Man convicted of murder based on testimony of blind witness wins freedom as prosecutors opt against new trial – Boston Herald

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Two weeks after a Cook County judge overturned his murder conviction, Darien Harris is expected to be a free man again after prosecutors said Tuesday they will not retry him in a fatal shooting at a South Side gas station.

Harris was an 18-year-old high school senior with a clean criminal record when prosecutors charged him in an ambush-style attack that left one man dead and another seriously injured in June 2011. His conviction was based in part on the testimony of an eyewitness who turned out to be legally blind.

Now 30, Harris has spent the last 12 years behind bars fighting for a new trial. He has long maintained his innocence, saying he was at home watching LeBron James play in the NBA finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks.

Outside of court Tuesday, his mother said she can’t wait for her son to meet his 5-year-old sister and celebrate the holidays with his family. She also thanked supporters, including the Rev. Corey Brooks and community activist Ja’Mal Green, as well as her son’s legal team and God.

“I’m so excited right now. I don’t even have the words to explain how grateful I am,” Nakesha Harris told the Tribune. “This will be his first Christmas with all his siblings in 12 years. He has a 5-year-old sister that he hasn’t met. This will be the best Christmas ever.”

Her son was serving a 76-year prison term after a judge found him guilty of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm following a 2014 bench trial.

Prosecutors lacked physical evidence linking Harris to the shooting, but now-retired Judge Nicholas Ford said at the time that he based his ruling primarily on the testimony of Dexter Saffold, a man who testified that he witnessed the shooting while on his way home from a fast-food restaurant.

The judge was unaware during the trial that Saffold was legally blind due to glaucoma, according to Harris’ attorney, Lauren Myerscough-Mueller. She had argued in court filings that Harris was wrongfully convicted based on mistaken eyewitness testimony and police misconduct.

Saffold testified that he was riding his motorized scooter north on Stony Island Avenue near the gas station when he heard gunshots and saw someone about 18 feet from him aiming a handgun at a person near a car with its hood up. He could see the muzzle flashes and heard more than two gunshots, Saffold testified. He also said the shooter bumped into him while running away, nearly dropping the gun while trying to put it into a pocket.

Saffold picked Harris out of a police lineup and also identified him in court during the 2014 trial.

Saffold’s eyesight came up only briefly during the trial, court records show. Harris’ original attorney asked Saffold if his diabetes affected his vision. He replied yes, then paused and changed his answer, denying he had vision problems.

But Saffold’s doctor had deemed him legally blind some nine years before the murder, records show. As part of Harris’ 2022 post-conviction petition, his legal team cited medical records dating to 2002 that Saffold had publicly filed in various lawsuits regarding his disability. Harris’ attorneys also presented to the court an expert opinion from an ophthalmologist regarding Saffold’s impaired vision.

On Dec. 5, Cook County prosecutors agreed with Harris’ post-conviction request to vacate his conviction and sentence, clearing the way for a new trial. But on Tuesday prosecutors told Cook County Judge Diana Kenworthy they had decided to drop all charges.

“Upon further review of the totality of the evidence the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO) has decided against retrying the case against Darien Harris,” according to a statement released by the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. “We remain committed to the work of justice in the pursuit of safe and healthy communities.”

About a dozen members of Harris’ family attended the brief court hearing, including his mother, wife, siblings and other relatives. Myerscough-Mueller and Harris’ mother said they expect him to be freed from the county jail by Tuesday evening. When asked how they will celebrate his first day of freedom, his mother said: “I’m sure change into his new clothes and eat some real food and see his siblings.”

Myerscough-Mueller said Darien Harris was a week away from graduation in 2011 when arrested. She said he has received his GED, worked jobs and completed other educational programs while incarcerated. She said he hopes to continue his education and move “someplace warm” in the future.

“He spent his formative years in prison,” said Myerscough-Mueller, an attorney with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. “He’s still pretty young, so the good news is he has time to build a really beautiful life. We’re very grateful to Kim Foxx’s office for doing the right thing. … I think Kim Foxx herself looked at the case and determined it was not something they would stand behind, given the evidence, that justice demanded this action.”

The victim in the shooting, 23-year-old Rondell Moore, had pulled into a gas station in Woodlawn because of car troubles after 8 p.m. on June 7, 2011. Moore put up the car’s hood to inspect the problem, assisted by a local mechanic who arrived at the station on his bike shortly afterward. Moore’s older brother and a friend also were there.

The station’s surveillance system did not capture the shooting, but prosecutors said the video did show an individual walking away from a black Lexus and around the gas station building toward the area where the shooting occurred, then running away shortly afterward. The video showed a man whose thin build and short hairstyle generally fit Harris, but the suspect’s face was not visible.

Moore, who was shot three times, ran from the gas station and died in a nearby parking lot. The 51-year-old mechanic survived bullet wounds to his back and an arm.

Though prosecutors previously maintained they had credible evidence from other eyewitnesses that pointed to Harris’ guilt, Myerscough-Mueller alleged police misconduct played a role in those identifications. She said the alleged getaway driver, who has since died, took the stand during Harris’ trial and recanted his initial identification of Harris. He said Harris was never in his car and police officers coerced him into making a false identification, according to court records.

The police detectives also testified at the 2014 trial, denying they pressured the man to identify Harris.

Harris’ attorneys said in court records that they have uncovered evidence identifying the actual shooter as another teenager who was killed several months later, also during an ambush-style shooting at a South Side gas station.

Myerscough-Mueller said a gas station employee who did not testify during Harris’ 2014 trial has identified that man — not Harris — as the shooter in the earlier incident. The employee alleged police tried to coerce him into making a false identification, according to the attorney.

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