Judge, citing possible innocence, orders release of Hickory Hills woman in shaken baby case
BY Steve Metsch and KIM JANSSEN Sun-Times Media April 23, 2014 1:24PM
Jennifer Del Prete mugshot
Updated: May 25, 2014 3:38PM
Jennifer Del Prete’s mother never lost faith in her daughter’s innocence, despite her 2005 conviction for the murder of 14-month-old Isabella Zielinski in a “shaken baby” case.
Now, nearly a decade later, Maria Del Prete’s belief in her daughter is being reaffirmed. A federal judge has ruled that Jennifer Del Prete, a day care worker from Hickory Hills, must be released from prison while her claims of innocence are considered.
“It’s a fabulous day for us,” Maria Del Prete said Wednesday in a phone interview from her Willow Springs home. “It’s been a long, hard road. Of course, hardest for her. It’s been very, very difficult. But we’re thrilled that the tenacity and the dedication of my family prevailed. And the good sense of a federal judge.”
The ruling does not set aside her conviction.
Nevertheless, Jennifer Del Prete’s conviction in state court for the murder of the toddler was based on unreliable scientific evidence, and it is “more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found her guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt,” U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly wrote.
Though it is highly unusual for a federal judge to order a prisoner’s release in such a case, Kennelly said Del Prete’s case was “exceptional and deserving of special treatment” because she has “substantial” evidence of her innocence.
Del Prete, a 43-year-old mother of two, was sentenced to 20 years for the murder after prosecutors alleged she violently shook little Isabella while working at a Romeoville day care facility.
But following an eight-day hearing last year, Kennelly ruled in January that even the testimony of the state’s own experts suggests it was probable that the child’s fatal injury was not caused by Del Prete. He criticized the testimony of a doctor who he said did not properly consider evidence of an earlier head injury.
Students at Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project uncovered a letter written by a police detective about a decade ago that pointed to Del Prete’s innocence. The letter, which the judge referenced in his January ruling, played a role in Del Prete’s release.
A date for Del Prete’s release from Logan Correctional Center in downstate Lincoln has yet to be set. On Monday, Kennelly wrote that Del Prete “should not have to wait in custody” for years while her appeal moves through the state courts, ordering the Illinois attorney general to arrange a set of bond conditions under which Del Prete can be released.
Charles Pelkie, spokesman for Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow, said the attorney general was arguing against releasing Del Prete on bond, and the county state’s attorney agreed with that position. But “we remain confident they will be able to work out sufficient conditions” of bond, Pelkie said.
“We remain confident in the original prosecution of the case,” Pelkie said, noting the two prosecutors who tried the case, Sarah Jones and Brian Barrett, are now Will County judges.
Jennifer Del Prete alleges she was poorly represented by her attorney at her trial, and that evidence that a coroner had significant doubts that Isabella suffered a head trauma shortly before her collapse was hidden from Del Prete’s lawyers by Romeoville Police.
“I attended — as did my whole family — every day of the trial. Any average, intelligent person would have seen and understood that there was reasonable doubt. There was no concrete evidence of any wrongdoing,” Maria Del Prete said.
Maria’s belief that her daughter was wrongly convicted never wavered, she said. The ruling against her daughter “has made me have doubts in our legal system, and there needs to be another way of offering relief to people rather than the situation that exists now — which is prolonged.”
Lincoln is near Springfield, and it was difficult for Maria to get there very often to visit her daughter.
“I’m retired and on a limited budget, but I wrote her two or three times a week. She liked that. And I’d send her funny things, important things, we’d cut out articles for her. My role was to keep her with hope and always remember that the glass is half-full,” Maria said.
Jennifer’s two children, Tia, 24, and Draven, 17, “are very happy,” Maria said.
“The family is still a little bit in shock,” she said. “It’s almost 10 years that she’s been in jail. Ten years.”
Prison was “very difficult” for Jennifer — her nose was broken twice, the mother said.
When Jennifer is released and does come home, she can expect a party. There will be hugs, laughter, tears and plenty to eat.
“We’re going to be cooking up a lot of her favorites, a lot of Mexican food, tacos, the things she grew up with,” Maria said.