Thaddeus “T.J.” Jimenez, who was arrested in 1993 at age 13 and later wrongfully convicted for a murder he did not commit, was released from the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections on May 1, after 16 years, 2 months, and 27 days of wrongful confinement, according to Katten Muchin Rosenman.
Jimenez, who is now 30 years old, is believed to be the youngest person in Illinois history convicted of a crime he did not commit, who was later fully exonerated.
Jimenez’s exoneration and release came after the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and Jimenez’s defense attorneys filed a joint motion seeking to vacate his conviction and sentence, and release him from custody. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Claps entered the release order on May 1. At the same time, the state’s attorney’s office dropped the charges. The case against Jimenez has been dismissed in its entirety.
Jimenez is represented by Steve A. Drizin, Alison R. Flaum, and Joshua A. Tepfer of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law; and Stuart J. Chanen, Rachel M. Vorbeck, Patrick C. Harrigan, and Aaron M. Chandler of Katten Muchin Rosenman. Katten’s four-year participation in this case has been on a pro bono basis.
On the evening of Feb. 3, 1993, the victim, 18-year-old Eric Morro, was walking eastbound on the 3100 block of Belmont Avenue on Chicago’s North Side with his friend, Larry Tueffel, then 14. As Morro and Tueffel walked down Belmont, two other boys – 12-year-old Victor and 14-year-old Carlos approached Morro and Tueffel from behind. After a brief altercation between the four boys on the sidewalk, Carlos pulled a handgun from his jacket, put the gun directly to Morro’s chest, and pulled the trigger. Morro died at the scene.
None of the eyewitnesses identified Jimenez at the scene, although several of them knew him from the neighborhood, including Tueffel, who was standing next to Morro when he was shot. One of the eyewitnesses, however, called police later that night and stated that Jimenez (whom he had not mentioned to police when first interviewed) was the shooter. Police then drove to Tueffel’s home, dragged him out of bed, and took him back to the station, where, without his parents present, they interrogated him for several hours until he also identified Jimenez as the shooter. Jimenez was then arrested and charged in the early morning hours following the murder.
Although the police focused their investigation on Jimenez, there was substantial evidence at the time that suggested that Carlos, not Jimenez, was the shooter, according to the firm’s press release.
Victor, Carlos’s accomplice, told the police that he did not know Jimenez and identified Carlos as the shooter. The police were given a taped confession from Carlos, which Victor’s father, Ezequiel R., had secretly recorded at a meeting with Carlos shortly after the murder. Carlos is heard on the tape stating, “I had to shoot him.” and “after I shot him, I ran.” Carlos also expressed relief on the tape that authorities had already “pinned the blame” on another young man.
Chanen, from Katten, said the center receives thousands of letters from people who claim their innocence, but Jimenz’s letter described a great injustice. He said his firm collectively performed in excess of 1,200 pro bono hours throughout its participation in this case.
“First and foremost we are just thrilled for TJ,” Chanen said. “He is such a good person. He endured this with such class and grace. He could have become so angry and bitter, and instead he’s really kept a calm and peaceful demeanor. And he’s always had confidence in his own innocence. And he’s always had a very supportive family. They knew he is innocent and they stood behind him.
“A very, very important part of this story is the state’s attorney’s office in this case really stepped up big to do the right thing. They also could have looked the other way. Sixteen years had passed, two juries convicted this individual, a three-judge appellate court affirmed the conviction,” he said. “They took on the investigation that was done before, the evidentiary issues and reinvestigated it from scratch … It is the way a prosecutor is supposed to act, and it’s just fabulous to see.”