Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wrongly Imprisoned for Decades in Illinois

CHICAGO (CN) - A man wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl is suing the officials who sent him to prison for 30 years.

Christopher Abernathy, who was released Feb. 11 from Stateville Correctional Center, filed a federal lawsuit that same day against the police officers and prosecutors who put him away for the 1984 death of student Kristina Hickey.

Abernathy, who is now 49 years old, claims he was denied legal representation, bullied by defendant Park Forest police officers Carl Keuster and Donald Meyers, and forced to sign a confession that he accidentally killed Hickey after a day and half of interrogation.

"[Police] took advantage of Abernathy's youth, his naiveté, his inexperience with the legal system, and his diminished mental capacity in order to obtain a false confession from him," the complaint states.

"[The officers] provided him with suggestions on how he could have killed Hickey, urging him to adopt their words and theories, and thereby fabricating false evidence," the lawsuit claims.

They also promised that "if he just told them what they needed to hear, he would be allowed to go home, but otherwise, he could not."

Hickey, a student at Rich East High School in Park Forest, was found dead near a shopping mall on Oct. 3, 1984, after being missing for several days. Hickey was stabbed to death after returning to her home from singing in a high school concert.

Abernathy, who was 17 years old and had learning and developmental disabilities at the time, was arrested a year after the crime.

The arrest came when his friend Alan Dennis told police that Abernathy confessed in private to committing the crime. Abernathy himself later admitted to the crime and signed a confession. He was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison. As a minor at the time of the crime, he was ineligible for the death penalty.

Abernathy's confession contained no significant details of the crime and was not corroborated by any physical evidence. Dennis has since recanted his testimony, saying police officers threatened to charge him if he refused to help convict Abernathy.

Further, the lawsuit states the officers ignored Abernathy's request to speak with a lawyer and again fabricated an oral statement by Abernathy to bolster their case and to fill in some of the missing details.

Abernathy was freed in part due to pressure from the Illinois Innocence Project, which in 2014 asked Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez to reopen the case. Alvarez reopened the investigation into the Hickey murder. DNA evidence collected from the crime scene and fresh interviews of witnesses led Cook County to vacate Abernathy's conviction.

"Alvarez explained that she was dismissing all charges against Abernathy because she could not let a 'wrongful conviction' stand, and that her office had important evidence to pursue with respect to other suspects for the [Hickey] murder" states the complaint, which also names as a defendant former Assistant State Attorney Paul Perry.

Alvarez was quoted after Abernathy's release as saying the Park Forest Police Department did nothing wrong. "They were acting the way they would act 30 years ago," she said, according to an article in the Chicago Sun Times.

Hickey's killer is still at large. DNA evidence suggest two unknown men were involved in her death. Abernathy's DNA was not found on any of the evidence in the case.

Follow @NickRummell
Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.