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A crime revisited: Ex-prosecutor’s role in decades-old wrongful conviction takes spotlight in Foxx-O’Brien race

Political ads from the campaign of incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx make a serious charge in the starkest of terms: that her opponent Pat O’Brien secured wrongful convictions against four Black teenagers in the haunting 1986 rape and murder of a promising medical student.

The exonerated men in question are known as the Roscetti 4, and three of them spent about 14 years behind bars before advances in DNA testing cleared them and identified the actual killers. They appeared in one of Foxx’s videos blaming O’Brien for the injustice that befell them, while he has sought to blunt those accusations.

Omar Muhammad, formerly known as Omar Saunders, from left, Marcellius Bradford, and Larry Ollins and his cousin Calvin Ollins gather at the Daley Plaza on Aug. 27, 2020.

Omar Muhammad, formerly known as Omar Saunders, from left, Marcellius Bradford, and Larry Ollins and his cousin Calvin Ollins gather at the Daley Plaza on Aug. 27, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Despite the passage of time, questions persist about the case, but just how much responsibility O’Brien should bear is not clear-cut.

By the fall of 1987, he was a trial supervisor at the courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue and assigned with another assistant state’s attorney to prosecute the teens.

One defendant was an eighth grader who along with another teen signed written confessions. But they later blamed the coercion that produced their faulty statements on police, and O’Brien has said while he was a part of the state’s attorney’s felony review unit at the time, he was not part of the decision to charge them.

A recent Foxx ad opens with its most shocking claim: One of the men, Marcellius Bradford, said he will never forget O’Brien allegedly telling him at the time that he knew the four were innocent but the victim was “a white woman … somebody’s got to pay for this crime.”

An outraged O’Brien said the statement is a lie, citing the improbability of a prosecutor speaking alone to a murder defendant outside his attorney’s presence. The Tribune found no record in voluminous court filings of Bradford’s accusation, though his lawsuit did allege secret meetings.

John, left, and Lora Roscetti leave court in 1988 after the first of four defendants was convicted of killing their daughter. At right is then-Assistant State's Attorney Patrick O'Brien.

John, left, and Lora Roscetti leave court in 1988 after the first of four defendants was convicted of killing their daughter. At right is then-Assistant State's Attorney Patrick O'Brien. (Chuck Berman / Chicago Tribune)

O’Brien noted Bradford pleaded guilty in 2003 to theft by deception for trying to extort money from the attorney whose work had led to his exoneration. He said Foxx’s reliance on Bradford “shows either a complete lack of regard for the truth or incomprehensible naivete — neither quality that is becoming of a state’s attorney.”

Foxx stopped short of accusing O’Brien of misconduct when the Tribune asked about the ad, instead saying he should have done more to vet the credibility of the confessions. She described him as part of an old culture of “win at all costs," citing 27 wrongful convictions in the office when he held supervisory roles before returning to private practice in 1993.

The prosecutions of the Roscetti 4 were the only ones in that group that he personally handled, court records show.

The trial judge, juries and the appellate court found their confessions credible. The case came under scrutiny in 2001 after key witnesses recanted, scientific expert testimony was discredited and, most significantly, DNA tests — science that was unavailable during the trials — failed to link the four men to the evidence.

Two other defendants were charged after tests matched to their genetic profiles. Both have since died from cancer.

O’Brien said he now believes in the innocence of the Roscetti 4, but he defended the police work and the decisions he made. Prosecutors followed the evidence in good faith, he said, which included the court-reported confessions from two defendants, admissions to acquaintances and Bradford’s cooperation as a witness.

Experts consider it a key case that helped lead to the creation of a state’s attorney conviction integrity unit. It still is used as a training tool for prosecutors to better recognize false confessions.

Lora Roscetti, 91, has lived the terrible arc of her daughter’s slaying for 34 years.

“It’s like a kick in the stomach,” she said upon learning of its renewed spotlight in the election. “I just thought, boy, this never ends.”

Her daughter, Lori Ann, the youngest child of six, grew up in a quiet neighborhood in Springfield and was valedictorian of her high school class.

“She was my baby,” Roscetti said. “She was really smart and a hard worker. If she was sick when she was young and I didn’t let her go to school, she would have me go to get her homework.”

In 1986, the 23-year-old was studying to become a doctor at Rush University’s medical college. She was last seen driving to her apartment about 1 a.m. on an October night after a late night of studying. Hours later, a railroad officer found her badly beaten body on a desolate access road near the former ABLA Homes, a gang-afflicted West Side public housing complex.

Three months later, police brought in Bradford, 17, and 16-year-old Larry Ollins for questioning. Both teens lived at ABLA and had been arrested weeks after the murder for breaking into boxcars on the tracks not far from the crime.

Police said Bradford eventually confessed, implicating himself and Ollins, as well as Ollins' cousin, Calvin, a 14-year-old with a low IQ in special education classes with a clean juvenile record. Calvin also signed a written confession, while Larry Ollins maintained his innocence.

Omar Muhammad, then known as Omar Saunders, 18, was arrested two weeks later. Authorities alleged the motive was robbery so that Calvin Ollins could get fare to get back to his home in the Cabrini-Green public housing complex.

Calvin Ollins was the first to face a jury in 1988. Prosecutors told the panel the teen had signed a written statement describing crime-scene evidence that only someone who was there would know.

But defense attorney Ron Menaker told the Tribune detectives manipulated the boy, who could barely read. The teen alleged police led him to falsely believe his cousin had implicated him and if he signed the confession, he could go home — a defense the jury rejected.

Juries also convicted Muhammad and Larry Ollins in separate trials. Too young to face the death penalty, Muhammad and the Ollinses received life sentences. Bradford, who testified against Larry Ollins, received a 12-year plea deal for aggravated kidnapping. He served six.

O’Brien was repeatedly promoted between summer 1988 and fall 1993 before again returning to private practice. His final position was as then-State’s Attorney Jack O’Malley’s executive assistant.

Meanwhile, the defendants' appeals were rejected. In 2000, Muhammad wrote to noted defense attorney Kathleen Zellner, a specialist in wrongful convictions, for help. He cited recent Tribune articles about a former Chicago crime lab analyst at the center of allegations of wrongful convictions in other cases and who he argued falsely represented scientific evidence in their trials as well.

Zellner was intrigued. She hired a leading forensic expert who authored a 2001 report highly critical of the analyst’s work in nine cases, including the Roscetti murder, and found her testimony comparing the men’s blood to semen evidence from the victim’s body contradicted her own report.

A battery of DNA tests later excluded the four men, and instead matched two unidentified profiles. Muhammad and the Ollinses were freed in December 2001, and the four were later pardoned. Richard Devine, then state’s attorney, called the case a “real failure of the system.”

Within months, prosecutors charged Duane Roach and Eddie “Bo” Harris, men with long criminal records, both linked through DNA. Neither had a recorded crime of violence after Roscetti’s murder. They provided videotaped confessions, admitting they abducted her after smoking crack cocaine after she parked her car. They pleaded guilty, and both died from cancer while serving 75-year sentences.

Robert Milan, the supervising prosecutor who led the 2001 reinvestigation for Devine, recalled telling O’Brien about the new DNA results. “He said, ‘Bob, if that’s what the DNA says, you got to do what you got to do,’” Milan recalled. “No arguing, no yelling or saying we were wrong, just a total gentleman.”

The Roscetti 4 later sued. O’Brien was dismissed as a defendant before the settlements were reached.

Calvin Ollins settled for $1.5 million and Bradford for $900,000. Muhammad and Larry Ollins later split an $8 million settlement. “He never apologized to our city, to the people, to us,” Muhammad said of O’Brien. “He never apologized to Lori Roscetti’s family.”

Menaker and Tom Allen, who was Muhammad’s attorney, said police and prosecutors back then were bulletproof and, in high-profile cases like Roscetti, losing was not an option.

“The Roscetti prosecutors were handed a piece-of-crap case and they knew it,” said Allen, a retired judge. “But, they also knew how to work the system which was always tilted in their favor. And that’s what they did.”

O’Brien went on to become a judge for eight years, elected in 2006 as a Democrat, but he became a Republican before announcing his bid for state’s attorney. His trial partner in the Roscetti case, George Velcich, is now a member of his campaign team.

O’Brien acknowledged the reality that confessions can be false, but the former prosecutor defended the police work, saying the confessions were due “to the fact that the defendants themselves had IQs that weren’t very high. They were young and they were subject to believing that their wills were overborne, but it wasn’t by force.”

When asked if he owed the Roscetti 4 an apology, O’Brien did not offer one, but he said it “saddens me deeply” that the criminal justice system failed the victim and the men.

“I was part of the system,” he said. “Until the results of the DNA tests, I did not believe that they were innocent. With the DNA tests, tests that were not available at the time, I am now convinced that they were not involved and am grateful that scientific advancements enabled them to be exonerated.”

As for Lora Roscetti, the victim’s mother, she said she supports his election efforts despite the painful memories the Foxx ads against him resurrected.

“It’s politics,” she said. “What can you do?”

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