Daniel Taylor was 17‐years‐old when he was arrested on December 3, 1992, and charged with the shooting deaths of Sharon Haugabook and Jeffrey Lassiter in the couple’s north side Chicago apartment. He had been implicated in the crime by two drug dealers picked up by police on unrelated charges. The only problem is that Taylor was in police custody for disorderly conduct at the time the murders were committed. Open and shut case, right? Taylor goes free and the justice system continues to look for the real culprits.
Unfortunately for Daniel Taylor, that’s not how the story went.
As Taylor describes it, after a few hours of police beatings, he was ready to confess to anything, and he did, taking responsibility for killing Haugabook and Lassiter. Little did he know that the signed confession would send him off to 20 years of prison time, despite jail records that prove he physically could not have committed the crimes.
Taylor told ABC News in 2014, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken the beatings rather than go through what I went through.”
What he went through was two decades of a hellish prison existence that had him contemplating suicide several times and even trying it once. Luckily, an investigative story published by the Chicago Tribune in 2001 caught the eye of Karen Daniel, an attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions. She took new evidence unearthed by the newspaper and ran with it.
Though another decade would pass before Daniel could gather enough exculpatory information to get Taylor’s case back in front of a judge, on June 28, 2013, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office officially dropped all charges. Daniel Taylor walked out of prison later that day a free man.
How does such a travesty of justice occur and why does it take so long to set things right? Here are the particulars. The murders occurred at 8:43 pm. According to police records, Taylor was arrested for disorderly conduct at 6:45 pm. He was booked into the 23rd police district lockup and released at 10 pm. According to Taylor’s recollection, he endured several hours of beatings by police before eventually signing a confession (after being promised a release) that he committed the murders.
Though it might be easy to jump on the high horse and castigate Taylor for ever signing that damnable paper that sent him to prison, keep two things in mind. One, he was a 17‐year‐old boy and, two, he was being beaten. Unless you’ve walked a mile in those shoes, consider holding your tongue for a while.
At trial, the prosecution presented the only evidence they needed ‐ the confession ‐ to convince the jury that Taylor was guilty. Taylor’s defense team countered with what seemed to be an obvious alibi ‐ he was in police custody at the time of the murder. Both the police officer in charge of Taylor’s disorderly conduct detention and the arresting officer testified that the defendant, indeed, was in jail undergoing questioning when the murders were committed.
Prosecutors countered with a contention that the police records were erroneous. They also presented testimony of a drug dealer and another police officer that placed Taylor at the crime scene within the time frame needed to have killed Haugabook and Lassiter. On that basis, the jury deemed Daniel Taylor guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Enter onto the scene, in 2001, a team of investigative reporters from the Chicago Tribune. Taylor had already been in prison most of a decade, but something didn’t smell right about the whole thing to the journalists. After some digging, they located a man who had been in lockup with Taylor. He corroborated that the police records were accurate. Additionally, the Tribune team located a previously unknown witness who saw the other culprits leaving the murder scene and vouched that Taylor was not among them. It wasn’t long before the drug dealer who testified to have seen Taylor at the apartment complex went into full backpedal mode and recanted his testimony.
On the strength of this new evidence provided by the Tribune, Taylor filed a petition for post‐conviction relief, but it was denied without a hearing. It was at this point Ms. Daniel lent her formidable legal talents to Taylor’s cause. She eventually unearthed a bombshell. The State’s Attorney’s Office had withheld evidence from trial that would have bolstered the defense and possibly kept an innocent man from losing two decades of his life to a prison stint.
The new evidence included handwritten notes from Dave Styer, a member of the prosecution team. In the weeks before Taylor’s indictment, Styer had interviewed several police officers from the 23rd District. Daniel also unearthed custody records from the lockup unit that should have been given to Taylor’s attorney before the trial, but weren’t.
The crown jewel of Daniel’s work was a sworn statement from the lockup keeper on duty the night of the murders. In part, the statement said it was “not possible” that Taylor could have been released earlier than 10 pm. “For this to have happened,” according to the statement, “numerous personnel from two separate watches would have had to conspire and work together to cover it up, and the conspiracy would have included desk personnel, lockup keepers, and watch commanders from two different shifts.”
In an unsurprising twist, Daniel Taylor has filed a federal lawsuit for wrongful conviction. While no one familiar with the case expects the responsible officers to end up on the other side of bars, Taylor hopes to hold them and the city of Chicago financially responsible for his ordeal.
Stay tuned for more information on the eventual outcome of Taylor’s lawsuit.