Jonathan "Flip" Moore had already served almost a dozen years for murder when he suddenly got help from an unexpected source. Two cops with the same department that had arrested Moore began re-investigating his case in 2011 based on a tip from a confidential informant. Moore was innocent, the informant told detectives John Munn and Darrell Moore from Aurora, a blue collar town about 40 miles southwest of Chicago.
The Woodward and Bernstein of law enforcement relentlessly pursued "Deep Throat's" lead, interviewing old witnesses and finding new ones. The Aurora PD eventually involved the Kane County State's Attorney's Office, and together they reached a painful conclusion: fellow police and prosecutors had convicted the wrong man.
On March 6, 2012, Moore was brought to a Kane County courtroom in shackles, clueless about why he was there, only to hear State's Attorney Joseph McMahon move to vacate his conviction. A couple of hours later, the 30-year-old Moore was enjoying pizza with his lawyers and an uncle. Thanks to law enforcement, his nightmare was over.
Amid the ensuing fanfare, Officers Munn and Moore were named the Aurora Police Department's 2012 Co-Employees of the Year. "Your actions were courageous and heroic," Police Chief Greg Thomas said at a ceremony honoring the officers. "Innocent individuals serving time in prison is wrong. You took it upon yourselves to correct the situation," Thomas added.
But the feel-good story had a brief shelf life that ended when a man named Jonathan Grayson presented a distinctly different picture of the Aurora PD. In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last month, Grayson accused eight Aurora cops of pinning a murder on him by coercing witnesses and concealing evidence. The cops allegedly had let the actual killers slip through their fingers by interviewing them near the scene, but failed to pursue the lead. These actions were part of "a routine practice of the Aurora Police Department to pursue wrongful convictions through profoundly flawed investigations and coerced evidence," Grayson's suit claimed.
A spokesperson for the Department declined to comment on the lawsuit, but it's not hard to guess what the cops were saying privately: No good deed goes unpunished. You see, Jonathan Grayson was the inmate formerly known as Jonathan Moore. (Despite changing his surname, Grayson retained "Flip," a nickname given by his mother.)
Grayson's attorney, Jon Loevy, cushioned the legal blow by noting that the detectives who'd locked up Moore were different than the duo that freed Grayson. "By no means are we condemning the entire Police Department." Loevy insisted.
If you're confused by the dual personalities and role reversals in the Moore/Grayson controversy, better get used to it. Law enforcement agencies across the country are increasingly reviewing old cases and proudly reporting their mistakes. Prosecutors have launched conviction integrity units in San Jose, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Lake County (IL), Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn unit was responsible for the high-profile exoneration last month of David Ranta in the rabbi slaying case, noteworthy also because the prosecutor who initiated the review was personally involved in Ranta's unjust conviction. In Dallas, reform-minded DA Craig Watkins exonerated 19 prisoners between 2007 and 2011, more than doubling the county's entire total for the previous two decades.
In 2012, law enforcement was actively involved in 34 exonerations, according to a recently updated report by researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University. For the first time since the researchers began tracking exonerations in 1989, a majority (54 percent) of the innocent prisoners cleared last year benefited from the active cooperation of police and prosecutors. That compares to an average of 20-30 percent in most of the preceding 24 years.
This trend "may reflect a change in climate, a growing recognition by prosecutors and other law enforcement officers that false convictions are a serious problem that they need to address," the researchers concluded.
Of course, as in Jonathan Grayson's case, admitting mistakes can trigger collateral consequences. A number of exonerations have led to federal civil rights suits against law enforcement, and questions have been raised about the motives behind "Do-Over Squads". In the Brooklyn case, for example, some have alleged that D.A. Charles Hynes freed Ranta for political reasons, while in Cook County, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has been accused of running a unit that is purely window dressing.
But State's Attorney Joseph McMahon cut to the heart of the issue when he decided to free Grayson. "It's about justice, not a conviction," said Kane County's top lawman.
As for Grayson's future, he returned to Aurora after his release, but trouble seems to follow him. Shortly before he filed suit, he was arrested by Aurora cops (not Munn and Moore) and charged with two counts of felony aggravated battery.
Did he do it? Perhaps the justice system will get it right the first time around.
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