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Rodell Sanders embraces his family after overturning his wrongful conviction in 2014. / ABC7 WLS

Rodell Sanders embraces his family after overturning his wrongful conviction in 2014. / ABC7 WLS

The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School helped a wrongfully convicted man receive $15 million for his 20 years of imprisonment — one of the largest settlements of its kind in Illinois history.

Rodell Sanders, 51, spent more than 20 years of his 80-year sentence. He was convicted of murder, attempted murder, and robbery charges after being accused of ordering the shooting of 19-year-old Stacy Armstrong and 23-year-old Phillip Atkins in a 1993 incident. There was no physical or forensic evidence linking Sanders to the crimes, but two witnesses falsely identified Sanders.

Sanders and his attorneys said in their lawsuit that the misidentifications were the result of “manipulations and bribes by members of the city of Chicago Heights’ infamously corrupt police department.”

Testimony from Armstrong, the surviving victim, and Germaine Haslett, an FBI and Chicago Heights police informant, were both instrumental in Sanders’ 1995 conviction, according to the National Registry of Exoneration. The registry says that Armstrong initially gave a description of the shooter that did not match Sanders, but that police trimmed his photo to conceal his height and weight. Germaine Haslett, whose girlfriend later signed a sworn statement that he was behind the shooting, received thousands of dollars from the FBI for his cooperation and testimony against Sanders.

Using law books and the Freedom of Information Act, Sanders got his convictions overturned before later receiving settlement assistance from the Exoneration Project — a free legal clinic at the University of Chicago Law School dedicated to representation of the wrongfully convicted.

His attorneys through the project were Russell Ainsworth and Elliot Slosar of Loevy & Loevy — the firm that fought for the release of the dashcam video in the Laquan McDonald case. It has won more multimillion-dollar jury verdicts than any other civil rights law firm in the country.

Wrongful Convictions Prevalent

Ainsworth says that wrongful convictions occur more than the public may realize, and that may be true here at home. Illinois had 54, the most exonerations of any other state between 1989 and 2012. In 2014 when Sanders’ conviction was overturned, Illinois was third and has been in the top three for the past three years.

“We can learn from wrongful convictions,” Ainsworth said. “That same pattern will continue until we hold rogue police officers accountable for their actions.”

Wrongful convictions affect more than just those imprisoned. Sanders was imprisoned when his oldest daughter was 13 years old, and his youngest daughter was not yet born. And as a result of his wrongful imprisonment, he missed most of their childhood years.

“Although Mr. Sanders has been acquitted of all the false charges lodged by defendants, he will never regain the lost decades of his life,” the lawsuit said.

Because of the impact of wrongful convictions, Ainsworth says it’s important that claims be heard.

“It’s important that all meritorious claims get a fair hearing,” Ainsworth said. “Wrongful convictions do happen.”

Those who were found guilty of crimes they did not commit can apply for their case to be reviewed by the Exoneration Project at www.exonerationproject.org.

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