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Out of Sight, Out of Time

Joseph Curtis languishes in prison beneath the radar of anti-death-penalty advocates.

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Locke Bowman has seen people convicted on some pretty weak evidence. He helped win the freedom of Ronald Jones, one of Illinois' 13 exonerated death row inmates, who was convicted on the strength of a dubious confession he always insisted police beat out of him. Two years ago Bowman helped free an inmate who'd been convicted of a rape that DNA evidence proved he couldn't have committed.

But the case of Joseph Curtis beats them all. "I've never seen anything as weak as this," says Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center of the University of Chicago Law School. "Relative to the evidence of any of the guys on death row who've been exonerated, I think this evidence is much weaker."

Curtis was convicted of a west-side murder in 1990 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. The only direct evidence against him was an identification by the victim's sister, who caught a glimpse of her brother's killer just after shots were fired outside their home. According to trial testimony and police reports, Claudette Springs saw the killer "for a few seconds" through her second-floor window as he disappeared into the night.

Seven months later, police charged Curtis, then 20, with the murder of Robert Springs. A jury found him guilty but didn't sentence him to death. There are times when Bowman, a vocal opponent of how the death penalty has been applied in Illinois, wishes it had. "If this were a death row case I have no doubt that this would be a very hot, high-profile media issue that somebody would be on death row having been convicted on evidence of this quality," he says. "Unfortunately, the reality for Curtis is that he is in the relative obscurity of the general prison population without the resulting attention and media focus that the death cases receive. It's a very cruel and bizarre irony."

It's an irony that's seemed all the more painful to Curtis in recent weeks. Every judicial avenue has been exhausted, and executive clemency is now his only hope of reversing his sentence. Bowman filed a petition on Curtis's behalf and presented it to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in early October, a week before the emotional, highly controversial, and widely covered clemency hearings for death row inmates.

Clemency has been a big news story this fall, but the media have focused almost exclusively on inmates condemned to die. Outside that spotlight, 656 other present and former prisoners have asked for executive pardons, Curtis among them. Bowman believes the governor could be sympathetic to Curtis's appeal, "given his sensitivity to the idea of the innocent in prison." But with so many of the more controversial death row cases to sift through and the clock ticking--Ryan leaves office January 13--Bowman wonders if the governor will even look at Curtis's case.

Robert Springs was shot in the head at about 10 PM on April 10, 1988, as he sat in his idling, double-parked car outside his mother's home in Austin. When the shots rang out--neighbors reported hearing two or three of them--Robert's car careened down the street, hitting parked cars as it went. It finally passed through the intersection of Adams and Lotus, rear-ended another car, and jolted to a stop.

Several of Robert's family members rushed outside and down the street. They found him slouched over the steering wheel. The windshield had been shattered by a bullet and by the impact of Robert's head hitting it when the car crashed. His family and neighbors pulled him onto the street and flagged down a passing car that took him to nearby Loretto Hospital. His injuries made it impossible for police to talk to him, and he was pronounced dead three days later.

Though police interviewed more than a dozen neighbors, Robert's sister Claudette was the only person who claimed to have seen her brother's killer. She told police that when she heard gunshots she looked out her second-floor bedroom window and saw a black man running south down the gangway of the building across from her residence. She described him as five-foot-eight to six feet, thin of build, and dark skinned, with black curly hair. Claudette told police he was wearing a gray hat, blue jeans, dark slacks, and white gym shoes.

Claudette gave the police more information. A little earlier in the evening someone had called her brother at home. She had answered the phone, and the caller had identified himself as "Joe" and said he wanted to talk to Robert about a car for sale. Claudette passed the phone to her brother, who was in a bedroom with his girlfriend at the time, and overheard him ask Joe what he wanted. "You could come get it now," she heard her brother say.

Robert Springs got dressed, asked Claudette where she'd parked his car, took the keys from her, and left the house. Minutes later he returned, went into the bedroom briefly, and left again. Shortly afterward, Claudette heard the gunshots and ran to the window.

Robert Springs's girlfriend, Wendy Ezell, told police the same story and filled in details. Robert had returned to the bedroom because he'd forgotten the title to the car. Wendy told police that she knew the caller, Joe. He'd been a friend of Robert's, and the two had sold dope together.

The police also knew Joe. "It should be noted that the reporting detectives know JOE to be Morris CARR, IR#603940," says a detectives' report filed eight hours after the shooting.

Yet there's no record that police ever interviewed Carr about Robert Springs's murder. So far as Bowman knows, Carr wasn't included in any of the lineups shown to Claudette Springs, and he was never mentioned as a suspect in any subsequent police reports. Two days after Robert Springs was shot, Joseph Curtis became the prime suspect in his shooting.

Curtis's photo was included in a photo spread of six black men that Claudette Springs examined. Though Claudette hadn't mentioned seeing the face of her brother's assailant--places for descriptions of the eyes and scars and other identifying marks were left blank in the police report--she picked out Joseph Curtis. And though Claudette had originally described the man she saw running away as medium to tall and slender, Joseph Curtis's most defining characteristic is his stature. He's five-foot-four and weighed 135 pounds at the time.

"It's just inconceivable that she could make this identification," says Bowman. "It just boggles the mind that she would make an identification based on such a fleeting opportunity to observe, under circumstances where she's highly agitated, where it's dark outside and she's looking through a window at nighttime--it's just bizarre. And then she gets it wrong--she says that he's a person of average height and slender build--and go look at him. That's not him."

Chance is largely responsible for connecting Locke Bowman and Joseph Curtis. In the summer of 2000, one of Bowman's students received a letter from a prison inmate about to be released. "It was a memorable letter because he wasn't asking for anything for himself. Usually they are," says Bowman, whose office gets dozens of letters from prisoners every month. "He said that he appreciated some work we had done, and he wanted me to know that there were two people he had met in the Illinois prison system he was very confident were innocent--no bullshit."

One was Joseph Curtis.

A short time later Bowman received a letter from Curtis himself. And not long after that he got a letter from Greg Koster, the public defender in the appeals division who'd handled Curtis's direct appeal. Koster asked the MacArthur Justice Center to look into the case.

In an affidavit included in Curtis's clemency appeal, Koster says he believes that Curtis's conviction was "based on the worst eyewitness identification evidence that has ever been affirmed on appeal in Illinois."

Staffed by Bowman, one other attorney, and 16 law school students who get academic credit for helping to prepare cases, the MacArthur Justice Center usually works on litigation that has the potential to create systemic change in the criminal justice system. It tackles issues such as police misconduct, prison conditions, handgun litigation, and media access to prisons. (Bowman represented Reader staff writer Tori Marlan in 2001 in her successful bid to gain access to Cook County Jail.)

"Individual claims of innocence is not something we typically do," says Bowman. But the arrival of the two letters struck him, and he agreed to meet Curtis. "After I met him--it's a very odd thing. It's happened to me a couple of times that you meet someone in prison who you just have a very, very strong instinct is not supposed to be there. Not that he's a wonderful person. But he clearly doesn't belong there for this crime. As a lawyer it's kind of impossible to walk away from something like that, even if it's a difficult legal problem with no easy solution.

"Lots of people tell me that they haven't done things, and I can intuit sometimes from the context and from the train of the conversation--I'm skeptical. In [Curtis's] case, the more I talk to him about it and the more I listen to him talk about it, the more convinced I become that there's been a mistake here.

"He at one point said to me, 'You know, I've done a lot of this time already, and if I have to I'll do the rest of it. But I have to continue to fight to prove that I didn't do it because it shouldn't be this easy to put someone in prison for this long for something they didn't do.'"

Curtis can be very charming, even in prison garb. He has bright eyes and an easy smile. He's exceedingly polite. He speaks very deliberately, with a slightly raspy voice, tilting his head from time to time as he chooses his words. Telling his story, he moves easily between elevated legal and academic language and street slang.

For the most part, Curtis has led a productive life in prison. He went to jail with a ninth-grade education, and he's now nine credits away from a bachelor's degree. (Because he's exhausted the educational opportunities offered at most of the state's prisons, he probably won't be able to complete his degree until he's released.) He earned certification as a law clerk, and he's consistently worked throughout his 14 years behind bars, at times sending money home to his younger sisters.

Curtis says that "being incarcerated, period, can play with your sanity"--never mind being locked up for something you didn't do. He handles it by "keeping all faith in God that the truth is going to come out and staying focused on trying to better myself." That's meant giving up red meat, cursing, and "being around negative people"--no small challenge in prison.

Curtis admits he's lived far from a model life. He was a member of the Four Corner Hustler Vice Lords in Austin, and by age 19 he'd done time for burglary. In 1996, already in prison for the Springs murder, he was sentenced to another four years after being caught with a half gram of heroin that he'd picked up for another prisoner while he was tending the grounds outside the Galesburg Correctional Center.

Bowman concedes that police had reason to suspect Curtis of murdering Robert Springs. Two days earlier, Curtis and Springs had been on the scene when Terry Ware, a mutual acquaintance, got into a shouting match over drug turf on the street near Springs's house. Moments later, Ware was shot to death. The neighborhood in which Ware and Springs were gunned down is considered one of Chicago's busiest and most deadly drug markets. When Springs died, doctors found on his person a clear plastic bag with nine folded paper packets, each containing "a fine white powder, suspect cocaine," according to a police report.

The car that Robert Springs was selling the night he was killed was not his own--the title was in Ware's name. At first, police considered both Springs and Curtis suspects in the Ware killing, and after Springs died they focused on Curtis. Their theory was that after killing Ware, Curtis killed Springs to keep him from talking. It was a theory that let the state introduce Ware's murder into Curtis's trial for killing Springs, and it offered a motive that would make Curtis eligible for the death penalty.

Curtis was in Cook County Jail awaiting trial for Ware's murder when he was charged--seven months after the crime--with killing Springs. "When they first brought this up on me, I'm like, 'It's unbelievable. I just can't believe it.' It's just not registering that I'm supposed to have killed this guy when I don't know nothing about this case. Nothing."

The population of Cook County Jail is in constant flux. Detainees come in and out as they're charged, sentenced, and bailed out or released. Curtis began mentioning the Springs case to people from the neighborhood. "When guys come in, I tell them, 'Man, they're saying that I had killed this guy Springs.' Individuals is like, 'No, man. We know who did that.' 'For real?' 'Everybody know who did that. That was Joe's work.' This is what I'm hearing." (Though his given name is Joseph, Curtis has always gone by nicknames. At home and on the street he was known as "Main," "Li'l Man," and "Jeffrey," which is the name on his prison ID. Curtis says fellow inmates now call him Yusef, his Muslim name.)

But by this time Claudette Springs had been shown another array of photos. Every photo was different from the ones shown to her right after the murder, with the single exception of Joseph Curtis's. For the second time, she picked him as the offender. After Claudette had looked at the photos, police took her to Cook County Jail to view a lineup. Curtis was the only person in the lineup whose photo she'd previously seen. Again, she picked him as the culprit.

By the time Springs's murder case went to trial, Claudette's testimony had changed markedly from the original statements she'd made to police. At trial she not only testified that she'd seen a man running down a gangway across the street but also that she first saw him next to her brother's car with a gun in his hand and eventually saw him get into a car--"maybe a Park Avenue or Ninety Eight because the opera lights were on."

Among the exhibits Bowman included in Curtis's petition for clemency are academic studies showing the fallibility of eyewitness identifications. The articles, which compose about half of the fat binder that is Curtis's clemency appeal, argue that mistaken eyewitness identification is the single greatest cause of wrongful conviction. One article notes that studies of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence have found that mistaken eyewitnesses were responsible for more than half of them. Included with the exhibits were the recommendations of Governor Ryan's own Commission on Capital Punishment for ways to conduct photo spreads and lineups that would reduce the possibility of false identification. "Obviously, in Mr. Curtis's case none of the Commission's proposals--proposals that were designed for the very purpose of preventing miscarriages of justice like this one--was employed," says Bowman's petition.

The jury that convicted Curtis of murdering Robert Springs deliberated for eight days, and the discrepancies in Claudette Springs's story didn't escape them. "We would like the testimony of Claudette Springs," the jury foreman wrote Judge Loretta Hall Morgan during deliberations. "Transcript is not available. Rely upon your collective recollections," she responded. Hours later the foreman wrote another note to the judge: "We appear to have a discrepancy over Claudette Springs's testimony. One of the problems is the eyewitness' account of the defendant's description. Will we ever be able to get this transcript or will we be limited to our handwritten notes?" The judge replied, "No transcript is available. Rely upon your individual notes and collective recollections."

Twice during deliberations the foreman wrote to advise the judge that the jury was deadlocked, and both times she told the jurors to continue deliberating until they reached a verdict. "If we feel he is guilty but don't think there is enough evidence to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt, should we vote guilty?" the jurors asked the judge at one point. "Read the instructions," the judge replied.

In June 1991, six months after details of the case had been used to convict him of killing Springs, a separate jury found Curtis not guilty in the murder of Terry Ware.

Before appealing for clemency, Bowman says his staff tried to make progress by investigating Springs's murder. "We were looking for someone to come forward," he says. He wrote to Morris Carr, now in a federal prison in New Jersey on unrelated weapons charges. Carr denied knowing Curtis or Springs and suggested Bowman send him a photo of each individual to "refresh my memory."

Claudette Springs has refused to talk to the MacArthur Justice Center staff and didn't return calls for this story. "It's a pretty tall order to ask someone to admit that, either on purpose or negligently, she made a mistake," says Bowman. "Human nature being what it is, people are loath to confess error."

Edna Springs, Robert's mother, is convinced Joseph Curtis killed her son. Asked about Curtis's plea for clemency, her voice becomes emotional, angry. "He killed my son, and I know that for a fact. He killed another boy the night before." Springs says it's too much to believe that Curtis, charged with two murders two days apart, didn't commit either one. "He was found not guilty of the Terry Ware murder because my son was dead" and couldn't testify, she says. "I hope he rots in hell." She adds, her voice shaking, "And I'm a God-fearing woman."

(Wendy Ezell, Robert Springs's girlfriend at the time of his murder, refused to talk to the Reader about the case.)

Bowman is realistic about Curtis's chances. "It's very clear to anyone who reads the record that the evidence is appallingly scant," says Bowman. "It's really very troubling. But the reality is that the courts for better or worse have affirmed this conviction. That poses a problem as to whether the clemency power should be used in a context where there is no new evidence.

"I think that it would require an exceptional resolve on the part of the governor to pardon a person in this situation. I think that what is frankly a more realistic hope is that in light of all of the circumstances--including the environment in which we live in Illinois in terms of seeing repeated miscarriages of justice, including the exceptional weakness of the evidence in this particular case, and the seriousness of the claim of innocence if you look at this carefully, and in light of the fact that the man has served 14 years already--in light of all of that, a commutation to time served would seem very sensible."

If the governor decides either to pardon Curtis or commute his sentence, he won't walk out of prison; he'll just begin serving the four-year sentence for drug possesion he caught in Galesburg.

Bowman doesn't believe that convincing Governor Ryan is his biggest hurdle. It's attracting Ryan's attention to begin with. "This hasn't been in the public eye at all," he says. "I'm concerned there may not be the time or the ability to focus on this particular case." The vast majority of appeals for executive clemency are neither granted nor denied. Of 362 petitions for clemency filed last year, 297 were still pending at the end of that year. While there's no official count, Bowman thinks Curtis is one of only a handful of petitioners making a claim of actual innocence.

"It's hard to get very excited," says Curtis. "You expect the worst but you still hope for the best. The system hasn't done right by me so far, so sometimes I wonder what makes me think it will now. Still, I want to be free. I'm innocent, and I need to be free."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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