"I have been kept in a state of death for the last 45 years and 8 months, with your help, I'm rising from the steel and concrete coffins in which I've been held," Heidelberg wrote last year in a letter put out on the attorney’s website, who is helping him to gain freedom.
In December 1970, Cleve Heidelberg, a 27-year-old Black man was accused and convicted of killing a cop. From Heidelberg’s words, on the evening of May 26, 1970, he was hanging out in a club in his neighbourhood in Peoria, Illinois. One of his friends, Lester Mason asked him if he could borrow Cleve’s car. Heidelberg gave him the car and spent the rest of the evening at an after-hours spot called Dimps. Mason later turned out and said that his car is crashed nearby.
Heidelberg was on his way to get his vehicle when he walked into a police stakeout. Police officers wrestled him to the ground, let their dogs loose on him and beat him so brutally they broke a disc in his spinal cord, which caused permanent nerve damage.
Heidelberg had no idea that a Sheriff’s Deputy Raymond Ezpinoza had been shot and killed while responding to an armed robbery at a movie theatre earlier that night. The shooter fled after a car chase which ended up in him crashing the car in a residential area.
The car, a blue Chevy belonged to Heidelberg, and he was charged with Ezpinoza’s murder.
During the trial, several black witnesses appeared in court to validate Heidelberg’s alibi, but one of the prosecutors, John Riddle urged the jurors to just “look” at them: “Do they even look credible or believable?” he asked. While speaking to an all-white jury about the prosecution’s white witnesses, most of whom were law enforcement officers, Riddle said, “I think you can learn from looking at them and listening to them that they are obviously a reliable group.” Heidelberg was convicted of murder and sent to prison.
In 1971, Heidelberg received an obscure note from a man who had just been sent in the same prison. The note promised Heidelberg information that would “clear up the error made.” It was the first time he heard from James Clark, who would go on to sign a confession to the murder of which Heidelberg was convicted. Clark kept to his word and confessed that it was he who shot Ezpinoza. He borrowed Heidelberg’s car from Mason, and he claimed he feared for his life when he saw Ezpinoza running toward him, writing in a 1971 affidavit, “It was kill or be killed.”
Heidelberg’s public defender did what he could to use Clark’s confession to annul the conviction, but the court agreed with the state that it should be snubbed.Last year, a Chicago-based criminal defense lawyer Andre Hale took on the case because he simply didn’t believe a guilty man would be so quick to return to the scene of his own crime. Marcella Teplitz, a former Peoria police detective who is now a private investigator, joined Hale in unearthing a wealth of compelling information, including FBI reports which showed that Heidelberg’s fingerprints were not found on the weapon and the sheriff’s department may have hidden or destroyed evidence during the trial.
Hale presented all the information he found to Judge Albert Purham Jr., at the Illinois Attorney General’s office. The office is now tasked with investigating and providing a written opinion. Judge Purham also agreed to Hale’s petition for a post-conviction proceeding which allows him to bring in new exonerating evidence in the meantime.
If Heidelberg were to gain freedom, he would likely to be the longest wrongfully convicted person in American history. This case has some similarities with the Glenn Ford case, where Ford spent almost 3 decades on death row after he was wrongfully convicted by the white jury. The justice system has to really work hard to get rid of such cases, whereby a Black man isn’t put through a fair trial before conviction.
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