Lawsuit claims police fabricated evidence leading to wrongful murder conviction
A former Waukegan man freed from prison last year after serving more than 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit is suing Lake County, the city of Waukegan and more than a dozen current and former law enforcement officers.
The suit filed by Jason Strong, 40, seeks undisclosed compensatory and punitive damages, and alleges the city and its police coerced witnesses and fabricated evidence, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress and immeasurable harm resulting from his "lengthy and unjust incarceration."
The suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
"(Strong) continues to suffer as he struggles to integrate into the free community and repair his shattered life," the suit states. "He brings this suit seeking justice and compensation from those responsible for his unjust charging and conviction."
Among the 26 named defendants are former Lake County Sheriff Gary Del Re, 14 other current or retired police officers, as well as nine Lake County towns whose officers worked for the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, including Buffalo Grove, Vernon Hills, Libertyville, Barrington Hills and Lincolnshire.
Waukegan police Cmdr. Joe Florip said Tuesday the department has not yet seen the lawsuit.
"We're waiting for it to come through, and when it does we'll dissect it, take a close look at it and go over it with our legal representatives," he said.
Strong was convicted in 2000 for the slaying of Carpentersville resident Mary Kate Sunderlin, whose badly beaten body was found in December 1999 in the Greenbelt Forest Preserve at the Waukegan-North Chicago border.
Authorities alleged Strong killed Sunderlin, 34, in a Wadsworth motel room after catching her going through his belongings, then dumped her body in the forest preserve. Sunderlin's body was so badly beaten it would take another six more years before she was positively identified.
According to the lawsuit, a few weeks after Sunderlin's decomposing body was discovered, the defendants invented a false narrative about the circumstances of her unsolved death, and fed the information to Jeremy Tweedy and Jason Johnson, two witnesses who had no connection to the murder.
They parroted the information back to police and claimed Strong participated in the murder, the lawsuit alleges.
Their statements came after they had been threatened by police, and both later attempted to retract their statements, according to the lawsuit.
Strong, then 24, was arrested Dec. 20, 1999. The suit alleges police ignored his request for an attorney, and subjected him to an all-night interrogation. After hours of questioning and threats, the suit alleges, Strong broke down, wept and made a false confession using information given to him by the law enforcement officers.
Strong maintained his innocence through his trial, which despite the lack of DNA or other physical evidence connecting him to the murder, ended with a conviction and 46-year prison sentence.
In May 2015, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim dropped all charges against Strong, clearing the way for his release from prison. At the time, Nerheim cited new medical and forensic evidence that contradicted the trial testimony against Strong, who now lives in Tennessee.
"I made the determination that we could not meet the burden to prove him guilty in court," Nerheim said at the time.
The suit claims Waukegan police have a long history of fabricating evidence, coercing suspects and witnesses, and suppressing or failing to disclose evidence that would help defendants.
Waukegan did not discipline officers responsible for wrongful convictions, but instead rewarded and promoted them despite their records, the suit states.
"The utter lack of consequences suffered (and the rewards enjoyed) by officers who committed multiple acts of serious misconduct directly encouraged abuses such as those affecting (Strong), and were the moving force behind the misconduct at issue in this case," the suit states.
"These practices became widespread because policymakers with authority over the same exhibited deliberate indifference to the problem, thereby effectively ratifying it."