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In April 2000 Kathleen T. Zellner received a letter from an inmate of Stateville Prison in Joliet, Ill., that would ultimately cost her $50,000 and 800 hours of her time — but would end in the exoneration of that inmate and three others convicted of the rape and murder of a Chicago medical student. Omar Saunders, who had been in prison for 13 years, asked Zellner of Naperville, Ill.’s Zellner & Associates to take over the appeal of his conviction. Saunders knew another Zellner client, Billy Wardell, who had been convicted of rape, then cleared as a result of Zellner’s investigation and use of DNA tests. In his letter, Zellner recalled, Saunders claimed to be innocent, not an unusual claim by an inmate sentenced to life. But the letter from Saunders was different. It offered “scientific evidence” that, if true, would have excluded Saunders and all three men who were convicted with him: Larry Ollins, his cousin Calvin Ollins and Marcellius Bradford. The murder of Lori Roscetti occurred on Oct. 18, 1986, in Chicago, and the investigation became a media circus, Zellner said. The defendants, all young black men from housing projects, were arrested several months later amid accusations that the murder was part of a “wilding” spree. At the time, the four were the youngest defendants convicted in Illinois of murder, ranging in age from 14 (Ollins) to 18 (Saunders). Three were sentenced to life. Bradford confessed and implicated the others. He received a 12-year sentence and was released after six years. Saunders wrote that the actual killers of Roscetti were “O-secreters,” as shown by a semen test involving blood type, but the men convicted of the murder were all “non-secreters.” Zellner realized that the Chicago lab technician who had been the prime witness against the four was the same one whose later-discredited testimony had sent Wardell to prison. Zellner took the case. She contacted a California DNA expert, Dr. Edward Blake, with whom she had worked on the other case. She sent him the details of the lab report. Blake indicated that lab technician Pamela Fish’s report in this case was even more erroneous than the one in the Wardell case. Zellner said it’s important to contact a qualified DNA expert as soon as that issue comes up. “You must have a really good forensic scientist,” she said. “The science is so complicated, you might make a mistake.” Zellner then sought DNA testing of the evidence used against the four at trial. The inmates had previously contacted attorney Barry Scheck in 1998, Zellner said. “He had contacted the Chicago Police Department and was informed that the evidence was destroyed.” As a result, Scheck declined to take the case. FINDING THE EVIDENCE But Zellner had a contact in the Cook County Circuit Court clerk’s office who checked the evidence and found the rape kit from the initial investigation. It included semen from a vaginal swab. In an arrangement with the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office, the rape kit evidence, along with DNA from the four defendants, was sent to a lab in Canada. The report came back in May 2001. “It exonerated all four,” Zellner said, but the state was not satisfied. More evidence was sent for testing, including 22 semen stains on the victim’s clothing. At the trial, Zellner said, lab tech Pamela Fish had “said there were no stains. They didn’t want the jury to know that the killer was an O-secreter.” The results of this test were revealed in September. The defendants were excluded. The state insisted on tests of two pubic hairs and two head hairs found at the scene. Zellner had some trepidation about testing the hairs. Her clients believed the hairs were planted. She went through the evidence again and discovered, she said, “that the pubic hair was at the crime scene.” The head hairs were not discovered until months later, “but even they predated my clients’ arrests.” The pubic hairs were tested first. The results were announced in November; all four men were excluded. On Dec. 3, the head hairs were excluded. Saunders and the Ollinses were released from prison on Dec. 5.

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