Credit: Yang Pulongbarit-Cuevo

This could be the story of two wrongful convictions. This could be the story of how James Allen was railroaded by a Chicago police detective and Cook County prosecutors who didn’t think he deserved to be free. But before he has the chance to prove that he’s innocent of two murders, Allen needs one thing: for Dorothy Brown, the clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, to do her job.

Allen, 68, has been incarcerated since 1984. Currently, he’s at the Pontiac Correctional Center 100 miles south of Chicago, but over the years he’s seen the inside of every maximum-security prison in the state, and spent some 14 years in solitary confinement—nearly nine of them at the now-closed Tamms supermax. The day before Mother’s Day this year, after spending the morning with his face in his pillow, hiding from fumes seeping through the ventilation system as someone was being maced on a cell tier below, Allen reflected: “I’ve never gotten over the fact that I was not able to see my mother when she passed away.” Most of the rest of his family members, too, have either died or lost touch with him over the years. “Every person who ever died in my life—I have never been to their wake, I have never been to a funeral, I have never heard a eulogy.”

Allen has been collecting evidence of his innocence in the contract murders of Carl Gibson and Robert Ciralski for years. Gibson was an alleged drug dealer prosecutors said was killed in a car in June 1984 by a hired hit man—Allen was convicted as the alleged driver. Ciralski was a drugstore owner who was killed in front of his Hyde Park home in August 1984, allegedly in a hit ordered by some notorious drug dealers because he refused to sell them supplies. In this case, too, Allen was the alleged getaway driver. There was never any physical evidence to tie Allen to either of these murders, and the state’s star witness in both cases was a convicted rapist who later recanted his statements about both of them. Court records later showed that the Cook County state’s attorney’s office under Richard M. Daley paid him tens of thousands of dollars for his cooperation.

In 2009, Allen made significant progress toward proving his innocence in the Ciralski case when another Illinois inmate gave him a written confession to the murder. Defendants are free to petition trial courts whenever they believe they’ve discovered new evidence that could challenge their conviction. Hundreds of prisoners file requests for postconviction hearings every year. Most of these petitions are thrown out as frivolous, and the defendants can be fined about $100 for wasting the court’s time. In fact, that’s exactly what happened when Cook County circuit court judge Nicholas Ford rejected the signed confession Allen obtained from the other inmate because it wasn’t notarized. The appellate court agreed with Ford. But in 2015 the Illinois Supreme Court determined that this confession had merit. Allen thus passed what’s known as the first stage of the postconviction process and advanced to the second stage, which entitles him to have a public defender or private attorney argue that he deserves a full evidentiary hearing. That hearing could lead to his conviction being overturned.

Allen’s attorney, Steven Becker, has worked for the Office of the State Appellate Defender (which represents defendants who can’t afford private attorneys in appeals) for close to a decade, and has represented many clients seeking to overturn convictions. “The majority of postconvictions filed do not advance to the second stage,” he says.

But Allen has been waiting for three years to have his day in court with this new evidence after Brown’s staff was unable to locate his full trial record, which Becker is required to review before he can argue in front of a judge on Allen’s behalf. Becker had been requesting these records for 16 months, ever since he took up Allen’s case in January 2017.

Then, last week, three days after the Reader first contacted Brown about Allen’s case, her staff informed Becker they had finally located the missing files.

“I look at that as divine intervention,” Allen exclaimed upon hearing the news last Friday. “I get a chance to come to court, to tell a story that I haven’t been able to tell in 33 years.”

Allen is far from the only defendant whose postconviction proceedings have been stalled because Brown, the guardian of more than a million boxes of Cook County criminal and civil case records, has delayed in finding or failed to supply requested files. Currently some 25 other defendants represented by the appellate defender’s office are in the same situation, and some delays have dragged on for more than a year. (No data is available for the number of defendants stymied by this issue who have private attorneys.)

Brown’s failure to provide warehoused records in a timely manner has been an ongoing problem for years. In 2013, after being publicly chastised by the appellate defender’s office, Brown promised sweeping reforms in her management practices. She also touted major improvements in record storage and retrieval in 2014, when the county opened a $24 million, state-of-the-art warehouse in Cicero, largely for her office’s use. However, as Allen’s case indicates, timely record retrieval continues to be a challenge for the clerk of the circuit court. Since the passage of a new law in 2017 that requires Brown to provide records for appeals electronically, there’ve also been significant delays in scanning and transmitting warehoused files. Allen’s attorneys haven’t been able to get digital records to proceed with his appeal of a rejected postconviction motion in the Gibson case for more than a year. The appellate defender’s office says more than 600 of its cases are currently held up for the same reason.

“This is not normal,” says Patricia Mysza, head of the state appellate defender’s Cook County office. “Our clients have a constitutional right to an appeal. . . . It’s the clerk’s obligation to prepare the complete record on appeal. And without that record our clients are not getting their constitutional right.”

On Friday, Brown’s office issued a statement acknowledging that the delay in providing records for Allen’s challenge of the Ciralski conviction shouldn’t have happened and said the clerk is working to make sure a situation like this doesn’t come up again.

“The Clerk’s Office is pleased to report that Mr. Allen’s complete files from his 1986 case have been delivered to Attorney Becker as a result of our thorough investigation into this situation,” Brown’s spokeswoman, Jalyne Strong-Shaw, wrote in an e-mail to the Reader. “The Clerk’s Office is disappointed that there was a delay in this particular situation. It’s possible that staffing issues caused by staff reductions due to budget cuts, increased workloads, and the attention required to convert to electronic appeals, combined with the disruption caused by the two-year relocation of a massive numbers of court files to the new Records Storage Center, may have contributed to this delay. Clerk Brown has directed upper management to put in place closer monitoring mechanisms for appellant records completion.”

As the years since the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision in Allen’s favor dragged on, he began to get suspicious. “I have no doubt about the incompetence of the clerk’s office,” he says. But given the full details of his cases, he’s assumed the worst. “I started getting paranoid and thinking [Brown] is in on a conspiracy with the forces that be to try to prevent me from getting into court.”

James Allen at the Pontiac Correctional Center in 1978. During his first stint in prison he became a licensed medical assistant and legal investigator.Credit: Courtesy of Allen’s friends

On a January night in 1969, a 19-year-old Allen sat in the backseat of a stolen car in front of the Bell & Howell camera manufacturing plant in Lincolnwood. Two of his friends—Larry Gibson and Tyrone Oby—sat in the front. Having rehearsed what they would do for three weeks in a row, they patiently waited for the arrival of an armored truck with $60,000 of the company’s payroll that they planned to rob. Allen says their plan was to distribute most of the money to charity groups around the Washington Park neighborhood and keep about two grand each for themselves. They’d brought ski masks, duct tape, handcuffs, and guns—a couple of pistols and an army AR-15 stolen from a railyard—though they didn’t think they’d need to use them. Allen sat with the rifle in his lap. A half hour passed after the truck’s scheduled delivery time, and the three began to feel nervous; they decided to abandon the robbery. Just as they started to drive away, Chicago police blocked their exit and they were blinded by a floodlight from the roof of the plant. Allen fired his rifle once, at the floodlight, and then, he says, “all hell broke loose.”

A shootout between officers, Gibson, and Oby erupted, in the course of which police detective Oliver Singleton was hit in the back of the neck and paralyzed. Gibson and Oby were killed on the spot, but Allen survived with a gunshot wound to his buttock. He was convicted of attempted armed robbery and attempted murder. When Singleton died 11 months after being shot, Allen was convicted of murder, even though he wasn’t the one who shot the officer. Allen began serving a sentence of 100 to 200 years in 1970. But the law at the time made him eligible for parole after eight years and six months.

Allen made the most of his time in prison. In the 70s IDOC ran a variety of educational and vocational programs for inmates. He got his GED, earned 80 hours of college credit, and became certified as a medical assistant and a legal investigator. He eventually worked on the defense team in the case of the Pontiac 17—gang leaders indicted in 1978 for starting a prison riot at Pontiac that ended with three guards dead and three injured. All 17 were acquitted, and Allen’s contributions in the case were noted by attorneys from the People’s Law Office, which represented the group. In a 1978 letter to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board Jeffrey Haas, one of the office’s lawyers on the case, noted Allen’s “intelligence, perception, and ability to articulate and understand legal issues,” adding, “My office is willing and anxious to employ him as a legal investigator.” Allen was also offered jobs by a church and the National Conference of Black Lawyers Community College of Law.

IDOC records reviewed by the Reader indicate that Allen was never affiliated with any gangs in all his years in prison, nor did he rack up any charges for misbehavior while serving his first stint. Nevertheless, every year that he went before the Prisoner Review Board between 1978 and 1983, the Chicago Police Department and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office vehemently protested his release. He was finally paroled in spring 1983, but, he says, he didn’t stop being a “cop killer” in the eyes of law enforcement. “I didn’t have a chance from the time I left. I was being followed, I was being watched, every time I’d get on a bus the police would watch me.” He started working for the People’s Law Office, but says he and his boss soon agreed that it was better for him to look for another job because the police were harassing him at work.

Allen remembers seeing cops outside his apartment every day. Sometimes, he says, they’d even follow him to the grocery store. His parole officer helped him to apply for public aid, but he says that he was too embarrassed to be on welfare and focused on looking for a job as a medical assistant. Ultimately, he got financial help from his family—his parents had by then moved back to their hometown in Mississippi, and Allen’s parole officer allowed him to travel and stay there for weeks at a time. But on August 9, 1984, he came home to his South Shore apartment to find the police there with a warrant for his arrest for the murder of 38-year-old Carl Gibson.

Allegedly, Gibson was working for a big-time drug dealer named Charles Ashley, and Ashley put out a hit on him in June 1984 because he suspected Gibson of being a police informant. CPD detective Michael Pochordo, who is now deceased, and prosecutors cited testimony from a confidential informant that Allen was the driver of a car in which Gibson was shot four times in the back of the head and then dumped on an exit ramp of the Chicago Skyway. Another man, Henry Griffin, was convicted of being the shooter and put on death row. No physical evidence was ever presented to tie Allen to the murder. Nevertheless, Allen was convicted by a jury and received a life sentence.

In February 1986, as Allen began serving time for the Gibson murder, he and five others including Griffin were indicted for the murder of 61-year-old Robert Ciralski, the south-side drugstore owner, who was killed on August 1, 1984. Once again, Pochordo and prosecutors claimed Allen was the getaway driver in a murder-for-hire scheme orchestrated by a notorious drug kingpin—this time Willie “Flukey” Stokes. The authorities said Stokes and two other high-level dealers put out a contract hit on Ciralski for allegedly cutting back on the quinine they needed to dilute heroin. No physical evidence tied Allen to this murder either, but this time police had Allen’s testimony before a grand jury acknowledging he was involved in the hit ordered by the three dealers.

However, even before then-state’s attorney Richard M. Daley announced indictments for the Ciralski murder to the public, Allen and codefendant Franklin Freeman (who also gave grand jury testimony) wrote letters to Stokes’s attorneys saying they had lied to the grand jury under pressure from police and prosecutors. Allen said Pochordo told him he’d get a lighter sentence if he implicated Stokes, because they already had testimony from a confidential informant implicating Allen. In the end, that confidential informant also recanted his story. Of the six people indicted for Ciralski’s murder, only Allen was convicted. Stokes and two other suspected drug dealers who allegedly paid for the murder were cleared because Allen, Freeman, and the confidential informant recanted their statements. Griffin—who never gave a statement in this case—was also cleared due to the recantations.

Allen and Freeman were both prosecuted based on their self-incriminating statements alone, but had separate juries. Freeman was acquitted in August 1987, but Allen was convicted. The Tribune summarized the “twist of irony” that ended the case: “The man who allegedly recruited the hit men never was charged; those suspected of hiring the killers went free; the man charged with accompanying the gunman was found innocent; and even the suspected gunman never went to trial for the killing. But . . . the getaway driver, accused of sitting in a car near the murder scene, was convicted. He now faces the death penalty.”

Today, Allen is back at Pontiac, though over the years he’s been at every maximum-security prison in the state.Credit: IDOC

Allen was ultimately spared death row, but the additional life sentence without parole pretty much guaranteed that he’d never be a free man again. His reputation as a thrice-convicted murderer was sealed in the press coverage of his trials.

Pochordo and prosecutors relied on statements from the same confidential informant to bring charges against Allen for both the Gibson and Ciralski murders. That informant was Darryl Moore—an ex-convict and admitted hit man whose credibility was impeached as early as 1986, when he recanted his statements about Stokes contracting the Ciralski murder. He told the Tribune in an interview at the time that he used payments he received from the state’s attorney’s office in exchange for his statements to run a drug operation and that he had “no hesitation” about framing people “for the money.” Under Daley, the state’s attorney’s office paid Moore tens of thousands of dollars for information in heater cases, the Tribune and Chicago Lawyer reported. Court filings by the state’s attorney’s office in the early 2000s confirmed payments of some $66,000. Moore was also able to get reduced sentences for various crimes in exchange for providing testimony.

Ultimately, Moore was convicted of the 1987 rape of an 11-year-old girl in Uptown that he allegedly committed after the state’s attorney’s office dropped charges against him in another case in exchange for his testimony in the Gibson murder. Moore claimed prosecutors pinned the rape charges on him in retaliation for recanting his statements. He’s currently serving a 60-year sentence. In the years after he first implicated Allen in the Gibson and Ciralski murders, Moore made videotaped statements to defense attorneys recanting what he said about both murders.

“When you look at my record, I’ve never been arrested for killing anybody,” Allen says. “No one ever said ‘James Allen shot a gun at this person or that person.’ I was always made the driver.”

With the help of lawyers and friends, Allen has collected a wide array of new evidence that he thinks can prove his innocence—most importantly a signed confession from another IDOC inmate, 73-year-old Robert Langford. Langford says he killed Ciralski during a botched robbery attempt and that Allen had nothing to do with it. Allen believes that unraveling his conviction for the Ciralski murder is a first step to clearing his name in the Gibson murder too, since the same detective and prosecutors were involved in both cases and unreliable statements from Moore were used both times.

Allen never expected the appeals process to be quick or easy, but clerical delays are particularly frustrating. “I know other [prisoners] who have said they’ve had to wait for documents that were missing,” he says. “Even before I had good evidence in my case I’ve heard guys complain about Dorothy Brown for a number of years now—not just her in particular but the clerk’s office.”

The Better Government Association first shed light on Brown’s delays in processing records requests back in 2013. At the time, a high-level official in the Illinois appellate defender’s office wrote several scathing letters to Brown. In an April 2013 letter, then-deputy defender Alan Goldberg wrote to Brown reminding her that the appellate defender’s office had met with her to discuss the “major problem” of obtaining warehoused court records in 2011. “Virtually no progress has been made,” Goldberg wrote, adding that at that time in 2013 his office had “132 outstanding requests for warehouse transcripts, of which 13 have been outstanding for over one year and 37 have been outstanding for more than six months.” Goldberg wrote that Brown’s office hadn’t offered a solution to this problem at a recent meeting. “I believe that it is critical . . . that the management of the records center be made aware of the difficulty that those involved in this process are having in locating warehouse transcripts, and that a higher level of organization be imposed at the records center.”

Nearly four months later, in July, Goldberg again wrote to Brown saying that he couldn’t “report any real, notable progress” in her office’s delays servicing warehouse records requests. “Historically, it seems that your office waits until a problem is beyond a crisis and only then works feverishly to correct it,” Goldberg wrote. “However, no new system is implemented to make sure the problem does not occur.” He added that his office still had 128 outstanding requests for warehouse transcripts, and that 18 had been outstanding for more than a year and an additional 40 for more than six months. “We have still not heard any real solution to this problem of finding and providing these records to us in a timely manner, which appears to relate to problems at the records center.”

Goldberg finally heard back from Brown more than a month later, according to correspondence published by BGA. “You should know that it does concern me that we have revisited these same issues over the last couple of years, which is not acceptable to me,” Brown wrote. She blamed staffing cuts and “inadequate oversight” on the problems Goldberg described. She said she’d discussed the problems with her staff, “identified areas for improvement in our process/procedures,” and was devising a plan “by which there will be a practical infrastructure in place with measured sustainability.”

The next month, Brown announced “dramatic procedural changes to improve response time to [the] state appellate defender,” which outlined a process to digitize records, making the process of responding to the appellate defender’s office “even more efficient.”

Cook County opened a “state-of-the-art” warehouse for more than a million boxes of court records in Cicero in 2014.Credit: Maya Dukmasova

In April 2014, Brown, several Cook County commissioners, and Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle proudly announced the opening of the $24.2 million Records Storage and Digital Imaging Center at an enormous warehouse in Cicero. Up till then the circuit court’s archives had been scattered across several aging warehouses. The new facility, roughly the size of four and a half football fields, was supposed to accommodate some 1.1 million boxes of records, and had a staff of 80 employees to keep them organized with “state-of-the-art technology.”

“The vastness and strategic design of this facility allows for the well-organized storage and rapid retrieval of the records,” Brown said at the ribbon cutting. But more than a year later, in June 2015, Fox 32 reported that the facility seemed far from being up and running. Thousands of boxes, still wrapped and on moving pallets, could be seen through its windows, while rows upon rows of shelves stood empty. Fox 32 reported observing the warehouse in this state over the course of several months. Back then, Brown’s office denied any delay in putting the facility to use, but it acknowledged to the Reader last week that “a move of this magnitude has presented various logistical challenges.” Brown’s spokeswoman added that the archive is now entirely in place in Cicero, “enabling the Clerk’s Office to be able to retrieve the documents and files more efficiently.”

The Illinois appellate defender’s office says that despite the announced improvements in the clerk’s office, delays in getting records from Brown continue to be an “ongoing problem.”

“We’re constantly working with them to urge them to try to locate the records, to try to search the warehouse,” says deputy defender Mysza. “The clerk’s office informs us that they are aware of the problems and they are working to fix them.”

In 2016 a circuit court judge denied Allen’s request to present new evidence to prove his innocence of the Gibson murder—a denial he’s now appealing. Mysza said her office requested Allen’s records related to this case in early 2017, and that Brown’s office confirmed that they have them all. However, Illinois law now requires circuit court clerks to prepare digitized records for appeal—something Mysza says Brown’s office has chronic difficulty doing in a timely manner.

“When the records were just paper records they would be able to file close to a hundred records a month,” says Mysza. “In the last several months they’re not averaging anywhere close to that.”

Allen’s is one of more than 600 cases her office can’t proceed to appeal due to delays in processing paper records at what Brown touted as “hi-speed scanning stations” in a press release about the new warehouse.

Brown’s office didn’t provide an explanation about why it’s taking so long to digitize records but acknowledged working on Allen’s file for Mysza’s office. “The Clerk’s Office’s Criminal Division received several volumes of this large file from Records Storage and is completing an audit to ensure that all documents are included,” Strong-Shaw said in her e-mail. “Once all documents are accounted for, the case is expected to be electronically filed to the [appellate defender].”

Last month, Brown announced she was running for mayor—much to the surprise of many, given that her office is under a years-long federal probe for job selling and bribery. At the announcement at the glitzy Hilton & Towers downtown, Brown, clad in a red dress and sporting three strings of oversize costume pearls, pledged to revolutionize the mayor’s office as 125 enthusiastic supporters cheered her on.

“I pledge to not just think outside the box but to find new and sustainable revenue sources to create a new box using technology and revenue-generating sources that have been proven effective by cities both here and abroad,” she said.

At the announcement, the Reader pressed her on why her own office continues to struggle with processing records requests in a timely manner.

“You know if you really got into it really closely you would find that the interesting thing about that is that those records are held by a lot of different people,” Brown said. “We have the state’s attorney and then the public defender—a lot of different people. It’s a moving target, and what I have done to really fix that is make sure that every record that goes to the state or public defender gets scanned before it leaves my organization so we’re going to continue to do that and that’s how we have fixed that matter.”

Meanwhile, that same day, James Allen sat behind a thick layer of glass in a concrete visitation cubicle at Pontiac Correctional Center. He bears a resemblance to Harry Belafonte—especially when he smiles—and speaks in a deliberate, thoughtful manner. He’s got a knack for recalling dates and sometimes, as he explains various elements of his case, he descends down rhetorical rabbit holes, preempting possible arguments that could be used to challenge him with well-reasoned, evidence-based responses. To remain positive over the years, he’s relied on correspondence with a couple of steadfast friends, his Catholic faith, physical fitness, and the belief that he can prove his innocence. The thought that other people may have faced injustice at the hands of the same police officers and prosecutors has also kept him going. (At least one pending federal lawsuit accuses Pochordo of civil rights violations.)

“I know that I’m innocent,” Allen says. “I’m totally convinced that other people who are in prison today, that Pochordo put in prison, is also innocent.” He also says that the murder victims’ families deserve to have their cases solved and their reputations repaired. A few weeks after Richard M. Daley announced indictments in the Ciralski murder and told reporters the shopkeeper was connected to a drug ring, the Tribune reported that a cross was burned in Ciralski’s African-American widow’s front yard. “The Ciralski family was put through some horrible social situations—neighbors turned their backs on them, friends turned their backs on them, they became a pariah family because of false accusations the police department made,” Allen says. “Those people deserve some respect, they deserve the truth told to clear their family name. Their grandchildren need to know the actual story.”

Even if Allen’s convictions for the Gibson and Ciralski murders are overturned, and even if the Cook County state’s attorney declines to retry him, Allen won’t necessarily walk out of prison. Because the Gibson murder indictment interrupted his parole, he’s still got an ongoing sentence for the murder of Singleton. He could theoretically be eligible for parole again, but there’d be one more hitch: In 1990, after months in solitary confinement, Allen and five other inmates escaped from the Joliet Correctional Center. After they were caught, Allen got an additional four years tacked on to his sentence—to be served on top of his other sentences and not concurrently. But Allen’s optimistic about his chances at a gubernatorial pardon.

He muses about what he would do with his life if he were to make it out. He says he’d definitely get involved in various justice and violence-prevention causes. But his dream is to go back to Clarke County, Mississippi, to some land his father’s family has owned for generations. He dreams of visiting his parents’ graves there, and living out the remainder of his years as a farmer. In fact, that had been his plan when he was released on parole in 1983. “My entire goal was to get back to Mississippi,” he says.   v

Ashley Mizuo contributed reporting to this story.