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Kadner: Waiting for justice after 20 years of guilt

Updated: December 16, 2011 8:14AM



I arrived at the Cook County Courthouse in Markham early Monday morning to get a look at a man who served 10 years in prison for a murder and rape he apparently did not commit.

Robert Veal, 34, was only 15 in 1992 when he confessed that he and four other teenagers committed the crime.

His attorney, Stuart Chanen, told reporters that his client was tricked into confessing and repeatedly denied being involved when interviewed by Illinois State Police investigators. Chanen contends that his client also had a severe learning disability at the time of his confession.

Three of the Dixmoor Five, as the former teenagers now are known, were exonerated by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office Nov. 3.

Those three were still serving prison sentences for the murder of a 14-year-old Dixmoor girl, Cateresa Matthews. They since have been released.

Veal and co-defendant Shainne Sharp served lesser terms in exchange for their confessions and testimony against the others.

A new DNA test this year revealed that a man with no connection to the Dixmoor Five and who had a previous sexual assault conviction was linked to the case.

Veal, who lives in Minnesota with his family, has not been able to find a job since he was released from prison in 2002, according to his attorney.

On Monday, according to an email sent by the Valorem Law Group, where Chanen practices, Veal expected to be exonerated as his three co-defendants were two weeks ago.

Sharp’s hearing was postponed because he is being held in an Indiana correctional facility on a drug charge and needed to authorize an attorney to represent him.

Dressed in a dark-colored hoodie, jeans and athletic shoes, Veal approached the bench of Circuit Court Judge Michele Simmons slowly, almost reluctantly, it seemed to me.

Before the assistant state’s attorney could say anything, the judge asked Chanen if it was true that he had filed an appeal. Chanen said he had done so with the Illinois Appellate Court but hadn’t received notice that his appeal had been received.

It was impossible to figure out at this point what Chanen would be appealing.

The judge than asked the prosecutor if his plan was still to ask that Veal be exonerated. He said it was, and the judge set a Dec. 2 date for another hearing.

Outside the courtroom, Chanen explained that while the same judge had upheld the exoneration of the other three men in the case, she felt Veal and Sharp were different because they had confessed to the crimes and entered guilty pleas. That apparently is the reason for Chanen’s appeal.

In a meeting Monday with Chanen and the assistant state’s attorney prior to the hearing, the judge made it clear that she thought from a procedural standpoint something more was needed from the state to exonerate Veal and Sharp, Chanen said.

“Something like a statement from the state’s attorney that these men are innocent,” he said.

When pressed by reporters on the issue, Chanen reversed himself and said, “It isn’t that simple. Those weren’t the judge’s words. It’s just different than the other three.”

Veal refused to speak to the media, according to his attorney.

I wanted to know how a 15-year-old could be made to confess to the rape and murder of a teenage girl.

I wanted to know how he could agree to testify, falsely, against three other teenagers knowing they could be sent to prison for the rest of their lives.

This is not the first time such a thing has happened in the criminal justice system.

Anyone who has spent much time in courtrooms quickly realizes that those who can afford a good defense attorney, those who come from the right side of the tracks, rarely are convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Veal had a public defender. Still, the lack of a top-notch defense hardly seems to justify sending five teenagers to prison for murder.

Asked if Veal had any plans to sue the state, Chanen said “he has none at this time.”

I cannot comprehend what it would be like to spend your teenage years in prison if you are innocent.

What skills do you acquire? What sort of friendships do you make? What are the experiences you take away that will inform the rest of your adult life?

Robert Veal didn’t say anything. He walked away in the rain with his attorney looking confused.

Exoneration must wait for another day.

Apparently, the justice system is very careful in such matters, making sure every “i” is dotted.

Too bad it wasn’t as meticulous in sending five teenagers to prison for murder.



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