Was an Innocent Man Sent to Prison for Killing a Cop 46 Years Ago?

Cleve Heidelberg says his only mistake on a fateful night in 1970 was lending his car to a cop killer. Forty-six years later, he's still in prison.

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Aug 16 2016, 4:50pm

Cleve Heidelberg after his arrest for allegedly killing a sheriff's deputy in 1970. Photo via Peoria County Sheriff's Office

In January 1971, Cleve Heidelberg, a 27-year-old black man, had just been convicted of killing a cop and was waiting to learn if he'd be sentenced to death when he received a vague but encouraging note from a man who had just landed in the same prison.

Scribbled on a scrap of paper, the note promised Heidelberg information that would "clear-up the error made." It was the first communication he received from James Clark, who would go on to sign a confession to the murder for which Heidelberg has spent the last 46 years in prison. And after a judge ordered a special prosecutor to look into the case last month, Heidelberg is closer than ever to what would be an historic exoneration.

According to Heidelberg, on the evening of May 26, 1970, he was drinking at the T. T. Club in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, when he ran into a friend, Lester Mason, who asked to borrow his car. Heidelberg agreed, spending the rest of the night out with friends before ending up at an after-hours spot called Dimps. That's where, he claims, Mason returned around 2 AM only to tell him the car was wrecked nearby.

When Heidelberg went to retrieve his vehicle, he walked into a police stakeout. Cops wrestled him to the ground, unleashed their dogs on him, and beat him so viciously they crushed a disc in his spinal cord, causing permanent nerve damage, according to his attorney.

Heidelberg maintains he didn't know Sheriff's Deputy Raymond Espinoza had been shot and killed while responding to an armed robbery at a drive-in movie theater earlier that night. The shooter had fled, and after a brief car chase through the streets of Peoria County, crashed a car in a residential area before taking off on foot.

The car was Heidelberg's blue Chevy, and he was charged with Espinoza's murder.

The trial further split apart a city already buckling under the weight of racially charged policing. At least one bomb threat was sent to the courthouse during the proceedings, prompting round-the-clock security for the judge and prosecutors. Several black witnesses appeared in court to corroborate Heidelberg's alibi, but prosecutors—who leaned almost entirely on eyewitnesses—urged jurors to just "look" at them: "Do they even look credible or believable?" co-prosecutor John Riddle asked. Speaking to the all-white jury about the prosecution's white witnesses, a number of them law enforcement officers, Riddle added, "I think you can learn from looking at them and listening to them that they are obviously a reliable group."

Heidelberg was convicted of the murder in December 1970.

But just before Heidelberg's sentencing, Clark made good on his promise to "clear-up the error" and confessed that it was he who shot Espinoza. He had borrowed Heidelberg's car from Mason, both men said, and Clark claimed he feared for his life when he saw Espinoza racing toward him at the drive-in, writing in a 1971 affidavit, "It was kill or be killed." (Clark's brother, Mark, had been killed the year before, gunned down by Chicago police in the same controversial raid that claimed the life of powerful Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.)

Heidelberg's public defender tried to use Clark's confession as grounds to nullify the conviction, but the court agreed with the state that it should be ignored.

Following a failed appeal in 1975, exculpatory evidence lay buried until Chicago-based criminal defense lawyer Andrew Hale took on the case about a year ago. Having spent the last decade defending cops from civil litigation in wrongful-conviction cases, Hale still describes himself as a "skeptic" when it comes to most claims of innocence. But he was moved to probe Heidelberg's case because he simply didn't believe a guilty man would so quickly return to the scene of his own crime.

The attorney scoured every detail of the case to determine what really happened the night that Espinoza was killed, submitting Freedom of Information requests to the Peoria County State's Attorney's Office and Peoria County police and sheriff's departments, even stretching his reach to the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Joining him in the fight is Marcella Teplitz, a former Peoria police detective who now works as a private investigator. The two have tracked down every surviving person involved in the episode: the circle of young men in whose orbit James Clark and Heidelberg's fates converged; the cadre of officers who chased the man in a blue Chevy and swore in court he was Heidelberg; and the police dispatcher on duty the night of the car chase.

They have unearthed a wealth of compelling information, including reports from the FBI suggesting Heidelberg's fingerprints were not on the murder weapon, and that the sheriff's department may have destroyed or withheld evidence from the trial. Heidelberg's car was never tested for fingerprints, Hale claims, adding that he's uncovered documents showing police spied on Heidelberg's conversations with his original public defender, as well as evidence of witness coercion, tampering, and bribing.

Hale also spoke to one of James Clark's brothers, Matt, who affirmed the allegations of coercion. Matt Clark was in Peoria the night of the murder and now lives in Pasadena, California. In an affidavit signed this past March and reviewed by VICE, he said, "After my brother confessed, the state's attorneys tried to coerce me to implicate Heidelberg in the murder. But I refused."

The fresh scrutiny hasn't dissuaded prosecutor Ron Hamm, one half of the team that helped put Heidelberg away in the first place. Though he has not reviewed any of Hale's research or arguments, Hamm told me, "If I thought that there was any possibility that he was not guilty, I would be the first one to come to his defense."

When asked to account for some of the questions Hale's findings raise, Hamm claims to draw a complete blank—it's been more than 45 years since the original trial and the prosecutor has worked more than 300 cases in the interim. Burt the prosecutor recalls with ease the key details that support the original conviction, right down to the names of officers involved and the reason Clark's confession was dismissed: According to Hamm, the man had no credibility because he was already in prison for a six-to-eight year term and had been diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, which the prosecutor deemed a virtual death sentence.

(No record confirms James Clark had any such terminal disease. In fact, he lived to age 76, becoming a lawyer and preacher.)

Hale presented his findings to Peoria State's Attorney Jerry Brady in February. In a brief phone call with Hale, the prosecutor declined to reopen the case. Brady also declined a request for comment from VICE, as did the Peoria Police Department and the county sheriff's office.

Heidelberg finally caught a break at a hearing on July 28, when Judge Albert Purham, Jr. noted Brady had only considered the appeal over a seven-minute conversation with Hamm and called for a special prosecutor to look into the case. The Illinois Attorney General's office is now tasked with investigating and issuing a written opinion. Judge Purham also granted Hale's petition for a post-conviction proceeding, which allows him to present new exonerating evidence in the meantime.

If Heidelberg were to be exonerated, he would likely be the longest wrongfully convicted person to be freed in American history. "I have been kept in a state of death for the last 45 years and 8 months," he wrote last year in a letter published on Hale's website, freecleve.com. "With your help, I'm raising from the steel and concrete coffins in which I've been held."

Teplitz, the former Peoria cop helping Hale with Heidelberg's case, has no doubt he will be found innocent. She remembers the murder well, as it rocked Peoria just as she was graduating college and beginning her career as a police officer. But she holds no illusions about what exoneration would mean for a 73-year-old man who's spent more time behind bars than in the outside world.

Reflecting on it today, she tells me, "There are no winners in this case—there is not going to be a happy ending."

Follow Charlotte Silver on Twitter.

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