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After spending more than eight years in prison, Kerry Masterson, a joint client of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and Neal Gerber Eisenberg, is free following a jury’s not-guilty verdict in the Circuit Court of Cook County on November 2.
In 2011, Masterson was convicted of the 2009 murder of Michael Norton, the owner of a convenience store located at the corner of North and Cicero Avenues in Chicago. Witnesses reported seeing a skinny Hispanic male fleeing the crime scene. Police investigation led to the arrest of a man and woman who had lived in an apartment above Norton’s store, until Norton evicted them based on drug and gang activity in the apartment. Police initially believed the fleeing suspect was a male perpetrator who had committed the crime with the arrested couple. Indeed, one eyewitness identified a male Hispanic suspect as this perpetrator from a photo array, but police determined later that the suspect was out of state at the time of the crime, so the identification was clearly mistaken.
After the arrested couple claimed that Masterson also was involved in the crime, the police ended their search for a male Hispanic suspect, and eyewitnesses viewed female-only lineups from that point forward. At her 2011 trial, Masterson’s request to call an eyewitness identification expert was rejected by the judge. Despite the fact that Masterson was neither a man nor “skinny,” a jury found her guilty of first-degree murder and the judge sentenced her to 58 years in prison.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions began representing Masterson in 2014; her case was one of the first accepted by the Center’s Women’s Project, which launched in November 2012. Center on Wrongful Convictions attorneys Karen Daniel and Andrea Lewis began investigating her case and took over the appeal of her conviction.
The Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, granted Masterson a new trial on May 13, 2016, based on the erroneous exclusion from her trial of expert testimony on eyewitness identifications. This result was based on the 2016 Illinois Supreme Court decision in People v. Lerma, which noted, “we not only have seen that eyewitness identifications are not always as reliable as they appear, but we also have learned, from a scientific standpoint, why this is often the case.”
The Lerma decision, overturning 25 years of contrary case law, found that eyewitness identification research “is well settled, well supported, and in appropriate cases a perfectly proper subject for expert testimony.”
Jonathan Quinn, a partner at Neal Gerber Eisenberg and a former prosecutor, agreed in 2016 to lead Masterson’s retrial team on a pro bono basis. The retrial team also included Andrea Lewis of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and Collette Brown and Eric Choi of Neal Gerber Eisenberg.
At the second jury trial, which began on October 27, 2017, the defense called expert witness Dr. Brian Cutler, a psychology researcher from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Cutler explained how the conditions under which the eyewitnesses saw the perpetrator and the manner in which the lineups were conducted increased the risk of mistaken identification. Masterson, now 31 years old, testified that she was not involved in the crime in any way and, instead, during the commission of the murder, she was trying to fix her truck, which was parked nearby. The couple arrested for the murder, who pleaded guilty years ago, testified at the second trial as well.
The couple, who admitted they were affiliated with a Chicago street gang, testified that they had lied to the police in implicating Masterson to mitigate their own punishment, and implied that they would have faced violent gang retaliation had they revealed to the police that the third perpetrator was actually a male gang member. The second jury found Masterson not guilty on November 2, 2017, after less than three hours of deliberation.
“We are elated that, after careful consideration of all the evidence presented in the case, including the scientific findings in the area of eyewitness identifications and the heartfelt testimony of Ms. Masterson, the jury found she was not guilty. We hope, as administrative procedures and the law change surrounding eyewitness identifications, that the risk of further mistaken identifications decreases dramatically,” said Lewis.
“It is enormously gratifying, both professionally and personally, to have been a part of such a talented and dedicated team of lawyers. We are thrilled to have been able to allow Kerry Masterson to return to her friends, her family — her life. When the jury announced its verdict, I was and still am reminded of the Talmudic teaching, ‘He who saves a single life saves the entire world,’” said Quinn.
Mistaken eyewitness identifications are a leading cause of wrongful convictions. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, mistaken identifications have contributed to nearly 30 percent of known exonerations since 1989.
Women make up only 9 percent of the exonerations listed on National Registry of Exonerations.
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