Blagojevich pardons 4 wrongly convicted

By Ryan Keith
The Associated Press
Published January 6, 2005, 4:24 PM CST

SPRINGFIELD -- Four men who spent years in prison for horrible crimes committed by other people were granted pardons Thursday
by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a move the former inmates say will help them rebuild their lives.

The men already had been freed by the courts. The governor's pardon officially removes the convictions from their records and qualifies them for restitution through the Illinois Court of Claims, Blagojevich spokeswoman Cheryle Jackson said.

Michael Evans and Paul Terry served 27 years after being convicted of raping and murdering 9-year-old Lisa Cabassa as she was walking to her Chicago home. No physical evidence linked Evans or Terry, who were both 17 at the time, to the crime.

They were released in 2003 after testing showed semen found on the victim did not come from either man.

Attorney Karen Daniel of the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, which represented the two, said the center knows of no other inmates nationwide who have served longer prison sentences and been exonerated by DNA evidence.

"They're thrilled beyond measure,'' Daniel said. "You really can't overestimate how meaningful this is to them. This is the first time there's been an official statement that they're innocent.''Blagojevich also pardoned Dana Holland, who was convicted of rape and attempted murder in Chicago. Holland served 10 years before being released in 2003 after DNA testing excluded him as the attacker.

Daniel, who also represented Holland, said the three have struggled to get their lives back since their release but the pardon should help ease the transition.

DNA testing also cleared Lafonso Rollins, who spent 111/2 years in prison for the attempted rape of a 78-year-old woman in Chicago. Rollins, who was 17 at the time of his conviction, was freed last year.

Rollins said it has been tough since he was released in July because his family has largely passed away and he can't get a job because of his prison time. But the pardon and possible restitution from the state of about $145,000 will give him a better chance to consider going to design school or other opportunities, he said.

"It's going to help me pursue my dream,'' Rollins said.

His attorney, Robert Fioretti, said the pardon means the world to a man trying to rebuild his life.

"This is New Year's for him, Christmas and his birthday all wrapped into one,'' Fioretti said.

"These stories are tragic. Serving time in prison -- years in some cases -- for a crime you didn't commit is one of the worst things that could happen to someone,'' Blagojevich said in a statement. "A pardon will help each of them rebuild their lives, and that's why I granted them.''

Illinois' criminal justice system has been haunted by errors and wrongful convictions. The problems were so widespread that Gov. George Ryan, before leaving office early in 2003, commuted the sentences of everyone on the state's death row rather than risk executing innocent people. 

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