CHICAGO (CN) – An Illinois man who spent 30 years behind bars and has since been pardoned sued Peoria and a group of police officers Wednesday, claiming they coerced a double-murder confession out of him decades ago.
Johnnie Lee Savory was convicted of killing two teenaged siblings, Connie Cooper and James Robinson, in 1977 when he was just 14 years old. He spent 30 years in prison before he was released on parole in 2006, always maintaining his innocence. Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned Savory in 2015.
Savory’s lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Chicago federal court, claims Peoria police violated his constitutional rights and framed him for the crime.
In January 1977, 19-year-old Cooper, her brother, Robinson, 14, and a close friend of Savory’s from junior high school were found stabbed to death in a bedroom of their Peoria family home. Cooper had also been raped, while her 2-year-old son was discovered unharmed in another room.
“It was a dreadful and high-profile crime that shocked the community and drew widespread media attention in Peoria and beyond,” Savory’s complaint states.
Police initially investigated men with ties to Connie – an abusive ex-boyfriend, her current partner, her son’s father and her step-father who had made sexual advances towards her in the past.
Then, abandoning leads pointing elsewhere, they turned their sights on Savory.
Why investigators focused on him “is a complete mystery to this day,” according to Steven Art, Savory’s attorney with Loevy & Loevy.
“They had all of these suspects who had a potential motive to kill Connie,” Art said. And without any mention of them being cleared, he added, “they just disappear from the police reports.”
Savory says although he had an alibi for the entire day of the crime and no eyewitnesses implicating him, investigators manufactured evidence against him.
“Included among that evidence was an involuntary and false confession attributed to plaintiff, which was concocted and coerced by defendants after 31 hours of abusive and illegal interrogation of a 14-year-old child,” his 31-page lawsuit states.
Over two days, Savory says he barely slept, was given no food and was moved around between facilities and multiple interrogators to disorient him. No parents, adults or attorneys were present.
The police “knew that his youth rendered him particularly vulnerable to coercive interrogation techniques,” according to the lawsuit. They allegedly stripped him naked and pulled hairs from his body, lied and told him a polygraph test proved he committed the murders, and promised him he could leave if he confessed.
“Plaintiff told the defendants over and over that he had no connection with the murders of Connie and James,” but finally and suddenly said he did it. Immediately afterwards, Savory says he again maintained his innocence but false reports about the circumstances of his confession were already being written.
According to Savory, among the multitude of physical evidence collected from the crime scene – including hair from the victims’ hands, vaginal swabs, blood and fingerprints – there was nothing connected to him.
“On the contrary, all DNA and other forensic testing of physical evidence recovered from the crime scene excludes plaintiff as the perpetrator,” the complaint states.
He says the Peoria Police Department not only ignored and undermined the evidence pointing to someone else, but they destroyed blood, hair and fingernail clippings from the victims so they could not be tested.
They also allegedly manufactured witness statements tying him to the crime. Three siblings, also friends of Savory’s, were coerced into saying that he told them he committed the murders, admitting later on that it was all a lie, the complaint states.
Savory was tried as an adult and found guilty of the two murders in 1977. An appeals court overturned the conviction, finding his confession had been involuntary and his Miranda rights were violated. However, he was found guilty again in a 1981 retrial.
“At all times during the nearly 40 years since he was wrongly convicted, plaintiff has steadfastly maintained his innocence,” the complaint states.
After his exoneration, testing on a blood sample and seminal fluid done with new techniques found the DNA of an unidentified person mixed with the victims’ DNA.
“Plaintiff’s whole life was turned upside down without any warning. His childhood and young adulthood were consumed by the horror of his wrongful conviction,” the lawsuit says.
Art says Savory has been working hard since his release. He has a job with Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition and he volunteers at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, helping others like him.
Savory also now has a family of his own and a new baby daughter.
“Johnnie has done a wonderful job adjusting to life out of prison,” Art said.
The lawsuit says that “to this day, because of defendants’ misconduct, the real perpetrator of this heinous crime has never been brought to justice.”
Savory is suing for coerced and false confession, due process violations and malicious prosecution, among other counts, and is represented by People’s Law Office and the Macarthur Justice Center, along with Loevy & Loevy.
He also has a complaint pending in state court to legally recognize his innocence.
The Peoria Police Department and the city’s corporate counsel did not return requests for comment from Courthouse News.