Daycare worker convicted of murder leaves prison on judge’s orders
BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter April 30, 2014 6:04PM
Jennifer Del Prete mugshot
Updated: April 30, 2014 7:12PM
A south suburban daycare worker convicted of murdering a 14-month-old girl in a controversial “shaken baby” case was released from prison Wednesday afternoon on a federal judge’s orders.
After nearly a decade behind bars, Hickory Hills mom Jennifer Del Prete, 43, walked out of downstate Logan Correctional Center.
“She’s extremely pleased,” her attorney, Patrick Blegen, said after U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly finalized the terms of Del Prete’s release on bond, allowing her to remain free while she continues to fight to overturn her conviction.
“She was hugging everybody in sight.”
Though Del Prete’s 2005 conviction for the murder of Isabella Zielinski stands, Kennelly ruled last week that the case brought against her in Will County was based on unreliable scientific evidence, and, more likely than not, “no reasonable juror would have found her guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In his highly unusual ruling, Kennelly wrote Del Prete’s case was “exceptional and deserving of special treatment” because she has “substantial” evidence of her innocence and it could take years for her to clear her name.
Under the terms of her release, Del Prete, a mother of two older children, cannot live with children under three years old, and must stay with a pal in Hickory Hills.
Blegen said Wednesday’s development was “great — we strongly believe in innocence.” But he warned, “We still have a long way to go.”
Del Prete was sentenced to 20 years 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.
Will County State’s Attorney spokesman Charles Pelkie said last week that prosecutors “remain confident in the original prosecution of the case.”