Wrongfully convicted Lake County man settles suit for $9 million

  • Jason Strong is settling his wrongful conviction lawsuit against Waukegan, Lake County and other communities for $9 million.

    Jason Strong is settling his wrongful conviction lawsuit against Waukegan, Lake County and other communities for $9 million. Courtesy of The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center

 
 
Updated 9/26/2017 4:31 PM

A former Waukegan man wrongly imprisoned for a 1999 murder will receive $9 million through a settlement with the law enforcement agencies that put him behind bars.

Jason Strong, 42, will receive $6 million from Waukegan in the settlement's biggest payout. The financial balance will be divided among Lake County, Vernon Hills, Round Lake Beach, Buffalo Grove, Libertyville, Lincolnshire, Barrington Hills, North Chicago and Park City.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Each is responsible for roughly $333,333, according to official documents.

So many law enforcement agencies were named in Strong's lawsuit because each had representatives on the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, which investigated the murder.

Strong was convicted in 2000 of killing Carpentersville resident Mary Kate Sunderlin. Her badly beaten and decomposing body was found in December 1999 in the Greenbelt Forest Preserve near North Chicago.

Authorities said Sunderlin was murdered in a Wadsworth-area motel room and then dumped in the preserve.

Strong was sentenced to 46 years in prison. Police said Strong confessed, but he maintained his innocence through his trial and afterward.

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In May 2015, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim dropped all charges against Strong, citing new medical and forensic evidence that contradicted testimony during his trial. Witnesses recanted statements, too.

Strong, who now lives in Tennessee, filed his lawsuit against the agencies in 2016. In the complaint, he alleges police coerced witnesses and fabricated evidence.

Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are not admitting liability or wrongful conduct.

Strong was represented in the lawsuit by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and by the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University's law school.

Locke Bowman, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said Strong is grateful for the settlement and looking forward to moving on with his life.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We're pleased that this difficult and important case has been resolved," Bowman said. "Mr. Strong suffered an enormous loss for which no amount of money would provide adequate compensation."

Sunderlin's murder remains under investigation, Nerheim said. Because it's an open case, he declined to say whether there is another suspect or if he expects someone else will be charged.

Strong is among several men released from prison or jail in recent years because of wrongful convictions that occurred while Nerheim's predecessor, Michael J. Waller, was Lake County's top prosecutor.

Nerheim has made investigating claims of such injustices a priority since taking office in 2012.

"We have been taught since childhood that the worst possible outcome of any criminal case is an innocent person being convicted," Nerheim said this week. "There are tragic examples of this happening right here in Lake County. We are doing everything we can to ensure that this never happens again."

The Lincolnshire village board on Monday became the latest agency to approve the settlement. Its payment is expected to be covered by the village's insurance carrier at the time of the original crime, Village Manager Brad Burke said.

The Vernon Hills village board took similar action last week. Lake County, Waukegan, Barrington Hills and Park City officials also have approved the deal, while Buffalo Grove's insurance carrier is handling its part of the settlement.

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