Drops of blood found at the murder scene didn't match the suspect or victim in the beating death of a respected 71-year-old Waukegan appliance store owner, but the jury was told that didn't clear the alleged killer, James Edwards.
A prosecutor explained the presence of an unidentified person's blood in Fred Reckling's store and car by arguing at the 1996 trial that store employees often cut themselves doing their jobs.
Faced with a written confession signed by Edwards, jurors deliberated briefly before finding him guilty of bashing Reckling over the head with a blunt object and sentencing him to life in prison.
But new DNA tests on the blood show it came from a man Edwards' defense lawyer says could be the real killer: a former Evanston resident arrested on armed robbery charges on the North Shore within weeks of Reckling's murder, court records show.
While Edwards is a repeat felon convicted of two other killings, the blood evidence raises new questions about Lake County justice and suggests another man may have escaped prosecution for murder.
His case becomes the fourth in which the Lake County state's attorney's office pushed a prosecution in spite of blood or semen evidence that appeared to point to someone other than the defendant. Not only did prosecutors discount the forensic evidence at trial, they fought post-trial efforts to have the DNA tested.
Edwards, who has served 15 years at the Menard Correctional Center, said recently in his first interview from prison that Lake County prosecutors relied too heavily on a confession he claims was coerced during 26 hours of questioning. Edwards hopes the blood evidence will clear him, and his lawyer plans to use it as he seeks to have the murder conviction thrown out.
DNA "is what solved this case," Edwards said. "If this DNA did not come out … in spite of my innocence, I'd be stuck."
As long as prosecutors favor confessions over forensic evidence, experts say, innocent people will face prison while the guilty go free.
"They haven't learned their lesson, despite numerous questionable confessions," said Steven Drizin, director of Northwestern University law school's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "There's a long pattern of this."
In a glaring example in Lake County, Jerry Hobbs spent five years in jail awaiting trial on charges he killed his 8-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend, a crime to which he had confessed. Prosecutors insisted that finding an unidentified man's semen in Laura Hobbs' body didn't clear her father, but they dropped the charges after the DNA was matched to a former Zion man convicted of a 2010 rape and charged with a 2009 murder. Hobbs was freed last year.
Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller, who made the rare move of personally helping prosecute Edwards, did not respond to requests for comment. Prosecutors, who pushed unsuccessfully to have Edwards sentenced to death, have said in court that they are reinvestigating the case.
The name of the man linked by DNA to the crime scene is being kept secret by a judge's order, but court filings provide enough information that the Tribune determined his identity, which is not being used because he has not been charged. He could not be reached for comment.
Weeks after Reckling was found bludgeoned to death and robbed of $1,800 at his store on Dec. 9, 1994, the man, then 25, was arrested in connection with armed robberies in Wilmette and Evanston, according to police and court records. He was sentenced to 30 years, according to court filings.
The man was paroled in July 2009, and his sentence for armed robbery and unlawful restraint ended in March, said Sharyn Elman, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Edwards, meanwhile, busies himself with books in his cell at the maximum-security prison in Chester, Ill. Speaking from behind glass, Edwards, a graying, erudite 62-year-old who uses terms like "autodidact" and "corpus delicti," voiced confidence that the DNA will clear him. He also acknowledged a criminal past reaching back to his teen years in New York City.
"I never claimed that I was some kind of upstanding citizen," he said.
Indeed, by the time he was charged with Reckling's murder, Edwards had spent 17 years locked up for beating an 83-year-old woman to death on Chicago's South Side in 1974. He denies he killed Cora Lee Young, though he acknowledges he can't prove his innocence through physical evidence. Prosecutors said they found her blood on his clothes; Edwards insisted police planted that evidence.
And his conviction in the Reckling murder is not the sole obstacle to his freedom. Edwards also has been sentenced to life in another killing, the 1974 shooting of a 60-year-old woman near Cleveland.
Edwards also was committed to a mental hospital after the Young killing, but a judge allowed him to stand trial. Edwards said he was wrongly diagnosed schizophrenic while jailed during his youth in New York.
Although a psychological profile compiled before the Young trial noted he heard voices and suffered hallucinations, Edwards said judges have repeatedly found him capable of standing trial. His lawyer, Paul DeLuca, said he believes his client is mentally fit.
It was his criminal history, Edwards said, that led detectives to question him about the killing of Reckling, owner of Grand Appliance and TV and a widower with a charitable streak and a love for 16-inch softball.
After Edwards was arrested Jan. 4, 1996, on charges he robbed someone at a Waukegan motel — which he admits he did — detectives turned their questions to the Reckling case, he said.
Two detectives belittled and intimidated Edwards until — believing he would never be allowed to leave the room without implicating himself — he chose to confess, he said. Edwards said he confessed because he thought there was no way he would be charged and convicted if there was no evidence of his guilt.
"I had convinced myself that because I didn't do it, they couldn't prove that I did," he said.
Edwards said the detectives fed him information on Reckling's killing and led him through a series of statements, which they typed and he signed.
Among the 250 suspects exonerated by DNA between 1989 and 2010, 40 had given false confessions, according to a study by University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett. All but two of the 40 contained details that, supposedly, only the killer could have known, Garrett said.
"The problem is all the cues to credibility that we look for in true confessions, you also find them in false confessions," said Saul Kassin, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
In his confession, Edwards said he was carrying a walking stick when he saw Reckling closing up shop. He said he grabbed at Reckling's bag of cash. When the older man resisted, he clubbed him over the head, wrestled with him and left him lying wounded in the store, according to his statement.
He also admitted to stealing Reckling's 1993 Lincoln Continental Town Car and then ditching it in Chicago's North Center neighborhood, where police found it.
He told police he took a cab 17 miles to a bar on the South Side, though city records showed the bar had closed years before Reckling's murder. After buying drugs on the South Side, according to his confession, he took a cab downtown and hopped a train to Waukegan.
"It was just the most ludicrous thing I'd ever heard," said Julie Koerner, who represented Edwards at trial. "But jurors love confessions."
The detectives who took the confession did not respond to requests for comment. One of the officers remains with the Waukegan force, while the other has left, department personnel said.
Prosecutors argued the blood evidence, which they described as "drops" found in the store and car, wasn't related to the crime. Although defense lawyers said they received the evidence too late to have it DNA tested before trial, they argued that the blood — which was different from Edwards' and Reckling's type — raised doubts of his guilt.
The confession outweighed the other evidence, two jurors told the Tribune.
Known for filing detailed court motions on his own behalf, Edwards worked independently and with lawyers to try to force testing on the blood evidence. Prosecutors fought the tests, arguing that the jury knew the blood didn't come from Edwards and found him guilty anyway.
After years of legal volleying, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered DNA testing in May 2010. The results were fed into the FBI's national DNA databank, which contains samples from a vast group of convicted felons, and the blood was matched to the other man.
Reckling's five children agreed not to take a public stance on the legal controversy surrounding his killing, said daughter Aleta Chossek, of Milwaukee.
Chossek said she and her siblings have kept the lessons of his life alive by teaching them to their children and grandchildren.
"It's important to be true to your values, and to contribute to your community, and to be honest and fair," she said. "Those were all things my father lived out."
While Edwards hopes to be cleared of the Reckling killing, that was not the only murder to which he confessed during his interrogation in Waukegan. He also implicated himself in the 1974 shooting death of Sylvia Greenbaum outside Cleveland. That case came up during the interrogation, he said, because one of the detectives sat near him and phoned police departments in cities Edwards previously called home.
After the detective was told of the Greenbaum killing, Edwards admitted to the murder, he said.
After the Reckling trial, he was convicted in the Ohio crime and handed another life sentence he has not yet served. While he denies committing the Ohio killing, he acknowledges he lacks physical evidence to exonerate himself. He hopes the DNA revelations in the Reckling case fuel doubts about his confession to the Ohio murder.
In Lake County, it's time for authorities to pursue the man whose DNA matched the blood evidence, Edwards said from the confines of the prison's cinder-block interview room.
"He realizes he's (caught)," Edwards said, just a moment before a prison guard opened the door and ushered him back to his cell, a room like the others in which he has spent half of his life.
"The jig is up."