Supporters note recent medical studies, Medill Justice Project findings
By Lauryn Schroeder
The Medill Justice Project
A Chicago-area day care owner imprisoned for more than 14 years for a murder she says she didn’t commit pleaded through her advocates for clemency in a hearing Thursday but it could take months—perhaps years—before the governor takes action.
Defense attorney Anthony J. Sassan, along with representatives from the Illinois Innocence Project, asked a three-member panel of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to recommend a pardon for Pamela Jacobazzi, 58, who was convicted of violently shaking a 2-year-old infant who died nearly 20 years ago. During the 20-minute hearing in downtown Chicago, Sassan cited testimony from medical experts and revelatory findings from a recent Medill Justice Project investigation that he says point to Jacobazzi’s innocence. The prisoner wasn’t present but about a dozen supporters, including her mother and son, attended the hearing.
Shaken-baby syndrome or abusive head trauma is marked by a triad of symptoms: brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding within the eyes. Medical studies in recent years have shown accidental trauma and other medical conditions may mimic the symptoms of shaken-baby syndrome. Sassan said these studies challenge Jacobazzi’s 1999 conviction in DuPage County.
Sassan also noted the 2012 findings of a Medill Justice Project investigation, which brought the medical studies to the attention of the ophthalmologist who originally diagnosed the infant with “shaken injuries” in 1994. In an interview with The Medill Justice Project, the ophthalmologist acknowledged that the infant’s symptoms of eye damage could have resulted from non-abusive causes.
Sassan called The Medill Justice Project’s findings a “major part of the petition.” At the hearing Thursday, he said, “The science has changed and it’s evolved, but there’s no way to address that in court. That’s why we’re here today. Because clemency is the only way to address these issues.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Joe Ruggiero said the clemency petition was a ruse concocted by the defense for Jacobazzi’s early release from prison; she could be released on parole as early as May 2015. Ruggiero, who was accompanied by the victim’s mother at the clemency petition, was one of the lead prosecutors at Jacobazzi’s evidentiary hearing in DuPage last month in which Judge Robert G. Kleeman denied the defense’s request for a new trial.
Jacobazzi petitioned for an early release to Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2006. The petition was denied the following year. If granted a pardon by Gov. Pat Quinn, Jacobazzi will be released from prison and all charges against her will be expunged. She would also be removed from the Illinois Sex Offender Registry; if a prisoner is convicted of first-degree murder of a child and the offender is at least 17, then the prisoner is registered as a sex offender in Illinois.
If the governor denies Jacobazzi a pardon, he can also choose to commute her sentence and release her for time already served, and the conviction would stand.
Kenneth Tupy, chief legal counsel for the prisoner review board, said members of the board will vote on more than 700 cases this year. The panel of three who presided over Thursday’s hearing heard about 60 cases that day. Tupy said the panel will discuss each case and make confidential recommendations to the governor about whether to grant clemency, but their vote can sometimes take up to two months to reach the governor’s office.
According to the governor’s press secretary, Brooke Anderson, thousands of petitions are submitted each year, and the governor inherited a large backlog of cases from the previous administration of Gov. Blagojevich. Anderson said it will take time before Gov. Quinn makes a ruling.
“The governor has been methodically working through these cases since he took office and has acted on more than 2,000 cases so far,” Anderson said. “We make periodical announcements as the rulings are made.”
Gov. Quinn has granted more than 900 clemency petitions—nearly 38 percent of the cases he has acted on since taking office.