Ruling comes more than two years after a federal judge freed Del Prete from prison
By Allisha Azlan and Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project
A Will County Circuit Court judge today vacated Jennifer Del Prete’s murder conviction and ordered a new trial, the latest victory in her fight to clear her name.
Little more than two years ago, a federal judge released Del Prete from prison, ruling no reasonable jury would have convicted her based on all of the evidence, which included a police detective letter discovered by The Medill Justice Project.
“As of today, after nine years, one month and 26 days, I am no longer a convicted felon,” said Del Prete who is now 45 years old and has struggled to find steady employment and rebuild her life.
Judge Carla Alessio Policandriotes, who convicted Del Prete in a bench trial in 2005, denied the state’s motion to dismiss Del Prete’s post-conviction petition. The order from the judge, who could not be reached for comment, follows a May evidentiary hearing where witnesses said key evidence pointing to Del Prete’s innocence had been withheld at trial.
On learning of the judge’s ruling, there was “a lot of relief and excitement,” said Jodi Garvey, an attorney for Del Prete.
Del Prete was a Romeoville, Illinois, day care worker when she was accused of violently shaking a 3 ½-month-old infant under her care and convicted of first-degree murder in 2005. About eight years later, in 2013, The Medill Justice Project discovered a letter, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, in which Police Commander Kenneth Kroll, a detective in Del Prete’s case, said the forensic pathologist who performed the infant’s autopsy expressed doubts about whether the day care worker had violently shaken the child in what is known as shaken-baby syndrome or abusive head trauma.
During the May court hearing, Patrick W. Blegen, another Del Prete attorney, said her lawyer at trial, Chuck Bretz, was unaware of forensic pathologist Jeff Harkey’s skepticism about whether the infant had been a victim of shaken-baby syndrome. Blegen also said Harkey, who conducted the autopsy, was unaware the child’s radiology report revealed the presence of a chronic subdural hematoma, or brain bleed. Both of these facts, Blegen said, had been withheld from Bretz during Del Prete’s trial, and had these facts been known to the defense, Del Prete may not have been convicted of first-degree murder.
Bretz, Del Prete’s trial attorney, testified in May that had he been aware of the Kroll letter, his defense strategy would have been significantly altered. Bretz said, for instance, that had he known of the doctor’s skepticism, the attorney would have sought to interview Harkey beforehand and then tailored his questions at trial accordingly.
U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly, saying no reasonable jury would have found her guilty, released Del Prete on bond in 2014 after she had served about a decade of her 20-year sentence. Del Prete’s case is on hold in federal court, pending resolution of this state action. In his ruling two years ago, 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 next court date is scheduled for Sept. 23, when prosecutors are expected to respond to the ruling.
Prosecutors plan to appeal the judge’s order, said Charles Pelkie, a spokesperson for the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office. “Our position has always been that the [Kroll] letter… had no impact whatsoever in regards to any evidence that was presented at trial in this case,” Pelkie said.