Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said Friday he would immediately request the release of a Chicago man convicted of murder in 2004 -- if evidence shows he is innocent.
However, Nerheim said it is too soon to know if the unexpected match between DNA recovered at the 1992 murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan and DNA recovered from a separate 2000 attack in North Chicago exonerates Marvin Williford.
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Williford, 43, of Chicago, was convicted of the grisly murder of Delwin Foxworth and sentenced to 80 years in prison. In a January 2000 robbery of his North Chicago apartment, Foxworth was beaten with a 2x4, bound with duct tape and set on fire. He initially survived, but died from his injuries in August 2002.
Now, DNA recovered from the 2x4 has been matched to a DNA sample taken from the murder of Holly Staker, until now thought to be an entirely separate crime.
Staker, 11, was found stabbed, raped and strangled inside a Waukegan apartment where she and her twin sister, Heather, frequently baby-sat two small children.
Juan Rivera, formerly of Waukegan, spent 20 years in prison for Staker's murder, convicted by three separate juries. DNA evidence eventually exonerated him, and he was released from prison in January 2012. No one else has since been charged with the crime.
Like Rivera, Williford has long maintained his innocence and never confessed to the crime, said attorney David Owens of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.
The DNA recovered from both crime scenes does not match Williford's, authorities have said.
Owens, who is a co-counsel for Williford, said a new trial may be in order.
"The fact that his DNA is not on there is strong evidence of his innocence," Owens said. "But, we also know the DNA of the person that raped Holly Staker matched DNA found on the 2x4 in the Foxworth murder. So, we can easily surmise the same person was somehow involved in both crimes."
Nerheim said he continues to work closely with investigators and defense attorneys. If evidence conclusively shows that Williford did not kill Foxworth, Nerheim will push to get him released quickly, he said.
"Ultimately, this latest information may or may not affect (Williford)," he said. "But, if the evidence shows he's innocent, I won't wait."
Nerheim said he does not have the power to release the man on his own, but he could go in front of a judge and drop the charges or request an order of innocence for Williford, effectively freeing him.
Meanwhile, Owens said he has requested that other objects, like the duct tape used to bind Foxworth, be DNA tested using the latest technology.
He does not know when those tests will be finished.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," Owens said. "We only have this little report at this time, but there is a lot more that we haven't seen yet."
Owen said he will appear before Judge George Bridges on June 18 for a status update.
Nerheim said it was "touch DNA" that matched the Foxworth 2x4 to Staker. That means it was skin cells of someone touching the piece of wood at Foxworth's residence and not blood or other fluid samples at the scene.
More analysis is needed, Nerheim said. The DNA results could prove Williford's innocence, he said, or show that someone present the night of the Foxworth murder was also involved when Staker was raped and killed.
"We are not, in any way, being closed-minded and saying we have a conviction and that's it," he said. "We are actively looking at the case and, if the evidence shows he is innocent, we will do the right thing."
He added the Foxworth case is under review by his appointed case review panel, as well as his own office and the Waukegan Police Department.
Steven Art, an attorney for Juan Rivera, said if evidence shows Williford did not kill Foxworth, he hopes the man is swiftly released.
"My hope, as a practitioner in wrongful convictions, is that justice is served faster for Mr. Williford than it was for Juan Rivera," he said.