The ancient image of Themis, goddess of justice and law, is a common sight in U.S. courthouses; her statue often called Blind Justice.
On Jan. 23, the Illinois Supreme Court found those ideals missing from Judge John Morrissey’s courtroom 16 years ago when, after a 30-minute trial, he sentenced 16-year-old, Austin resident Terrance Walker to 60 years in prison. The high court overturned his 1994 murder conviction. Walker, now 32 is awaiting a new trial.
For the past three years, his attorney, Robert Stephenson, has fought to get Walker’s case reconsidered, first by an appellate court, then by the state Supreme Court. Stephenson, whose practice is in Oak Park, never argued that Walker was without fault when, at age 15, he shot two gang members in 1992, saying they had threatened to kill him and his family.
Stephenson contended that, due to Morrissey’s arbitrary ruling, Walker never had a fair trial where an adequate and prepared defense counsel was allowed to explore mitigating factors related to the shooting.
“This is a case that challenges the integrity of the entire criminal justice system,” said Stephenson.
Walker was a 15-year-old Austin High School freshman on June 6, 1992, the day Terry Matthews, a noted gang member, allegedly showed him a quantity of crack cocaine stored under the hood of his car. When the drugs went missing, Walker says Mathews blamed him and threatened his life. Then Matthews and Stanford, whom Walker knew to be a Gangster Disciple going by the street name “Wild,” showed up at Walker’s home on the 1400 block of North Mayfield.
Walker told police Matthews had a gun in his waistband when he arrived at the house. The two men, he told police, threatened to beat him and shoot both him and his family if he didn’t return the cocaine they said he’d stolen. Walker said he told the two he’d given the drugs to a friend, but that it was a lie, designed to buy him time. After agreeing to wait for Matthews to contact him via a beeper, Walker went to the family garage and grabbed his .22 caliber semi-automatic handgun. He then left with Matthews and Stanford. At one point, Walker said he saw Stanford take a handgun from the car’s trunk before he and Matthews left briefly, saying they were “going to go and get some money.” When they returned, Walker said, Stanford was no longer carrying a gun.
The three eventually drove to a spot near Kammerling and Pine, where Walker had said his friend lived. After pretending to look around and knock on doors, Walker returned to the car, got in the rear seat and shot both men in the back of their heads.
After the shooting, Walker said he ran home, grabbed a bike and rode west on Division through Oak Park to the Des Plaines River, where he threw the gun into the river, then returned home and went to bed. Investigators identified Walker as a suspect. They tracked him down and brought him in for questioning. Alone, without his mother or a youth officer present – which is required by law – the boy signed a seven-page handwritten document incriminating himself. But he also outlined mitigating circumstances, including the two men possessing guns and threatening his life.
None of that would ever come up at trial.
On the day he stood trial, Walker’s third and newly-appointed public defender, Viola Rouse, told Judge Morrissey she had mistakenly entered Walker’s trial date in her calendar as Jan. 26, 1994. She also told Morrissey she’d been on trial the past two days until 6 or 7 p.m. and was simply not prepared to go to trial. Judge Morrissey told her he was proceeding to trial anyway, saying “It is irrelevant. There isn’t a private attorney in the business who hasn’t tried to pull something like this.”
Rouse stressed she wasn’t originally assigned to Walker’s case, to which Morrissey replied: “I know. But it’s a dirty shame,” before ordering the trial to commence.
Walker was facing first-degree murder charges. Less than 30 minutes later, Morrissey found him guilty of second degree murder.
A long, fruitless struggle
After her son went to prison, Sarah Walker could only pray she would find someone able to help her. An uneducated but religiously-devout woman who worked as a factory machinist, Sarah Walker said she did what she could. At one point she took out a $20,000 second mortgage on her home to pay for an attorney to work on her son’s appeal. He took the money but did nothing.
“I just kept praying for God to send me someone,” she said.
Finally, in 2005, she found someone. Walker’s cellmate was a former client of Stephenson’s. He agreed to take the case, and Sarah, who had kept literally every scrap of paper related to her son’s arrest and trial, gratefully handed it over. Though a veteran criminal attorney, Stephenson said he was “repulsed” by what she gave him.
“I’ve worked a lot of murder cases and never in my life have I seen a 42-page trial transcript,” he said. “You can read it in nine minutes.
“You can’t convince me of anything in 42 pages. He didn’t consider any of the factors he was supposed to,” Stephenson said of Morrissey.
In 2006, Stephenson got the Illinois Supreme Court to order the circuit court to reopen the case and allow an appeal. The appellate court upheld the circuit court, however, requiring Stephenson to appeal that ruling.
“I never thought I’d have to return to the Supreme Court,” he said.
Eight days before his 32nd birthday, that court gave Terrance Walker a second chance. In a scathing ruling, it found Morrissey had “completely abdicated (his) responsibility to conduct an informed deliberation of defense counsel’s motion” and had “reflexively denied the continuance request on the sole basis that the case had been set for trial.”
Sometime within the next month or so, Terrance Walker will likely be a free man while awaiting a new trial. He has set foot out of prison since he was 15 years old. His mom looks forward to finding a truck driver training program for him, “So he can start doing something with his life – make a life and be independent.”