presented its new medical evidence to Chimera and Nerheim. Both sides brought medical experts to the presentation.
“It’s one thing to read a report,” Chimera said. “It’s another to have a medical examiner explain it to you.”
When an independent medical expert agreed with the other two doctors, Chimera and Nerheim discussed finalizing their offices’ involvement, eventually coming to two agreements.
“One, that the attorney general’s office was going to agree to (Strong’s) relief that he sought in his habeas petition, which would essentially grant him a new trial,” Nerheim said. “And then I agreed at the same time that we were not going to proceed with that new trial.”
On May 27, Chimera contacted Northwestern to alert them of the new plan. The next morning, Chimera and Geraghty appeared before Kennelly. Chimera told Kennelly about his office’s plans and spoke on behalf of Nerheim about the state’s attorney’s office plan to not pursue a new trial.
Nerheim, meanwhile, was in Lake County Circuit Court filing a written motion dismissing the case.
While Chimera, Nerheim, Geraghty and Kennelly were in their respective courts, DeVore, Luger and Nisbet were en route to Menard to meet Strong’s mother and greet Strong as he exited prison.
The three lawyers were moved when the warden asked Strong to recite his number one last time.
“She shook his hand and said, ‘That’s it. You’re a free man,’” Nisbet said. “It was pretty cool.”
Strong, who declined an interview request for this story, joined the lawyers and his mother at a diner after the release. All three lawyers recall his order: a bacon-mushroom cheeseburger and a root beer.
“I have the receipt pinned on my wall,” Luger said.
The next morning, last Friday, Nerheim called a meeting with the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force — the body that handled the investigation — and opened a new investigation into the death of Sunderlin.
“I really think this is the model of how these sort of cases should go,” Nerheim said.
“I encourage other prosecutors when dealing with any innocence project to work with the innocence project. And I would also encourage innocence projects to work collaboratively with the prosecutor. I think it’s a much more effective way to handle these cases.”