Reprint from The National Registry Exonerations
By Rob Warden
Submitted by Brian Vickers, CCNM PhotoJournalist
On January 12, 2015, Johnnie Savory, convicted of a double murder in 1977 in Peoria, Illinois, was pardoned by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Almost simultaneously, Savory filed a motion for a new trial on the basis of DNA testing that eliminated him as the murderer.
On January 18, 1977, Savory’s best friend, James Robinson Jr., 14, and Robinson’s sister, Connie Cooper, 19, were found stabbed to death in their home in Peoria. Savory, who was 14 years old, was taken into custody seven days later and remained behind bars for the next 29 years, 10 months, and 24 days — until he was paroled at age 44 on December 19, 2006.
The day after Savory was picked up for questioning, which consisted of nearly 20 hours of intense interrogation and two polygraph examinations, Savory confessed — but promptly recanted, claiming that the confession had been coerced.
Before his first trial in late 1977, Savory’s lawyers moved to suppress the confession, but Peoria County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Covey denied the motion.
During the investigation, extensive physical evidence had been collected, including a pair of trousers from Savory’s home bearing a tiny blood stain, fingernail scrapings from Cooper, head hairs found in the victims’ hands and bathroom sink, and a pocket knife with a blood-like stain on it that the prosecution theorized was the murder weapon. At the trial, however, the prosecution relied almost entirely on the confession.
Savory was tried as an adult and the prosecution sought the death penalty.
The bloodstained pants were introduced into evidence, although they were too big for Savory. Savory’s father testified that pants were his and that the blood stain resulted from an injury he suffered at work a few days before the crime. Hospital records showed that he had been treated for the injury he described. The stain was blood Type A — shared by Savory’s father and Connie Cooper. The rest of the physical evidence pertained to the victims’ wounds and layout of the home, and did not link Savory to the murders. No testimony linking the younger Savory to the crime was presented, other than that of officers involved in the interrogation.
Savory was convicted on July 1, 1977, and after the jury declined to impose the death penalty, Judge Covey sentenced Savory to concurrent prison terms of 50 to 100 years for each murder.
In 1980, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction, holding that the confession had been involuntary because Savory had not waived his right to remain silent and remanded the case for a new trial. The case was transferred to Lake County, Illinois where Savory was tried before Judge Covey and a jury the following year.
Without the confession, the prosecution relied on the testimony of three witnesses — Frank, Tina, and Ella Ivy — who had been interviewed by police prior to the first trial but had not been called to testify because their testimony was considered too shaky.
At the second trial, the Ivy’s claimed that Savory had made various admissions involving himself in the crime shortly after the victim’s bodies were found. Police reports indicated that when first interviewed in 1977, they had said only that Savory told them he knew about the murders.
The jury found Savory guilty of both murders on May 1, 1981 and he then filed a motion for a new trial. At a hearing on the motion, Joseph Gibson, one of the Peoria County prosecutors originally involved in the case, testified that the Ivy’s had not been called to testify at the first trial because prosecutors had concluded that they were not credible witnesses. Judge Covey nonetheless denied a new trial and sentenced Savory to concurrent prison terms of 40 to 80 years.
In 1983, one of the Ivy’s recanted his testimony, but Savory’s efforts to obtain a new trial were unsuccessful. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the conviction and the Illinois Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case. Savory later filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus, but it was denied in 1995.
In 1998, the Illinois General Assembly passed a statute establishing the right to post-conviction testing of physical evidence with technology not available before trial, if the requested testing is relevant to a claim of actual innocence. Savory promptly moved to have the pants and fingernail scrapings subjected to DNA testing under the new law, but in 2001 the Appellate Court held that he was not entitled to the testing because, even if DNA established that the blood on the pants was his father’s, the evidence would be merely cumulative—given that the elder Savory had testified that the pants were his. Thus, the court reasoned, DNA testing of the pants was irrelevant to the younger Savory’s claim of actual innocence. The opinion ignored the fingernail scrapings. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed, also making no mention of the fingernail scrapings.
Lawyers from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, the New York-based Innocence Project, and the Chicago firm of Jenner & Block then brought a federal petition on Savory’s behalf seeking access to the evidence for DNA testing, but the petition was denied in 2005.
Continuing to represent Savory, lawyers from The Center on Wrongful Convictions won his 2006 parole and continued to seek relief for Savory, including filing a petition for a gubernatorial pardon and a new petition in the Peoria County Circuit Court seeking DNA testing with technology that had not existed when the courts had previously denied testing. The petition said that the other two Ivy family members had recanted.
In 2013, Peoria County Circuit Court Judge Stephen A. Kouri finally ordered the testing, but much of the evidence, while in custody of Peoria County authorities, had been lost.
Shortly after Gov. Quinn pardoned Savory, his attorney, Joshua Tepfer, filed a motion for a new trial in Peoria County Circuit Court. The motion said that DNA tests on seminal fluid from Cooper’s body had eliminated Savory.
In January 2017, Savory filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from Peoria police officers. The lawsuit was dismissed in December 2017.
– Rob Warden