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Conviction in 20-year-old murder wiped from books

Brian Slodysko, Chicago Tribune

A man who served 10 years in prison after confessing to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Dixmoor girl, a crime in which four other teens also were implicated despite contrary DNA evidence, was exonerated Monday.

Robert Veal’s murder conviction was vacated by Cook County Circuit Judge Michele Simmons, said Veal’s attorney, Stuart Chanen. Prosecutors say they will not seek a retrial.

“He’s very happy to be exonerated, and he’s glad to have the murder conviction off his record,” Chanen said. “It enables him to do things that he couldn’t do before. He’s going to start looking for a job.”

Veal and four others who were teens at the time were convicted of the rape and murder of Cateresa Matthews, who disappeared after leaving her grandmother’s home in Dixmoor in November 1991. Roughly three weeks later, she was found dead from a gunshot wound in a field near Interstate Highway 57.

Veal and Shainne Sharp confessed to the murder during police questioning and agreed to take the stand against Robert Taylor, James Harden and Jonathan Barr. Lawyers sought to overturn the convictions after DNA testing tied a convicted rapist who lived by Matthews to the murder. The convicted rapist has not been charged with Matthews’ murder or rape.

In November, Taylor, Harden and Barr, who were all serving longer sentences than Veal, were exonerated and released from prison. Despite having already served his time, Veal, too, sought exoneration, but a decision was delayed in part because Veal had pleaded guilty to the crimes. An attorney for Sharp, who is in an Indiana prison on drug charges, could not be reached for comment.

“I still feel like I always felt — (police) didn’t want to hear what we were saying,” said Taylor, who, along with Barr and Harden, always maintained his innocence.

Taylor said he doesn’t harbor a grudge against Veal, who was also not available for comment.

“He got railroaded. He was doing the best thing he could,” Taylor said.

Attorneys working on behalf of the so-called Dixmoor Five note similarities between the case and the separate convictions of four teenagers now serving sentences of at least 30 years for a 1994 sexual assault and murder in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Like the Dixmoor case, DNA testing linked the Englewood killing to someone else — in this instance, a deceased man who was a suspect in two other murders, said Josh Tepfer of the Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth, who represented Taylor. A judge vacated those convictions as well, though prosecutors have not said yet if they will seek a retrial.
“These (convictions) tell us a story of policemen … who are using the process of purported confessions as a way to close cases. It’s scary and horrific,” Chanen said.

After being behind bars since he was a teen, Taylor, who was freed last month, said finding a job has been “rough.”

“Humbling yourself in a job setting … you got to dress the part. It takes some getting used to,” Taylor said. “Just take it one day at a time and deal with that. You go day by day by day.”

©2011 the Chicago Tribune

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