By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The last time Roosevelt Myles was a free man was in 1992. George H.W. Bush was president, people communicated with pagers and the Chicago White Sox played at the old Comiskey Park.
That year, in the early hours of November 16, Myles was at a friend’s house in Chicago when several blocks away, a couple was robbed at gunpoint. After a 16-year-old was shot twice in the torso, police scrambled to find the gunman. They found Myles, a drug addict, who was walking to the store to buy cigarettes.
Today, Myles sits in a cell nearly 200 miles southwest of Chicago. For more than two decades at the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, IL, Myles has been serving a 60-year sentence for a murder he did not commit 25 years ago.
Broke and scared, Myles, for decades, has been a victim of not only a notorious police interrogation unit in the Chicago Police Department, but also of a criminal justice sentence that has forced him to wait nearly 17 years just for a hearing he was granted back in 2000.
Since then, Myles has gone through a string of public defenders who have racked up 70 delays for a hearing, while a judge who had the power to move forward with the case did nothing. In the interim, both of Myles’ parents have died, as have several witnesses whose accounts could have helped to free him.
Two weeks ago when Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx vacated 15 convictions, Myles’ case was left out—a staggering blow to a man who has suffered and waited so long for freedom.
His case has dragged on and on in the Cook County justice system where overworked and underpaid public defenders work under a mountain of cases. Year round they toil under pressure from tight budget constraints while trying to serve poor clients who can’t afford to hire an attorney.
Despite being guaranteed a speedy trial by the Sixth Amendment, defendants are often stuck with numerous delays, postponements and continuances that keep them in jail for long periods of time. For Myles, justice delayed is the same as justice denied.
Myles’ case shows how bad the problem is, as he has tried for many years to clear his name by having his conviction overturned. With nothing to show for years of effort, his situation may be an extreme case of abuse or neglect in a broken criminal justice system fed by a police department badly in need of reform.
After drawing criticism from activists who viewed her first year as mixed at best, on Nov. 15, Foxx vacated the convictions of 15 individuals who say they were framed by rogue cops who operated for years on Chicago’s South Side. It was an unprecedented move by Foxx, who ousted her predecessor, Anita Alvarez, promising to reform the justice system in the wake of the Laquan McDonald scandal.
While many rejoice over Foxx’s latest move, the clock is still ticking for Foxx to do something about Myles’ case. In September, Foxx announced that the case would be assigned to her newly-formed Conviction Integrity Division, which reviews cases of people who have been wrongly convicted. If all goes well, Myles could soon be a free man, but Foxx hasn’t set a timeline for the review. For Myles, it’s a painful reality that requires more waiting for an uncertain verdict on a wrongful conviction that has ruined his life.
A prominent New York lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, has wrestled Myles’ case out of the hands of Cook County’s web of public defenders, but Foxx’s exoneration would be a much quicker end to his life behind bars and a long, exhaustive legal battle that seems to have gone nowhere. So far, that possibility seems distant and Foxx remains silent on the case.
“I don’t know why this case has gotten this far in the first place,” said Bonjean, the attorney who is representing Myles for free. “He should have never been convicted.”
Myles’ problems began on Nov. 16, 1992. Court documents show that prosecutors said at 2:45 a.m., Myles fired two shots into the torso of 16-year-old Shaharian “Tony” Brandon during a robbery attempt at the home of Brandon’s girlfriend, Octavious Morris, who lived on the West Side. Shaharian later died. Sandra Burch, an eyewitness, saw the shooting while sitting in a car, according to reports.
Several blocks away, Myles heard the gunshots that killed Brandon as he left the apartment of his friend, Ronnie Bracey. On his way to buy cigarettes from a corner store, police stopped him and took him to the police car where Morris was waiting. Morris said Myles didn’t shoot her boyfriend and police released him. More officers interviewed Burch as Brandon was at the hospital, dying. Morris and Burch repeated that Myles was not the shooter. And while Morris said there were two assailants, Burch said there was one.
Despite their statements, reports show that after officers re-interviewed the two, Burch and Morris’ accounts gradually became more similar. Burch eventually told police Myles was the shooter, despite telling officers earlier she did not see the shooter’s face.
Morris changed her story, too. She originally gave police detailed descriptions of two people who she believed were responsible for the shooting. But three weeks later, Morris said she didn’t see any of the shooters. Morris also said that she knew immediately that Myles was the killer, but claimed otherwise because she feared him.
Myles was arrested the next day. While in police custody, Myles said Anthony Wojcik, a 29-year veteran officer, hit him repeatedly with a flashlight and phone to force him to confess, according to an affidavit filed with the Independent Police Review Authority, the agency that investigates controversial shootings and police misconduct.
Myles’ story is similar to other cases where Wojcik and another former detective, Sgt. Ronald Watts, coerced suspects into confessing crimes that they didn’t commit. Both officers worked in the same unit under disgraced retired Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara, who was also accused of forcing confessions. All three officers have left the force. Wojcik is being investigated for 13 cases in which he allegedly coerced subjects into confessing crimes. All of the defendants were convicted and face prison sentences.
Wojcik is also among five officers accused of lying to protect Officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014. Before he left the force, Wojcik had 41 citizen complaints, but only three were determined to require discipline.
Despite the discrepancies, prosecutors persuaded a jury to convict Myles of first-degree murder in 1996. He was sentenced to 60 years in jail.
On Dec. 29, 2000, Appellate Court Judge Dennis Porter granted Myles a hearing after Myles argued that one of his public defenders failed to bring forth three people—Michael Hooker, Hubert Floyd and Derrick Floyd—who would have testified that they were with Myles at Bracey’s house at the time of the shooting.
Questions remain as to why Porter did not set or enforce deadlines to stop the delays. Judges are prohibited from discussing cases according to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Myles’ problems were first reported by online publication, BuzzFeed, in August.
The Cook County Public Defender’s office was spared from major cuts when the county’s $5.2 billion budget, was approved last month. Cook County Public Defender Chief of Staff Lester Finkle said the department had several vacancies for public defenders, but now they won’t be filled.
He said the department has 410 public defenders who work on at least 150,000 misdemeanor cases and 30,000 felony cases a year. Finkle went on to say cases take time to handle because of the time investigators must spend to gather evidence, secure affidavits and locate witnesses. He acknowledged that Myles’ case was “unusual” because of the length of time it has taken for the courts to review it in the post-conviction stage.
“I understand where the criticism is coming from, but it takes time to get these cases done,” he said. Finkle also stated that “the urgency that these cases should get are [sic] not given the treatment that they should.”
Bonjean took Myles’ case after helping free many Chicago citizens who were framed by Chicago police. Bonjean said she has seen many cases languish in the courts for years, but “16 years is preposterous. They didn’t do any work on this case. Nothing. It took me two months just to get his files.”