By Chinta Strausberg, Chicago Crusader
Having spent 30 years in Illinois prisons for a double murder he never committed, Johnnie Savory isn’t wallowing in self-pity. Savory is shining a spotlight on a broken and unfair judicial system that too often becomes a slippery slope to prison for innocent black and brown men.
Savory, now 53, is on a mission to raise the consciousness of many inmates he says are languishing in prisons who like him are completely innocent, but are caught in the jaws of a criminal system he feels is blind and uncaring of their cries for justice.
Savory ought to know, his nightmare began when he was only 14-years-old and ended at the age of 44 when he was pardoned. He was convicted of the double murder of his best friend, James Robinson, Jr., 14, and Robinson’s sister, Connie Cooper, 19, who had been stabbed to death in their home. At the time of the murder, Savory was in school.
“I spent 30 years in prison for a crime I did not do. I was in eighth grade when police came and arrested me. They held me for two-days, stripped me naked, took hairs from my body and forced me to sign a false confession and they did this without the presence of an adult.
“I was convicted because the system is broken. They had no evidence to convict me in the first place,” Savory said explaining the description of the main suspect of the double murders was the stepfather, but for whatever reason the Peoria police came after him.
When asked how did he make it while he was in prison knowing he was innocent, Savory simply said, “God,” but he also later turned to the law firm of Jenner & Block.
In People v. Savory, he said, “I fought for DNA before it became a statue. I was paroled on December 19, 2006.” It was only then did he prove himself innocent of the 1977 double murder when he got the results of his DNA test. Gov. Quinn commuted his sentence in 2011 from a petition for executive clemency originally filed by the law firm in 2003.
Thanks to Jenner & Block, Savory received an executive clemency from then Gov. Quinn. The law firm had represented Savory since 2001. He was pardoned from his conviction of the double murder.
Mr. Savory was paroled in 2006; the pardon followed the governor’s commutation of Mr. Savory’s sentence in 2011, resulting from a petition for executive clemency originally filed by the firm in 2003.
While he was incarcerated for decades, Savory said he was never bitter because he survived with the help of God and never gave up on proving his innocence.
Savory likened his life to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan who was murdered by white men in Money, Mississippi who claimed the teen whistled at one of their wives.
Savory, a paralegal and personal aide to Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.’s family has dedicated his life to shining the light on those who have been wrongfully convicted.
“I am doing this to bring attention to the wrongfully convicted people languishing in our prisons all across this country,” Savory said. “To be in prison and innocent is a crime. It is better for 12 guilty people to go free than one innocent person to suffer.” He is a prime example of the system’s miscarriage of justice.
“I spent 30 years in prison for a crime I did not commit—from the age of 14 to 44. The police came and took me out of my eighth grade class in Peoria, Illinois, and I was charged with a double murder…accused of killing my friend and his sister.
They had no proof, and they knew I was in class at the time the murders took place,” Savory said. “I had an all white jury, which was certainly not a jury of my peers. I was convicted because the system is broken, and my life didn’t matter. There was never any evidence to convict me in the fist place.”
Prosecutors had presented a pair of blood stain pants from Savory’s home but the pants were those of his father who said the tiny spec of blood was his having injured himself at work a few days earlier. He even proved through hospital records that he had sought medical attention due to the work injury. Prosecutors relied on the forced confession, and Savory was convicted on July 1, 1977. While the jury refused to impose the death penalty, the judge sentenced Savory to 50 to 100 years for each murder.
In 1980, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed his conviction and a new trial and he was found guilty on May 1, 1981. The judge gave him 40 to 80 years in prison. “Since that time, God saved me. I am not bitter. If you allow bitterness to eat at you, then you can’t enjoy life.
“I feel I was chosen by God for this journey to do something great to help other wrongfully convicted men and women. They even tried to give me the death penalty in 1977 and again in 1981. God has used my life to save other people’s lives, and I am happy that God chose me for this social justice work,” he stated.
Savory thanks the lawyers from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, the New York-based Innocence Project and the Chicago Jenner & Block law firm that helped him get a DNA test after his parole, proving he could not have committed the murders.
“I designed the innocence tour and go around the country and educate others how it is to be held captive…and why the state should change their lives. There are 22 or 27 states that do pay wrongfully convicted people who served time. Illinois leads states that compensate the wrongly convicted,” said Savory.