“Rare” Decision by Federal Judge in Shaken-Baby Syndrome Case Investigated by The Medill Justice Project
Bond Will Be Set in Coming Days
By Lauryn Schroeder
The Medill Justice Project
Published: April 21, 2014
A federal judge in Chicago today ordered Jennifer Del Prete be released from prison, granting the former day care worker the freedom she has sought since she was imprisoned nearly a decade ago for a murder she said she didn’t commit. But Del Prete still faces legal challenges in state and federal courts.
U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly said Del Prete will be released after posting bond while the courts address her claims, which include that prosecutors withheld evidence pointing to her innocence. That evidence was discovered by The Medill Justice Project.
Del Prete is expected to be released from Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill., soon after a hearing April 30, said her lawyer, Patrick W. Blegen, who is expected to confer with prosecutors about setting the terms of her bond.
“I’m completely ecstatic…a real dream come true,” said Tia Del Prete, her 24-year-old daughter, in a text message. “I’ve been wishing every chance I got for this for the last 9 years and my wish is finally coming true.”
Del Prete, 43, was convicted of first-degree murder in the shaking death of a 3 ½-month-old infant on Dec. 27, 2002, in the Chicago suburb of Romeoville. She was sentenced to 20 years in 2005 and set to be released on parole in March 2025, nearly 11 years from today, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Del Prete’s attorneys filed a state Brady claim in May 2013 and a federal Brady claim this past February, accusing the state of withholding key evidence. The evidence centered on a 2003 letter written by a police detective in Del Prete’s case, which was discovered by The Medill Justice Project and published as part of its investigation last year. In that letter, Police Commander Kenneth Kroll said the forensic pathologist who performed the infant’s autopsy had significant doubts about whether the day care worker had violently shaken the child in what is known as shaken-baby syndrome or abusive head trauma.
The judge’s decision today means that Del Prete must first address her claims of innocence through the appeals process in the state courts. Then she can return to federal court to resume her habeas corpus petition, a legal action brought by a prisoner against what she considers wrongful imprisonment. Those legal proceedings could take years.
The State Attorney General’s Office, which did not oppose Del Prete’s release, declined to comment.
In his written order today, the judge called his ruling “rare”—and he noted the power to release a prisoner on bond pending a habeas petition should be used sparingly. The judge said that even the prosecution “concedes that the case poses ‘unique circumstances.’”
As part of his ruling, Kennelly said, “the coroner who conducted the autopsy…harbored significant doubts” that the child was a victim of abusive head trauma but “although the coroner’s doubts were known to the investigating law enforcement officers…this was not disclosed to Del Prete or her trial counsel.”
The judge said Del Prete offers “a strong case on both the facts and the law that are likely to result in an order overturning Del Prete’s conviction.”
The judge said Del Prete “should not have to wait in custody” while her claims are being reviewed by the state courts because “the delay is wholly attributable to the law enforcement authorities who did not disclose to Del Prete” the police detective letter and related evidence.
The judge’s order today comes in the wake of his 97-page ruling in January in which he determined no reasonable jury that heard all of the evidence would have found Del Prete guilty of murder. Kennelly, among other things, took issue with the science that served as the underpinning of the prosecution’s case against Del Prete and cited The Medill Justice Project’s findings.
Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago who has written extensively about shaken-baby syndrome and the courts, said while it is extremely unusual for a defendant to be released while pursuing a federal habeas corpus petition, she believes the judge’s actions may “set some legal precedent” and “be influential in how other judges look at” shaken-baby syndrome cases.