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September 28, 2022

Pro Bono Spotlight: Taft Law helps free wrongfully convicted man after 7 years of imprisonment

Andrew S. Murphy

Nearly two years ago, the Illinois Appellate Court—First District appointed me to represent Walter “Tracy” Hill pro bono in the direct appeal from a jury’s verdict finding him guilty of aggravated kidnapping and murder. The more I got to know Tracy and the facts of his case, the more convinced I became that he could not have committed the crime. So, I spent the next two years working to clear his name. On July 22, 2022, all of the hard work and sleepless nights paid off when I had the privilege of seeing Tracy walk out of the Cook County Jail a free man, after seven years of wrongful imprisonment.

The police arrested Tracy in 2015 for the 2009 kidnapping and murder of his best friend. He had no apparent motive to kill the victim, and no prior history of violent crime. The state never produced any eyewitness testimony, surveillance footage, confessions, or forensic evidence connecting Tracy to the crime. In fact, all of the DNA evidence excluded Tracy as a potential match. The state’s case rested entirely on two 911 calls from 2009 that were made by the victim but that appear to have been compelled by the actual kidnappers at gunpoint.

Tracy was first tried in 2019 alongside a co-defendant named David Johnson, who the state theorized had assisted Tracy with the kidnapping. Tracy opted for a jury trial, but David opted for a bench trial. The judge found David not guilty based on the exact same evidence the jury relied on to convict Tracy. In a post-trial motion, Tracy’s prior lawyers — who introduced no evidence on his behalf at his first trial — admitted that they rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to call two alibi witnesses who would have testified that Tracy was asleep in bed when the murder occurred. Despite that remarkable admission by Tracy’s lawyers, the judge denied his motion for new trial and sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

After sentencing, Tracy’s case languished for about a year and a half with no activity due to a staffing shortage at the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender, which had been unable to prosecute the appeal due to a backlog of cases. I took over the appeal in August 2020, as part of the Illinois Supreme Court’s Pro Bono Program. After drafting and filing the appellate briefs, I delivered my first ever appellate argument in this case over Zoom in April 2021. Among other things, I argued that Tracy’s first trial had been unfairly tainted due to his lawyer’s admitted ineffectiveness and an evidentiary error. A divided panel of the appellate court agreed with me about the evidentiary error, without addressing the ineffectiveness argument, and remanded for a new trial in June 2021. People v. Hill, 2021 IL App (1st) 191376-U. At the time, I was cautiously optimistic that the prosecutors would reevaluate the evidence against Tracy and eventually agree with me that the evidence was too weak to warrant a second trial. But once it became clear that they did intended to retry him, I agreed to continue my pro bono representation of Tracy and try the case with a Taft partner.

It was more than a year after the remand before Tracy finally got the fair trial the First District had ordered. In the interim, we had a number of fights with the prosecutors about discovery and motions in limine, and the trial date was continued on short notice three separate times. Tracy remained incarcerated the whole time because the judge denied his motion to set reasonable bail, based largely on the fact that a previous jury had found Tracy guilty.

We eventually received our chance to clear Tracy’s name in July 2022, during my first ever jury trial. Assisted by a cell-site expert and the two alibi witnesses who Tracy’s prior lawyers failed to call at the first trial, we demonstrated to a second jury during a four-day trial that Tracy could not have been anywhere near the crime scene when the murder occurred. After just three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all counts.

It took more than a dozen Taft attorneys and staff members working for two years to obtain this result for Tracy. I am proud of the work we did, but I know that we cannot restore to Tracy the seven years he was imprisoned for a crime he couldn’t have committed. I also know that there are countless people like Tracy who are behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit —because they are in pre-trial detention, incarcerated pending a successful appeal, or wrongfully convicted. Most will not be fortunate enough to find a large law firm to take on their case pro bono. But working on this case has proved to me that it is possible for lawyers to contribute meaningfully towards improving the criminal justice system through zealous advocacy for their pro bono clients.

Andrew S. Murphy

Associate Attorney, Taft

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