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By Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A Cook County judge on Tuesday threw out the convictions of two men who spent close to 15 years in state prison for their alleged roles as lookouts in a double murder, bringing to a close a controversial case that hinged on a series of confessions that turned out to be false.

Lewis Gardner and Paul Phillips were the last of four men to have their murder convictions thrown out in connection with the November 1992 murders of two people in an apartment near Clarendon Park. Though they had served their time, they continued to fight to prove their innocence, an effort that gained hope after Cook County prosecutors dropped the case against one of their co-defendants, Daniel Taylor, last summer.

Taylor had been in a police lock-up when the crime occurred but nevertheless confessed to the murders. Taylor’s release paved the way for the release earlier this year of another co-defendant, Deon Patrick, and ultimately for Gardner’s and Phillips’ exonerations.

“I can’t cry because I’m at work,” Gardner, now 36, said from a Pizza Hut restaurant in Lake County where he works as a cook. “But the next step is to enjoy my life. I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. It’s like a big burden has finally been lifted off my shoulders.”

Phillips, 38, was at home when prosecutors asked Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jorge Alonso to vacate the murder convictions. He said he was in tears when his attorney, Flint Taylor, called him with the news.

Phillips said he had struggled to find a job with a criminal record. “I’ve got tears in my eyes. It’s been a long, long wait. A long time,” said Phillips. “I won’t have to put felony on my jobs applications anymore.”

In all, Chicago police charged eight young men with the shooting deaths of Jeffrey Lassiter and Sharon Haugabook. Two had their cases thrown out before trial, and one went to trial and was acquitted. The eighth, Dennis Mixon, has acknowledged being involved and has said repeatedly the seven others were innocent.

The case suggests that Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors obtained seven false confessions — the most ever in one case.

Yet in spite of the evidence that Taylor was in the lock-up at the old Town Hall police station at Halsted and Addison streets — evidence the police and prosecutors had before trial — the administrations of former State’s Attorney Dick Devine and current State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez fought the case for years.

The Chicago Tribune investigated the case in 2001 as part of its series “Cops and Confessions” and found additional evidence that Taylor was in the lock-up when the murders occurred.

Since then, the newspaper has continued to investigate the case and has shown how what at first appeared to be the case’s strength — eight confessions in which each suspect implicated each of the others — in fact undermined it.

Photo: x1klima via Flickr

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