Man is sixth person in Lake County since 2010 to have murder charges dropped
A man convicted 15 years ago of killing a Carpentersville woman and dumping her body in a forest preserve in North Chicago was released from prison Thursday after prosecutors dropped charges against him in what is Lake County's sixth wrongful conviction case in five years.
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim appeared in Lake County court Thursday afternoon to take the final steps to release Jason Strong, now 39, who was convicted in 2000 of the brutal murder of Mary Kate Sunderlin. Earlier in the day, Nerheim said he signed an order in federal court to release Strong from Menard Correctional Center, where he has been serving a 46-year prison term.
Since the trial, Nerheim said, several witnesses have recanted statements, another died, and new forensic evidence has surfaced that casts doubt on the conviction.
"I made the determination that we could not meet the burden to prove him guilty in court," Nerheim said. "So, I made the order to not proceed and will officially drop charges against Jason Strong."
Strong becomes the sixth person to be cleared of a wrongful conviction in Lake County since 2010. Others on that notorious list include Juan Rivera and Jerry Hobbs, who were convicted in high-profile murder cases that were eventually overturned.
Thomas Geraghty, of Northwestern University Law School's Bluhm Legal Clinic, said Strong was "very emotional" after he was told he would be released from downstate Menard.
"He actually broke down when he heard the news," Geraghty said. "It was a very emotional conversation with him. He was happy and grateful to the Lake County state's attorney's office and the Illinois attorney general's office for reinvestigating the case."
He said Strong's mother is en route to the prison from Tennessee to pick up Strong and take him home.
Strong was found guilty in 2000 of killing Sunderlin, 34, in a room at the Motor Inn Motel at 41470 N. Route 41 in Wadsworth.
Sunderlin's badly beaten body was driven to the Greenbelt Forest Preserve on Green Bay Road at the Waukegan-North Chicago border, where it was later found.
Strong was 24 when he was charged with first-degree murder in 1999 in the case. At the time, authorities said Strong brought Sunderlin to his motel room with the intent to have sex. However, police said, Strong flew into a rage and killed her after catching her going through his belongings.
Her body was beaten so severely that her remains were not positively identified until 2006.
At the time, police said, Strong had confessed to the crime, and multiple witnesses testified against him at his trial.
Strong has maintained his innocence since being sentenced to prison in October 2000.
When he was elected in 2012, Nerheim said he would work to address wrongful convictions in Lake County. Strong's case was one he put before a wrongful conviction case review panel he started in 2013, Nerheim said.
"My duty is to seek justice, and I know that does not end upon a conviction," he said.
This is the second time since March that Nerheim has dropped charges against a man who has been wrongfully convicted. On March 8, he dropped charges against 41-year-old Angel Gonzalez, who spent 20 years in prison for rape and kidnapping.
In the last five years, murder cases against Hobbs, Rivera and James Edwards, and a rape conviction against Bennie Starks all were overturned after DNA evidence exonerated them. All have been released from prison except Edwards, who remains behind bars on a separate conviction.
The difference between those five cases and the Strong case is Strong was released after medical evidence cleared him, Nerheim said.
"We recently received reports from two experts in forensics that contradicted the versions of the previous testimony presented at trial," he said. "We made the corrective decision because of the amount of new evidence ... and I made the determination that we could not meet the burden to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."