Updated: November 20, 2013 6:05AM
On Friday, Gov. Pat Quinn granted 65 clemency requests. While we applaud the governor’s efforts to deal with the backlog of petitions, one pending petition — filed in February 2012 — deserves the governor’s immediate attention. That is the petition of Robert Taylor, one of the so-called Dixmoor Five, the five teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder and then exonerated after spending nearly two decades in prison. Despite his exoneration, Robert still has a related felony conviction on his record.
Robert’s unimaginable ordeal began when he was a 15-year-old kid. That’s when he was first wrongfully accused of the 1991 rape and murder of 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews. He then spent almost four years in jail waiting for trial. While his friends were learning to drive and getting an education, Robert was locked up. Six months before his trial, his family was able to post bond. Robert dutifully attended all his court dates, including the first five days of his trial.
But after that fifth day, Robert couldn’t take it anymore. He had already lost his teenage years, and could tell he was going back to jail. He could see the disdainful look in the jurors’ eyes as they listened to police officers’ false testimony that he voluntarily confessed to the crime.
At that point, Robert, still just 19 years old, was terrified and didn’t show up for the rest of the trial. As it turns out, Robert was right to be scared. He was convicted in his absence and sentenced to die in prison. When Robert was found hiding at a friend’s house two months later, he was also convicted of violating his bail bond — a felony. Of course, he would never have been in a position to violate his bond if he hadn’t been facing wrongful prosecution.
After spending almost 20 years in prison, Robert and the other five boys were proven innocent when DNA taken from the victim’s body was matched to a known sex offender. At age 34, Robert was released from prison and awarded a certificate of innocence. Robert’s record is now clear of the rape and murder convictions. But the jumping bail conviction remains. In July 2012, we represented Robert at a clemency hearing before the Prisoner Review Board, which makes a recommendation to the governor. We asked for a full pardon for Robert for the bail bond conviction.
Unique and extraordinary circumstances such as Robert’s are exactly why the governor has the power to pardon. Clemency is about mercy when the criminal justice system is too harsh. It provides flexibility for situations like Robert’s where technically, yes, he broke the law, but extraordinary circumstances greatly diminish his moral culpability.
This remaining conviction hinders Robert’s ability to move on with his life. Many jobs are not an option for Robert. In fact, Robert lost his first job after his release because he failed a background check. Each time he fills out a job application, he suffers the embarrassment of disclosing this conviction. It is a painful reminder of his two decades of incarceration and injustice and limits his ability to provide for his one-year-old son.
A pardon by Gov. Quinn can change all this. It has been over a year since the clemency hearing.
Gov. Quinn: Pardon Robert Taylor for running away when he was about to be wrongfully convicted, and give him a chance to move forward with his life.
Katie Shephard is a third-year law student working with attorney Joshua Tepfer at Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth.