An Illinois man who spent nearly 30 years in prison for the murder of a 15-year-old girl was freed Wednesday after DNA evidence exonerated him, prosecutors said.
Christopher Abernathy, 48, left Statesville Correctional Center near Joliet a free man after a judge vacated his conviction and life sentence.
He walked out of the prison and straight into his mother’s arms, said Lauren Kaeseberg, his attorney.
Prosecutors said extensive DNA testing ordered last year had excluded Abernathy from every piece of evidence in which DNA was obtained.
"This day is more than 10,000 days overdue," Ann Kolus, Abernathy’s mother, said in a statement released by Sergio Serritella, a private investigator who worked with the family. “I always knew in my heart that Chris was innocent, and I’m so thankful that my prayers have been answered and he is finally coming home.”
Her son was 18 when he was arrested in the stabbing death of Kristina Hickey, who disappeared Oct. 3, 1984, as she walked home from her high school choir concert in Park Forest. Kristina’s body was found two days later, hidden behind some bushes. She had been stabbed multiple times and appeared to have been sexually assaulted, prosecutors said.
Abernathy knew the girl and was questioned by police early on, but he was released without charges. A year later he was arrested and charged with murder.
Kaeseberg, an attorney with the Illinois Innocence Project who has worked on Abernathy's case for more than a year, said he was interrogated by police for two days and told that signing a confession was “the only way he’d be able to see his mother again.” Abernathy later recanted, and he has since maintained that he is innocent, Kaeseberg said.
The confession, which prosecutors say was devoid of any significant details of the crime, later became a key piece of evidence in his trial.
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in February 1987.
Last year, the Illinois Innocence Project took on the case and asked the state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit to conduct DNA testing on evidence collected in the murder case.
Prosecutors said they re-interviewed dozens of witnesses and sifted through old police reports and court transcripts. Their investigation found that Abernathy “may have suffered from a diminished mental capacity” at the time of his confession.
“It is my hope that some measure of justice is being served today, but there are no doubt many extremely sad and difficult aspects to this case,” said Cook County State’s Atty. Anita Alvarez. “This is difficult for all parties involved including the victim’s family, but I cannot and will not let a wrongful conviction stand.”
Abernathy was incarcerated for 29 years.
Kaeseberg said Abernathy is looking forward to spending time with his family and enjoying some quiet, open space. Damon Cheronis, another attorney for Abernathy, said his client has said he wants to eat a "real" cheeseburger.
“He’s looking forward to just living a normal life, be able to make phone calls when he wants to, wake up when he wants to,” Kaeseberg said.
Kaeseberg said she didn’t find out about the prosecutors’ decision until Tuesday afternoon and couldn’t tell her client until Wednesday morning, shortly before the judge’s order.
Abernathy's reaction: “It was a shock, and a very pleasant shock,” Kaeseberg said.
The state’s attorney’s office said it would open a cold-case investigation into Kristina Hickey’s death.
Thirteen people have had their convictions vacated as a result of conviction integrity investigations since Cook County opened its unit in 2012, Alvarez said.
Last year saw a record high number of exonerations, with 125 convictions overturned nationwide, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. A small number of those — about 17% — were due to DNA testing. According to the registry, more than 1,500 wrongful convictions have been overturned since 1989.
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