Johnnie Lee Savory spent more than 30 years of his life in prison for a crime he says he did not commit.
At age 14, Savory was arrested for the murder of two of his friends in Peoria, Ill. Now 46 and out on parole, he is committed to fighting for the DNA testing he says will prove his innocence.
After he was convicted with what he described as weak evidence and a questionable confession, Savory spent more than two-thirds of his life behind bars.
“I was clinging to the promise that the truth would win out,” he said.
DNA evidence was not available at the time of his conviction. As the technology developed, the courts continued to refuse the tests which are guaranteed when relevant to a claim of actual innocence under Illinois law.
With all options in the courts exhausted, Savory’s only hope in proving his innocence lies with the governor who can order executive clemency. Along with Steve Drizin, his lead attorney and director of Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, Savory is asking Ill. Governor Pat Quinn to order the testing which would be paid for privately, at no cost to taxpayers. Although Savory’s lawyers succeeded in obtaining his release on parole on December 19, 2006, Savory’s struggle with the justice system is not over.
However, Savory remains confident that the governor will grant his pardon by the end of the year.
“The prosecutors have said there is no evidence to tie me to the crime or to the scene of the crime,” he said. “That is a very powerful statement that I should never have been here in the first place.”
Savory, an African American, was twice convicted by all-white juries of the murder of two teenagers who were found stabbed to death in 1977. The most recent conviction rested primarily on the testimony of three informants who claimed Savory talked about committing the crime in their presence. Two of the informants have recanted and said the conversations never occurred.
The physical evidence similarly holds little evidentiary value. The bloody pants seized from Savory’s home were several sizes too big for Savory and were worn by his father when he suffered an injury at work. The blood sample did not match Savory’s, but Savory said prosecutors fabricated the evidence by removing the positive and negatives from the blood work, making them match as type A.
The fingernail scrapings from both victims and the hair found in the victims’ hands and bathroom sink were withheld from the trial. A pocket knife, which had what the prosecution thought was a blood stain, was entered into evidence, but the stain was too small to determine if it were blood.
“The evidence in my case was fabricated,” Savory said. “The state withheld the other evidence and we’re still fighting to have it. They hid some evidence that could have solved the crime.”
DNA testing on these items could exonerate Savory and also determine the identity of the true killer, Savory said.
“If you use DNA evidence to convict people all over the United States, you should use it to exonerate people and set people free,” Savory said.
Since the first ever DNA exoneration of Gary Dotson in 1988, there have been 209 other wrongfully convicted prisoners exonerated because of DNA testing.
“It’s just at the beginning,” Drizin said. “There are going to be many, many more exonerations based on DNA evidence.”
While serving his time in prison, Savory said he did not let the prison culture influence him and even organized campaigns from prison to help victims of disasters like Hurricane Katrina. He said he was able to successfully reintegrate into society on parole, and now works at a facility helping inmates transition out of prison.
“It is imperative that I speak to other people about what I’ve been through,” he said. “Who better is there to awaken the consciousness of others than the people who have lived it?”
For others fighting a wrongful conviction, Savory said they should never give up because the truth will prevail.
“Let the truth speak for itself,” he said. “It doesn’t need any help. Facts don’t change, the way you manipulate facts change.”
While Savory is confident that DNA testing of the original evidence will prove his innocence, he acknowledges that injustices do exist and they can happen to anyone.
“Injustice has touched every man and woman from all walks of life,” he said. “Injustice is like a stray bullet. It doesn’t care where it lands.”