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Illinois Supreme Court Announces Person Seeking Certificate of Innocence Need Only Prove Innocence of Originally Prosecuted Theory of Offense, not Every Conceivable Theory

The apartment of William Helmbacher was burglarized the day before he was murdered in 1998. Two weeks later, the fingerprint of Ray Taylor, one of Helmbacher’s neighbors, was recovered from a garbage bag containing some of Helmbacher’s property. Confronted with the fingerprint, Taylor told police he and his cousin, Charles B. Palmer, burglarized the apartment, and Palmer returned the next day and committed the murder during a robbery.

When he was arrested, Palmer was wearing tennis shoes with stains that could have been blood. The shoes were sent to a lab that determined there was no blood on the shoes. Two months later, the police sent what may have been different shoes back to the lab with the instructions to “tear the shoes apart,” an unusual request. The lab discovered two small blood stains under a piece of mesh. The blood contained Helmbacher’s DNA.

Based on the blood stains and Taylor’s testimony, Palmer was indicted, tried and convicted of murder, and sentenced to natural life. The indictment charged him with five counts of murder—each of which alleged he personally repeatedly struck Helmbacher on the head—and one count of residential burglary. The prosecution went forward on the theory that Palmer, acting alone, murdered Helmbacher. That is the theory of the crime for which he was convicted.

In 2010, Palmer’s motion for DNA testing of scrapings from Helmbacher’s fingernails was granted. Helmbacher had struggled with his murderer, yet the scrapings had not been previously tested. The tests showed two DNA profiles—Helmbacher’s and another, unidentified person who was not Palmer.

In June 2014, Palmer’s motion to test the DNA of three hairs recovered from Helmbacher’s hands was granted. Two hairs were unusable, but the third contained a DNA profile that was neither Helmbacher’s nor Palmer’s.

In November 2016, the trial court vacated Palmer’s conviction, dismissing the charges against Palmer based on the prosecutor’s representation that the DNA evidence made it impossible to prove Palmer was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The court ordered Palmer’s immediate release from custody.

In 2018, Palmer filed a petition seeking a certificate of innocence. He alleged that Taylor’s testimony and the blood stain evidence were unreliable for several reasons. The State disagreed, alleging that the DNA evidence proved he was not the person who struck the hammer blows that killed Helmbacher, but it did not prove that he was not involved in the murder as an accessory or a participant. The court denied the petition, and Palmer appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed, rejecting Palmer’s argument that the State could not change its theory of petitioner’s guilt. The Illinois Supreme Court granted Palmer leave to appeal. Twenty amicus briefs supporting him were filed.

The Supreme Court held that 735 ILCS 5/2-702(g)(3) requires Palmer to prove by a preponderance of the evidence he is innocent of the offenses charged in the indictment that resulted in his wrongful conviction. The Court explained that he is not required to disprove any alternative theories of criminal liability that were neither charged in the indictment nor presented to the jury.

In the present case, Palmer was charged with first degree murder by personally beating Helmbacher to death. The State conceded, and the evidence proved, he did not do that. Therefore, the Court held that Palmer “is entitled to a certificate of innocence because he has satisfied all” statutory requirements.”

The Court also instructed that the State is barred by judicial estoppel from taking contrary positions in separate judicial proceedings.

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Related legal case

People v. Palmer

 

 

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