Chicago man exonerated in 2011 murder case where legally blind eyewitness gave testimony


Darien Harris spent more than 12 years in an Illinois prison, convicted of murder in part on the testimony of an eyewitness who was legally blind.

Harris, who was released from prison on Tuesday, was convicted in 2014 for the 2011 fatal shooting of a man at a gas station on Chicago’s South Side.

His case is the latest in a dozen exonerations this year in Chicago’s Cook County, where defendants have been represented by attorneys with The Exoneration Project.

“It does seem in the past few months there have been a larger number than usual,” said Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, a lecturer in law and staff attorney for The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.

Since 2009, more than 200 people have been exonerated through the group’s work, according to data from the organization.

About 150 of the convictions were tied to former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts, who regularly framed people for drug crimes they didn’t commit. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said in December 2022 that 237 convictions vacated in recent years were linked to Watts and his unit.

Harris is one of four Chicago men who have been exonerated over the past few weeks.

On Dec. 14, James Soto and his cousin, David Ayala, had their murder convictions vacated after spending more than 40 years each in Illinois’ prisons. Each had been sentenced to life in prison. Soto also was represented by The Exoneration Project.

Brian Beals, 57, was freed two days earlier after a judge dismissed murder and other charges and vacated his conviction. Beals had spent 35 years behind bars.

Harris was sentenced to 76 years in prison.

“But I fought, and now I’m here,” Harris, now 30, said after his release. “I fought. Keep on fighting, everybody. Just keep on fighting. Never give up.”

Myerscough-Mueller said evidence showed the eyewitness had advanced glaucoma and lied about his eyesight issues at Harris’ trial. Evidence also included testimony from a gas station attendant who said Harris wasn’t the shooter.

“It always was a very thin case. Darien never should have been convicted in the first place,” she said.

Judges and prosecutors are giving such cases “more serious looks,” added Josh Tepfer, another attorney with The Exoneration Project, which is among a number of organizations across the United States seeking justice for the wrongfully imprisoned.

“They see repeat problems,” Tepfer said.

Also this week, an Oklahoma judge exonerated 71-year-old Glynn Simmons who spent 48 years in prison for a 1974 murder. Simmons was released in July after prosecutors agreed that key evidence in his case was not turned over to his defense lawyers.

Two men who served decades in prison for separate murders in New York City were exonerated last month after reinvestigations found they had been convicted based on unreliable witness testimony. The Legal Aid Society and the Innocence Project were involved in those cases.

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