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Chicago man who was wrongfully convicted based on testimony from blind witness freed after 12 years in prison

Sarah Dewberry, CNN

(CNN) — A 30-year-old Chicago man who was wrongfully convicted of murder on the testimony of a blind witness walked out of the Cook County Jail this week as a free man.

Darien Harris had served 12-and-a-half years of his 76-year sentence before prosecutors decided not to move forward with their case and dropped the charges against him on Tuesday, his attorney, Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, said at a news conference.

In April 2014, Harris was convicted of murder in the June 2011 fatal shooting of Rondell Moore and the attempted murder of mechanic Quincy Woulard at a Chicago gas station, according to his attorney and a court document. He was 18 and a week away from graduating high school at the time of his arrest, his attorney said.

Myerscough-Mueller, who is with the Exoneration Project and joined the team representing Harris in June 2020, said Harris’ previous attorney shared new information with the county’s Conviction Integrity Unit in July 2018 – including the critical revelation that the prosecution’s star witness in the case was legally blind.

That witness had pointed out Harris from a lineup a few days after the shooting.

The Conviction Integrity Unit responded to the information the following October, saying after a thorough review of the materials provided by Harris’ attorneys, they had not found clear and convincing evidence that Harris was probably innocent, Myerscough-Mueller said.

She added the CIU provided “no real explanation of what their investigation entailed, what their reasoning was or anything like that. They just said they investigated it, that their review was closed, basically it didn’t warrant action.”

In February 2022, Harris’ attorneys filed a post-conviction petition, laying out the evidence and the constitutional violations before a judge, Myerscough-Mueller told CNN. She did not detail what those violations were.

The petition moved through the justice system until December 5, when a judge vacated Harris’ conviction and ordered a new trial.

But on Tuesday, the Cook County State’s Attorney Office told CNN “upon further review of the totality of the evidence,” they had decided not to retry Harris, who had been transferred to the Cook County Jail pending trial.

“We remain committed to the work of justice in the pursuit of safe and healthy communities,” the office said.

Harris’ mother, Nakesha Harris, expressed joy that her son was finally coming home during Tuesday’s news conference.

“I feel like I’m dreaming; it doesn’t feel real,” she said. “This is the best Christmas gift ever.”

Harris is the fourth man to be exonerated in Cook County this month.

Cousins James Soto and David Ayala, who were wrongfully convicted in the 1981 murder of two Chicago teenagers, were freed on December 14 after spending 42 years behind bars. Brian Beals walked out of prison on December 12 after being wrongfully convicted for a 6-year-old boy’s murder in 1988.

Following criticism over the time it was taking to investigate wrongful convictions, Cook County’s Conviction Integrity Unit was renamed the Conviction Review Unit this month, the Chicago Crusader reported.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the rebranding “represents a shift in our approach toward rectifying the wrongs of the past, ensuring fairness in our justice system, and incorporating community voices in our decisions.”

Another recent exoneration case involves an Oklahoma man who spent 48 years in prison over a wrongful murder conviction, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Glynn Simmons is the longest-serving inmate in the nation to be exonerated, the registry said.

As of December 13, 19 individuals who spent at least 25 years in prison prior to exoneration were released this year, according to the registry.

Speaking to reporters outside the jail Tuesday evening, Harris said: “I finally made it. Twelve and a half years, I made it.”

“I missed some of my best years,” he added. “But man, I’m finna live some good years now.”

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