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updated: 2/8/2011 3:22 PM

Judge refuses to reopen 1999 murder case, appeal promised

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  • Jason L. Strong

    Jason L. Strong

 
 

A Lake County judge on Friday said he would not allow a hearing to review what was called new evidence in a nearly 11-year-old murder case.

Jason Strong, 40, is serving 46 years in prison for the 1999 torture and beating death of a woman who was not identified as Mary Kate Sunderlin-Chamizo of Carpentersville until 2006.

Thomas Geraghty, an attorney with the Blum Legal Clinic of Northwestern University, said Friday he has uncovered evidence of the "actual innocence" of Strong that could lead to a new trial.

Geraghty detailed a list of information not known when Strong went to trial in October 2000 that the lawyer said would open the door to a jury considering someone other than Strong was responsible for the crime.

The list included a testimony recantation from one of Strong's co-defendants in the case, evidence the victim was associating with a pair of women known to prey upon the weak in the months before her death, and statements made by the victim's husband who is confined to a mental health institution in Florida.

Assistant State's Attorney Michael Mermel called Geraghty's motion "absurd" and asked Circuit Judge James Booras to fine Strong for having attorneys bring such a "frivolous and baseless" motion to the court.

Evidence at Strong's trial showed Sunderlin-Chamizo was walking near a motel on Route 41 in Wadsworth on Dec. 8, 1999 when she encountered Strong, Jeremy Tweedy and Jason Johnson.

After inviting her to Strong's room at the motel, trial testimony stated, Strong bashed Sunderlin-Chamizo with a tequila bottle, whipped her with a metal cord and poured hot wax on her body.

Tweedy and Johnson told police they helped Strong load the woman's body into Strong's van, and were present when he dumped the body in the Greenbelt Forest Preserve in North Chicago, according to police reports.

Her body was found later the same day and, despite a nationwide effort, police were unable to identify her until 2006 when she was linked to a missing person's report filed in Carpentersville four years earlier.

After Strong's conviction, Tweedy, now 34, and Johnson, who has since died, each plead guilty to concealing a homicide in the case.

Tweedy, who testified at Strong's trial, was sentence to two years in prison and Johnson served three years.

Geraghty said Tweedy has since recanted the testimony he gave at Strong's trial, but would not sign a sworn statement saying he had lied because he was afraid of being charged with perjury.

Mermel said the jury was made aware at Strong's trial that Tweedy had given several conflicting accounts of Sunderlin-Chamizo's demise, and a new statement from him was no more credible than any other he made.

A Carpentersville-area mother and daughter, who had a record of preying on the elderly and disabled, had befriended Sunderlin-Chamizo in spring 1999, Geraghty said.

He said the women reportedly forbid the developmentally-disabled Sunderlin-Chamizo from contacting her family, used her bank card to withdraw large amounts of money from her account and attempted to get a new bank card for the account more than a year after Sunderlin-Chamizo's body was discovered.

There is also evidence the women arranged Sunderlin-Chamizo's marriage to Gonzalo Chimizo, who in the late 1990s collecting money from a civil suit filed when he lost his arm in a railroad train accident, Geraghty said.

Gonzalo Chimizo was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Florida in 2002 for what Geraghty called "a pattern of bizarre and violent behavior."

He gave Carpentersville police investigating his wife's disappearance several statements implicating himself and others in her death, Geraghty said.

Mermel argued that none of the statements Chimizo made matched with the facts of how or where his wife died, and should not be taken seriously.

Geraghty argued all three elements, when taken together, should be enough to earn Strong a new trial in the case.

But Booras disagreed, saying Geraghty had not convinced him the new evidence would change the outcome of Strong's trial, which has been upheld by the appellate court.

Geraghty said he would appeal Booras' decision and continue his efforts to win Strong a new trial.