On a hot July afternoon in 1998 the mostly naked body of 11-year-old Ryan Harris was found in an isolated backyard in Englewood. She’d been missing for a day. Her face was battered and covered with blood, her mouth stuffed with a pair of underpants. A folded leaf was in each nostril.
Less than two weeks later two boys, ages seven and eight, were charged with her murder. Detectives said that during questioning at a police station the boys made incriminating admissions and gave details of the crime only the killers could have known. “We are certain we have the right people,” Area One sergeant Stanley Zaborac told a swarm of reporters at a press conference.
The boys were among the youngest accused murderers in U.S. history, so the case got not only national but international attention. Many commentators hurried past the question of whether the boys were innocent or guilty to take up the issues of causes and cures. They blamed violent movies and computer games for spawning a generation of young predators and called for tougher juvenile crime laws. An Associated Press story wondered, “How do you punish kids so young if they have committed crimes so vicious?”
A month later semen stains were found on the underpants that had been in Ryan’s mouth. Experts said it was highly unlikely that boys so young could have produced the semen, and prosecutors quickly dropped the charges. This touched off a fresh media firestorm; commentators now scorched the detectives for their rush to judgment and the “gestapo tactics” that had produced the false confessions. Two weeks after the charges were dropped, DNA tests showed the source of the semen was 29-year-old Durr, who was already suspected of raping three young Englewood girls earlier that year.
After detectives and prosecutors interrogated Durr they wrote in their reports that he denied killing Ryan but admitted masturbating near her corpse and said he’d been drawn to the backyard when he saw two “shorties” leaving it. A few reporters wrote that this meant the case hadn’t yet been solved: was Durr’s purported tale self-serving, or had the two boys really been in the backyard before him? “The mystery of who killed Ryan keeps getting more complicated,” said a Newsweek story in October 1998.
But soon information about the case was coming mainly from attorneys for the eight-year-old, whose family, like that of the seven-year-old, was preparing to file a civil suit against the police and the city. The boys’ parents made themselves and their sons available to sympathetic feature writers, who responded with articles that could have been closing arguments in the boys’ lawsuits. “Immeasurable damage has been done,” a Washington Post writer said in a November 1998 story. “You can see it in the boys’ eyes.” The writer wondered how police could have charged the boys when the evidence pointed to “someone much older, someone powerful, someone the boys’ parents and their neighbors had always suspected was the real killer, the one who battered that pretty little girl, crushed her skull, beat her face, rammed foliage up her nose, pushed her panties so far down her throat that she swallowed her tongue, making sure that if she did not die of the beating, she would most certainly die from lack of breath.” That vivid picture, though riddled with inaccuracies, certainly suggested an adult offender. A complicated mystery swiftly had devolved into a simple morality tale: cute little boys done in by evil detectives. The eight-year-old’s family ultimately won a settlement of $6.2 million, and the seven-year-old’s family settled for $2 million.
Durr was charged with Ryan’s sexual assault and murder in April 1999. His trial was delayed repeatedly for myriad reasons, and this past spring his lawyers and prosecutors reached a deal: if he pled guilty, the state would stop pursuing the death penalty and agree to a sentence of natural life. When he pled guilty this year, on April 10, it appeared that he was simply admitting, finally, what everyone had assumed for years–that he sexually assaulted and killed Ryan. But though it went unreported, he’d admitted no such thing.
During the hearing one of Durr’s lawyers, Daniel Coyne, announced that Durr was making an “Alford” plea. In an Alford plea–named after a 1970 Supreme Court case–a defendant implicitly says he’s pleading guilty because it’s in his interests to do so, but he still maintains he didn’t commit the crime. Alford pleas are rare. Coyne had offered the plea on behalf of a client in only one other case in his 20-year career, and his cocounsel, Geary Kull, had done so only once in 30 years. So why this time? “Because Floyd Durr did not kill that child,” says Coyne.
Coyne and Kull say that given the circumstances, pleading guilty was the practical choice for Durr. They say that despite questionable evidence that Durr had sexually assaulted and murdered Ryan, a pretrial ruling by the judge made his conviction probable–it would have allowed the jury to hear evidence about his sexual assaults of other young girls. The deal with the state ensured that he’d stay off death row, and besides, he was already in prison for what amounted to natural life: he’d been convicted of the three rapes he was suspected of the year Ryan was killed, and the sentences in those cases would keep him locked up until he was 92.
Of course, a defendant insisting he’s innocent hardly makes it so. Still, one might think Durr’s Alford plea would merit a mention by reporters, given the tortuous history of the case and the rarity of such pleas. But the reporters in the courtroom were busy with a more engaging subplot: Ryan’s mother, Sabrina Harris, was furious that prosecutors were letting Durr evade execution.
Coyne and Kull aren’t alone in thinking Durr’s innocent. Some of the police officers who participated in the decision to charge the two boys with Ryan’s murder have maintained in depositions that they still believe the boys were responsible for her death, though they’re hesitant to talk about it. “I’ve got more than 30 years on the job,” one detective said. “I can’t let something like this bite me in the ass.” A retired sergeant felt he and others who’d worked on the investigation had been “crucified” by the press. Yet both the detective and sergeant clearly believed Durr didn’t kill Ryan. “Sure he should be in prison,” said the sergeant, “but only for the crimes he’s committed.”
Robert Egan, the lead prosecutor in the case, says that after the plea deal was formalized in court he heard from “several quarters” that he’d just gotten a guilty plea from an innocent man. “There are detectives who are still certain those two kids killed Ryan Harris,” he says. He thinks the detectives and police brass who hold this view are simply unwilling to admit a mistake. He says that in 33 years as a lawyer, most spent prosecuting, he’s known prosecutors and cops who “dug in their heels” when evidence surfaced that they’d wrongly charged someone: “You can show them in Technicolor how a different guy is guilty, and they won’t go for it.” As for the officers who continue to maintain that the boys killed Ryan, “They can believe what they want,” he says. “It kinda disappoints me that they would choose to ignore the evidence to the contrary.”
The evidence to the contrary, Egan allows, consists mainly of those semen stains. It’s become common wisdom that the stains prove irrefutably that the kids couldn’t have killed Ryan. “I ask every man in this room if you had semen when you were seven years old,” Alderman Shirley Coleman said on the floor of the City Council last September. “I ask every mother that have a son if they have ever seen semen produced by a seven-year-old child, because this is what this boils down to.” Coleman’s rhetorical questions, likely a first even in the City Council’s wacky history, came when the council was considering an order directing the city’s lawyers to settle the second of the two civil suits. The order passed unanimously, after aldermen strained to outdo each other in condemning the police and pundits who, as one alderman put it, “pointed their fingers at these boys that have nothing, nothing to do with it, absolutely.”
In June of this year the Tribune noted in an editorial that the two boys had been exonerated by “simple logic: Ryan Harris had been sexually assaulted. But a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old couldn’t possibly have produced the semen that was found at the scene.” That simple logic assumes that whoever produced the semen killed Ryan–something that’s not at all clear. It’s not even clear that the semen was part of a sexual assault. The only injury to a sexual organ Ryan suffered was a one-inch tear of her vaginal wall; her hymen was unbroken. The medical examiner said the tear was caused by a narrow, pointed object–possibly a stick or a fingernail or a screwdriver. Durr’s lawyers and the prosecutors concur on one point: the Ryan Harris case was simple only to those who glanced at it from a distance.
The lawyers in the boys’ suits against the city produced a mountain of information about the crime. They took more than 130 depositions, questioning the army of police officers who participated in the investigation, lawyers, forensic scientists, friends and family of the two boys, the two boys themselves. Some witnesses were questioned for more than 12 hours. Before the eight-year-old’s lawsuit was settled last year–at the City Council’s direction–it had been tried for six weeks, and dozens of witnesses had testified.
The lawyers for Durr and for the state pored over the stacks of depositions and trial transcripts and the hundreds of pages of police reports. They found so many contradictions and incompatible stories that they came away largely mystified about who did what to Ryan, when, and how. Like most defense teams, Durr’s lawyers and the students from Chicago-Kent College of Law who helped them tried to guess the state’s theory about how the crime had been committed so they’d be ready to respond at trial. But their discussions always ended in frustration. “We were never able to reconcile all of the events in a way that fit a single theory,” Coyne says.
It’s not surprising that the defense couldn’t predict what the state’s theory would be. The prosecutors themselves weren’t sure. “On the totem pole of provable cases,” says Egan, “it’s at the bottom in terms of knowing what happened.”
Egan acknowledges that while he believes Durr killed Ryan, he never could figure out how or when Durr abducted her, or how he got her to the backyard where her body was found, or how his semen ended up on the underpants in her mouth but not on any other clothing of hers or anywhere else on her body. She was riding a bike when she disappeared, and Egan doesn’t know what happened to it–it has never been found. He thinks the tear on her vaginal wall could have been caused by Durr’s fingernail, a stick used by Durr–or a stick used by the two boys. The leaves in Ryan’s nose? “I think the kids probably did that,” he says.
The boys’ lawyers have suggested that the details about the crime allegedly supplied by the boys during questioning were put in their mouths by detectives. But anyone who reads the boys’ depositions–taken when no detectives were in the room–might suspect they were hiding something, for these accounts conflict on a key point: the older boy said the younger one took him to see Ryan’s body and threw a rock at it; the younger boy denied doing either.
A review of the police reports also shows that there were leads detectives never fully investigated–leads pointing to neither Durr nor the two boys. There was, for instance, a 24-year-old felon who got into a fight with Ryan just a couple days before she was killed–a fight that ended with Ryan throwing a brick at him and hitting him and the man threatening to kill her. In the backyard where Ryan’s body was found a few days later, police found a bloody brick they believe was used to kill her.
Even Durr’s plea deal seems to have more to it than meets the eye. Sabrina Harris accused the state of agreeing to the deal simply to avoid a fresh batch of humiliating stories during the several weeks the trial would have lasted, stories about how authorities botched her daughter’s case from the beginning. The state’s attorney’s office insisted that wasn’t true; a spokesman said it was unlikely Durr would get the death penalty because there was evidence he’s retarded, so it was reasonable to bargain to guarantee a conviction and a life sentence. The media timidly swallowed this explanation. In an editorial endorsing the deal three days before it was made official in court, the Tribune reported that Durr’s IQ was between 59 and 65, “according to court papers,” and that since state law bars execution of anyone whose IQ is 75 or less, he probably was ineligible.
Durr did indeed score 59 and 65 on two IQ tests in 2005. What the Tribune neglected to mention is that on an IQ test in 2000 he scored 86–and that a psychiatrist and a psychologist who examined him last year concluded he was faking symptoms of mental illness.
Durr, now 37, spoke to me in July at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet–the first time he’s been interviewed by a reporter. He said he wasn’t “slow” and that he did poorly on the 2005 IQ tests on purpose, because his life was on the line. He struck me as articulate and perceptive. He said he’d recently read A Million Little Pieces, the memoir about recovery from drug addiction whose author, James Frey, has admitted fabricating many details. Durr said he could tell that much of it was made up but that didn’t bother him, because the book could help addicts face their problems. “Sometimes good things can come from a lie,” he said.
Durr insisted he didn’t sexually assault or kill Ryan, saying he agreed to what he called his “quote-unquote guilty plea” because he didn’t want to die and didn’t want his mother to see him die.
Two months after the plea the case was back in the news. On June 18 the younger boy originally charged with Ryan’s murder, Romarr Gipson, was charged in a double shooting at a gas station in south-suburban Calumet Park that left one man critically wounded. At his bond hearing prosecutors disclosed that Romarr, who’d turned 15, was already facing charges for car theft and aggravated cruelty to animals. And in 2004 he’d shot an acquaintance, though that was ruled accidental. Romarr’s family used some of the $2 million it won in his lawsuit to bond him out of jail after the gas station shooting. He’s been charged with attempted murder and is being tried as an adult. The man who was critically wounded is now suing Romarr.
The detectives who charged Romarr in 1998 may have been thinking, “We told you so.” But the media had an easy explanation for the boy’s legal troubles–one that didn’t undermine the accepted story line: the detectives were again to blame. “Some question whether the false accusations at age seven pushed him down a troubled path and into a life of crime,” Ed Gordon said on his NPR show. Reverend Paul Jakes, a Chicago community activist, told the Associated Press, “The detective pointing his finger at him did this to him.” Jan Susler, one of the lawyers who represented Romarr in his suit against the city, told the New York Times, “You could almost call it a Pygmalion effect. You accused the kid falsely. You treated him like he’s capable of a rape and murder. So, you give him a sense of–why should I bother being good?”
“What the media and the public wanted in the Ryan Harris case,” says Coyne, “was something neat and clean and able to be wrapped up tidily.” But a tidy conclusion was possible only if the media and the public ignored the vague and contradictory nature of much of the evidence.
I reviewed most of the documents generated by the thorny case and interviewed many of the key figures. Below are some of the pivotal questions–and the answers, as far as they’re known.
When and how did Ryan disappear? How was her body found?
On July 27, 1998, a sunny Monday afternoon, Ryan and a nine-year-old friend were taking turns riding a blue bike in front of the friend’s house, on the 6800 block of South Normal. The friend went inside to use the washroom. When she came back outside she saw Ryan pedaling north, then turning the corner two blocks away headed west. She was a half block from where her body would be found.
The friend said it was around 3 PM. This is the last sighting police felt certain of, though other people claimed they’d seen Ryan alive later. Soon after Ryan’s body was found, police asked a University of Illinois entomologist to calculate the likely time of death from the size of the maggots on Ryan’s body and clothes. The entomologist determined that she’d died during the afternoon on the day she disappeared.
Ryan and her five siblings had been staying with Diane Arrington, a friend of their mother’s, on the second floor of a two-flat at 6853 S. Parnell, a half block west of Normal. The Englewood neighborhood is solidly African-American, largely poor, and plagued by crime. When it got to be evening and Ryan still hadn’t returned, Arrington called Ryan’s grandmother and told her Ryan was missing, then called police. In the first of many police errors in the case, the officer filling out the missing-person form listed Arrington as both the person reporting someone missing and as the missing person.
Ryan’s parents and other relatives combed the neighborhood through the night. The search party swelled the next morning, as young men, many of them members of the Black Disciples, prowled through the neighborhood’s abandoned buildings and vacant lots. At three that afternoon one of the young men spotted a body in the shrubs and tall weeds in the back of the yard behind a two-story house at 6636 S. Parnell.
The first police to arrive struggled to protect the crime scene from neighbors trying to get into the yard for a closer look. At the rear of the yard was a railroad embankment instead of an alley, and Ryan’s body was near the embankment. She was on her back, striped top and bra pulled above her breasts, lime green shorts around one ankle, and gym shoes still on her feet. Blood was splattered and pooled in the yard and on the concrete walkway just behind the house. Near the splatters were several barrettes and a brick with red stains on one corner. The detectives assumed she’d been hit with the brick on or near the walkway, then carried or dragged into the weeds by the embankment.
The wailing of the police sirens drew ever more neighbors, and soon the crowd numbered in the hundreds. Police taped off the area to keep the gawkers on the other side of Parnell. Circling through the crowd on their bikes were seven-year-old Romarr and his eight-year-old friend David (not his real name)–the two boys who 12 days later would be charged with the murder. Durr was also in the crowd, a 13-year-old girl later told police. She identified him as a man with a ponytail leaning against a fence near her. She recalled hearing him say, “That’s a shame. I bet whoever did this is standing right out here.”
What caused Ryan’s death?
The blow or blows to her head were the main cause–perhaps the only one. She had a depressed skull fracture on the right side, with fractures radiating from it, and bruises and abrasions on both sides of her face. The Cook County medical examiner who did the autopsy, Mitra Kalelkar, said that one blow with a blunt object could have caused all of these injuries if Ryan’s face was lying against pavement, or she might have been struck several times. Kalelkar couldn’t say for sure that the brick found in the yard was the weapon used, but she said it could have been. The red stains on the brick were indeed blood, and the blood was Ryan’s type–a type that less than 6 percent of African-Americans have.
Ryan’s brain was swollen, and the brain doesn’t swell after death, which told Kalelkar that Ryan didn’t die immediately. But she doubted Ryan would have survived from the head trauma much more than five minutes.
The underpants in Ryan’s mouth and the leaves in her nostrils complicated Kalelkar’s findings. She saw “a few and very faint” petechiae–pinpoint hemorrhages–on Ryan’s larynx. Petechiae are often found on the larynx in asphyxiation cases, but since they have many causes, they don’t by themselves establish that a person asphyxiated. Nevertheless, because of the underpants in Ryan’s mouth and the leaves in her nose, Kalelkar concluded in her autopsy report that while Ryan died from her head injuries, asphyxia was a “significantly contributing” factor in her death.
Coupled with the conclusion that Ryan lived only a few minutes after she was struck in the head, this was a crucial finding: it would mean the underpants were put in Ryan’s mouth soon after the blow to her head. That would make it more likely that one person–or persons acting together–had committed both acts.
But the asphyxiation finding was questionable. I described the known details of Ryan’s death to two forensic pathologists, and both said they wouldn’t have found asphyxiation to be a contributing cause. Russell Deidiker, a medical examiner who does work for 20 counties in Missouri, said it isn’t uncommon to find petechiae on the larynx in deaths not caused by asphyxiation. He added that in Ryan’s case the stress reaction to the head trauma likely caused her heart to beat harder and faster, which could have led to the tiny hemorrhages. Pennsylvania forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, a former president of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, also thought the trauma to the brain could have indirectly produced the petechiae. Both doctors said the conclusion that asphixiation was a factor was especially dubious given that only a few, very faint petechiae were seen.
The way the body was sunburned also suggested that the underpants might not have been put in Ryan’s mouth soon after she was hit in the head. In her autopsy report Kalelkar made note of “extensive postmortem sunburned darkened areas” on the front of Ryan’s body. She knew the sunburn was postmortem because the skin wasn’t blistered; instead it was dark and “leathery.” She saw this dark, leathery skin on just about all the parts of Ryan’s body that were exposed when the body was found–but not on the pelvis.
But Kalelkar also concluded that the small tear in Ryan’s vaginal wall had been inflicted while she was still alive–the tissue around the tear had reddened, which wouldn’t have happened if she were already dead. That suggested that Ryan’s underpants had indeed been taken off–or at least pulled aside–before she was struck in the head or soon after.
Why weren’t the semen stains discovered sooner?
Oral, vaginal, and anal swabs were taken from Ryan at the medical examiner’s office the day her body was found, and the following day, July 29, police asked the state crime lab to test them for semen as soon as possible. Kenneth Pfoser, a forensic scientist at the lab, reported later that day that the swabs were all negative, and detectives assumed the underpants had also been tested and come up negative.
Without a request to test the underpants Pfoser didn’t get to them until September 2, almost four weeks after the boys were charged. When he ran a black light over the underpants they glowed, which told him there were body secretions on them–maybe semen, but also maybe urine, saliva, sweat, or decompositional fluids. He tested the glowing areas with acid phosphatase, which turns purple when combined with semen, and they turned purple. He also found mature sperm heads in the semen, which made it highly unlikely that the semen had been produced by the boys. Pfoser’s supervisor called the commander of violent crimes at Area One on September 3 and dropped the bombshell.
Did the other crime-scene details point to kids or adults?
They seemed to point to both–one of the main reasons the case was so confounding.
After the semen stains were discovered Thomas Cronin, commander of the Chicago police crime lab, was asked to profile the likely offender. Cronin had been doing profiling since 1986 and was one of only 32 FBI-trained profilers in the nation. In his September 25 report–details of which have never before been disclosed publicly–he observed that the “different levels of sophistication and intelligence” displayed at the crime scene made it “quite apparent” that there’d been more than one offender. While the semen was obviously from a person old enough to produce it, he wrote, other details suggested the involvement of someone younger as well. “Much of the sexual activity observed at the scene would be indicative of young boys who have an opportunity to explore the body of a member of the opposite sex maybe for the first [time].” He noted that Ryan wasn’t completely undressed. “Rather the clothing was arranged so that parts of the body could be exposed and explored.” The raising of the shirt and bra above the breasts was “very characteristic of exploration,” as was the “gentle probing” of the vagina with a foreign object.
Cronin wrote that his analysis was based on his profiling training and experience, but his report also was filled with conjecture. According to his scenario, something attracted Ryan to the rear of the house, where she was knocked off her bike and, while her head was against the ground, hit with the brick. Then she was dragged to the more secluded rear of the yard. Cronin found it significant that the body was found with the left arm alongside it and the right arm above the head, which suggested that two people had dragged it, one releasing an arm before the other. If only one person had dragged it, he likely would have released the arms simultaneously. Cronin thought these two people were the younger offenders and that they assumed, wrongly, that Ryan was dead. In the seclusion of the rear of the yard they explored her body. The older offender could have arrived while the boys were still there, scaring them away, or after they left. This older offender, who also assumed the girl was dead, removed her underpants and masturbated on them. Then she groaned, startling him, and he stuffed the underpants in her mouth and the leaves in her nose to quiet her.
But many police, like prosecutor Egan, concluded that kids put the leaves in her nose. “I’ve never seen a case with foreign objects stuffed in the nose,” said Area One sergeant Zaborac in his deposition. “This just struck me as something kids would do.”
Egan thought the leaves were the work of kids largely because they were carefully folded. “It’s not something I see Floyd Durr doing during the course of a violent crime,” he says. He concluded that it was Durr who stuffed the underpants in Ryan’s mouth “because the medical examiner said they were shoved forcefully down her throat. She said it was difficult to imagine a kid pushing them down that way.”
But that’s not what the medical examiner said. In her deposition Kalelkar said the underpants were in Ryan’s mouth, not down her throat. She was asked how much force it would have taken to put the underpants there. “A soft cloth can easily be pushed into the mouth, so I don’t think it would need substantial force,” she said, adding that a child was capable of it. She examined Ryan’s lips, teeth, and the inside of her mouth and found no damage. She said she presumed the underpants pushed the tongue back far enough to block the nasal airway, but she couldn’t say for sure.
Egan may have wanted to convince himself that Durr put the underpants in Ryan’s mouth. Given Kalelkar’s conclusion that asphyxiation was a factor in her death, it would have been hard to tell a jury during Durr’s trial that maybe he put the underpants in her mouth and maybe he didn’t. Or maybe like so many others, Egan simply fell victim to the spin of the lawyers who brought the civil suit for the two boys.
Those lawyers rhetorically shoved the underpants deeper into Ryan’s mouth as they tried to create the image of a crime only an adult was capable of. In addition to the Washington Post story, in which the underpants were “so far down her throat that she swallowed her tongue,” there was a letter from R. Eugene Pincham, one of the lawyers representing David, in the Chicago Sun-Times in December 1998, saying the underpants had been “thrust into her mouth and down her throat.” In a February 1999 New Yorker article the underpants were “pushed so deep down her throat that she swallowed her tongue.” In the City Council order directing the city’s lawyers to settle David’s suit, the underpants were “stuffed deep down into her throat.”
In her deposition Kalelkar said she couldn’t exclude a child as the cause of the blunt trauma injuries Ryan suffered, or as the person who put the leaves in her nose and the underpants in her mouth. Later Kalelkar was asked by Romarr’s lawyer, would it “be fair to say that it would have been highly unlikely if not impossible for a child or children to have effected all of the injuries, as a cumulative matter, that you saw on Ryan Harris?”
“It’s a tough question to answer,” Kalelkar said. “I don’t know the ability of these children….I don’t know how active they were or how rambunctious.” But she considered it “unlikely.”
Were there leads that should have been investigated further?
One difficulty of the investigation was the vast supply of suspects. Englewood lacks many things, but not felons, especially sex offenders. At the time of Ryan’s murder, there were 172 registered sex offenders living there–more than in any other community in Illinois. During the investigation a computer analysis run by police of the sex offenders living within a mile of the murder yielded a map littered with 74 stars.
Police were also frustrated by innumerable false leads. The day Ryan’s body was found, an eight-year-old boy told a detective that the previous afternoon he’d seen a man with gray hair and a gray beard carrying Ryan toward the yard on Parnell. The man had Ryan in a bear hug, Ryan was kicking, and she had what looked like a sock in her mouth. Police subsequently learned that a gray-haired man lived on the floor below Diane Arrington’s apartment, where Ryan had been staying, and they took him to Area One for questioning. He flunked a polygraph test, and his alibi seemed fishy–he said he’d been drinking with friends in a vacant lot the day Ryan disappeared. But his alibi checked out, and when detectives later reinterviewed the eight-year-old he said he’d made up the story because he wanted to help police catch the killer.
Perhaps the volume of suspects and leads that led nowhere wore down detectives. But in retrospect they should have explored at least a couple of leads further.
One involved the 24-year-old felon who got in a fight with Ryan. On August 8, 1998–11 days into the investigation and the day before Romarr and David were charged–Ryan’s oldest sister, nine-year-old Demeka, told detectives that she, Ryan, their three younger sisters, and two other girls were playing in the backyard of Arrington’s house two days before Ryan disappeared. A man they knew as Jerry, a friend of Arrington’s, began throwing rocks and bottles at them from the alley. One rock hit Demeka in the leg, and another hit their seven-year-old sister in the hip. Ryan got angry, and when Jerry turned to leave she threw a brick at him, striking him in the back. Ryan then ran into the house, and Jerry yelled, “If you come out of the house I’ll kill you.”
Demeka said Ryan stayed in the house the rest of that day and all of the next because she was afraid of Jerry. Early the following morning, the day Ryan was killed, Jerry came to the house. Demeka didn’t hear what he was saying, but he was drunk and sounded angry. The police memo about the interview doesn’t say who Jerry was talking to, though it didn’t seem to be Ryan. He didn’t stay long, and Demeka didn’t see him again that day.
Demeka’s account of the episode interested detectives, especially given that Ryan had likely been killed with a brick. From mug shots, Demeka identified Jerry as 24-year-old Jerry Smith (not his real name). He had a long arrest record, with drug and weapon convictions. At the time he was living in a west-side work-release center, finishing up a sentence for a drug crime. A detective called the watch commander of the center, who said the records weren’t clear as to whether Smith had ever left the facility near the end of July but that his counselor might know. The detective wrote a memo urging that someone talk with the counselor when she returned to work two days later.
But the following day, August 9, detectives got their “confessions” from Romarr and David. Since the case appeared solved, no one bothered to interview Smith.
After the semen was discovered and the charges against the boys were dropped, a task force of a dozen detectives renewed the investigation, reviewing the reports and checking out prior leads. On September 15 members of the task force picked up Smith at the work-release center and took him to Area One for questioning.
Smith told the detectives that he occasionally spent the night at Arrington’s and that he knew Ryan from those stays. He acknowledged that a few days before she was killed he’d signed out of the work-release center and gone to Englewood, where he, Ryan, and another little girl played a game of tag. When the two girls began throwing rocks at him he picked up a stick and began chasing them playfully. Then Ryan threw a rock and struck him in the back. He said he complained about this to Arrington, and Ryan apologized. He said he accepted the apology and considered the incident “no big deal.”
The records at the work-release center indicated Smith was authorized to leave the facility for a job interview at a Popeyes restaurant on July 27, the day Ryan disappeared, though the records also indicated he never actually left. Smith told the detectives he did indeed leave, but instead of going to the job interview he and four other center residents went to a different Popeyes, on the west side, to eat. Then they bought beer at a liquor store and hung out at a west-side playground. He said he didn’t go to Ryan’s neighborhood that day or the next–the day Ryan’s body was found. He was given a polygraph test and, a detective wrote in a memo, “failed just about everything.”
On September 15 detectives also interviewed Demeka’s three younger sisters separately. Each of them recalled Ryan hitting Smith with a brick a few days before she disappeared, Smith being angry about it, and Smith coming to Arrington’s house sometime afterward.
The same memo that reported Smith failed the polygraph test noted that it would be difficult to consider him a suspect because the work-release center’s records didn’t show him signing out on the day Ryan disappeared–even though Smith had admitted leaving the center that day. There’s no indication in the police reports that detectives ever attempted to confirm his alibi by talking with the other center residents he claimed he’d hung out with. Nor is there any indication that detectives ever reinterviewed him concerning his whereabouts on July 27. An Area One officer who participated in the investigation told me that detectives ruled out Smith because of the center’s records.
The lack of follow-up may again have been simply a matter of timing. The day after detectives interviewed Smith they were told that the DNA tests on the semen pointed to Durr, and they turned their attention to building the case against him.
Another provocative lead involved a red car that three children said Ryan was taken away in the day she disappeared. One of the children was David, the eight-year-old who was later charged. He lived on the 6700 block of South Normal, two blocks from Arrington’s house. Detectives looked for him on August 3, wanting to ask about another rock-throwing incident Ryan was involved in the week before she disappeared–an incident involving some young boys, one of whom police suspected was David.
Detectives found David at a relative’s house in south-suburban Harvey. They first talked with two cousins who happened to be there, an 11-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. Both children said they’d ridden bikes with Ryan the day she disappeared and were in front of David’s house when a red car pulled up with two men in it. The men called Ryan over to the car by name and offered to take her to the store for candy. One of the men put Ryan’s bike in the trunk, Ryan got in the car, and the car pulled off. When the detectives talked with David he said he’d just come out of his house when he saw the red car pull away with Ryan in the backseat. Detectives didn’t find out what time this purportedly happened.
David’s cousins also told the detectives that the same red car had been stopped by police near David’s home the afternoon Ryan’s body was found and that the people in the car had been arrested. A check of arrest reports for that afternoon showed that a red Chevy Corsica had indeed been pulled over in an alley two blocks east of the crime scene on Parnell and that the two men in it had been arrested. The passenger, 27-year-old Henry Robinson (not his real name), was charged with disorderly conduct for squirting a woman on the sidewalk with a water gun as the car passed her. The driver, 27-year-old Willie Jones (also a pseudonym), had stepped on the gas when police tried to pull him over, and when they blocked the car he’d tried to flee on foot. He was caught after a short chase and charged with various traffic offenses. Both men were freed later that day.
Their rap sheets were intriguing. Robinson had done time for armed robbery and aggravated battery. Jones, who lived on Parnell, a block north of where Ryan’s body was found, had two felony convictions–both for sexually assaulting young girls.
On August 5 detectives happened on Robinson while he was driving the red Corsica through the neighborhood and took him to Area One for questioning. He told them the Corsica was his but denied abducting Ryan or having anything to do with her murder. He also said he wasn’t with Jones the day Ryan disappeared and hadn’t lent him his car.
Police reports indicate detectives looked for Jones once but didn’t find him. Jones told me earlier this year that he knew police had been looking for him in 1998–Robinson had told him they wanted to question him about Ryan’s murder–but he said they never talked to him. He also told me that on the afternoon her body was found he and Robinson were driving around the neighborhood, smoking marijuana and squirting pedestrians with water guns. “We had a blunt in one hand and a water gun in the other,” he recalled, adding that near Parnell, “we rolled up on this crowd.” He said they didn’t learn until later that Ryan’s body had just been found. Robinson squirted a woman in the crowd, and then Jones heard a siren and saw a police car in his rearview mirror. He said he and Robinson had a couple bags of marijuana in the car in addition to the blunts: “I said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here and throw the weed away.'” He said they tossed the blunts and the bags of marijuana out the window during the chase.
Jones said he probably saw Ryan around the neighborhood that summer but that he had nothing to do with her death. We spoke a few days after Durr’s plea deal. “They got the faggot-ass nigger who did it,” he said. “They needed to give him the death penalty.”
He knew Durr from the neighborhood and said people called him “Pretty Boy,” as in Pretty Boy Floyd. He was stunned when Durr was linked to Ryan’s murder: “Just like the killing of Ryan Harris rocked the neighborhood, that rocked it too, because we were thinking some creep came in the neighborhood and did this. Come to find out it was one of our own.” Durr, he said, had seemed “just like the average nigger,” but now he saw him as a “sick, perverted motherfucker.” He said he learned from the case that “a person could be a monster and you wouldn’t know it until the end.”
Jones allowed that he himself was a convicted child sex offender but insisted he was a victim of circumstances. He’d gotten involved with a girl who’d told him she was 18 but was really only 15. He was staying with her and her mother in an apartment in the neighborhood, his drug-peddling profits helping to pay the rent, and came home one day to find his stash gone. According to him, the mother was an addict, so “I whupped her ass for stealing my drugs,” and she retaliated by telling police he was having sex with her underage daughter.
Court records tell a different story. Neither of Jones’s two child-sex-offense convictions involved a 15-year-old. In 1992 he was accused of inserting his finger into the vagina of a five-year-old. He pled guilty and got six years. In October 1995, a month after he was paroled, he was accused of grabbing the buttocks of a seven-year-old girl. He got four years for that. He was paroled from the second sentence in December 1997, eight months before Ryan was killed. He wouldn’t have been hard to find during the investigation into her murder if detectives had really cared about questioning him; state prison records show he was locked up from September 5, 1998, to July 1, 1999, for a parole violation.
Linda Drozdek, one of the detectives who’d interviewed David and his two cousins and heard them say Ryan had been taken away in a red car, said in a deposition that she believed the kids. But most of her colleagues didn’t. Sergeant Zaborac belittled their “stranger-danger” story during the press conference at which the charges against the boys were announced. Two other detectives who did a follow-up interview with David’s cousins found their stories inconsistent and the descriptions they gave of the two men in the red car vague. But the detectives’ report itself was suspect, because they didn’t submit it until over seven weeks after the interview. By then the charges against David and Romarr had been dropped, and, with a lawsuit looming, detectives had an interest in discrediting any leads they’d disregarded when they homed in on the two boys. In depositions in 2002 the cousins stood by their red car account–but they too would seem to have a bias, given David’s suit.
When police brought Robinson in for questioning on August 5 they seized the Corsica and searched it. They found two barrettes on the floor in the backseat and one in the front console. One of the barrettes, a triple unicorn, matched one of the barrettes found on the concrete walk at the crime scene, except that it was white; the one at the crime scene was black. The barrettes, and a few other items taken from the Corsica, were sent in a sealed evidence bag to the state crime lab.
The barrettes found at the crime scene were examined at the lab, and hairs consistent with Ryan’s were found on them. The barrettes from the Corsica could also have been checked for hairs matching Ryan’s. But on August 10, the day after the boys were charged, an Area One detective told the lab there was no need to check the items seized from the Corsica. According to the deposition of a crime-lab biologist, even after the case was reopened police didn’t ask the lab to examine the barrettes.
What led police to Romarr and David?
On August 3 an anonymous caller told police the murder stemmed from an incident in which some neighborhood boys threw rocks at Ryan to get her bike. That same day Diane Arrington told detectives some young boys had thrown rocks at Ryan a few days before she disappeared. She said Ryan had come home upset and told her what happened. Arrington asked Ryan to show her where the boys lived, and Ryan took her to a house two blocks away–David’s house. Arrington knocked, but no one answered.
When detectives Drozdek and Frank Luera went to ask about the incident that day, they heard David and his two cousins talk about the red car. When they talked to David two days later he again told them about the car. But according to the detectives, he also said he saw Ryan’s body in the backyard on Parnell before police arrived. She was on her back, and a blue bike was lying next to her. He said his seven-year-old friend Romarr had taken him to the body.
Drozdek and Luera interviewed Romarr later that day. According to the detectives, he said that he and David saw Ryan’s body before lunch on the day it was found and that a couple of older boys took them to it. Ryan was on her back with her legs spread, and a bike was on the ground next to her. A boy Romarr didn’t know rode away on the bike.
Detectives talked with the two older boys Romarr claimed had taken him to Ryan’s body. Both denied seeing Ryan, alive or dead, let alone showing anyone her body.
How did Romarr and David end up getting charged with murder?
On August 9 Area One detectives reinterviewed Romarr and David at their station. David, questioned first, told detectives the story he’d told them before, about riding bikes with Ryan, seeing Ryan driven away by two men in a red car, then being led to her body the next day by Romarr. According to the detectives’ reports, he said Ryan was naked, something was in her mouth, and her bike was lying next to her.
Detectives Allen Nathaniel and James Cassidy (neither of whom responded to my requests for interviews) then talked to Romarr. Cassidy said in a deposition that he began the interview by telling Romarr that good boys always told the truth. “Are you a good boy?” he asked Romarr. Romarr said he was. Cassidy then asked Romarr to hold hands with him and Nathaniel; “I wanted him to know that we were friends,” Cassidy said in his deposition. Romarr took one hand of each detective. According to the detectives, Cassidy asked Romarr if he showed Ryan’s body to David, and without further prompting Romarr told this story: He and David were throwing rocks when they saw Ryan riding her bike. Romarr threw a rock that hit Ryan in the head, knocking her off the bike. She wasn’t moving after she fell. He and David each took one of her arms and moved her into the weeds, where they began to “play with her soft.” They took off her underpants and put them in her mouth, they rubbed leaves on her, and they put leaves and a stem in her nose. They moved her bike into the weeds by the railroad tracks.
Cassidy summoned a pair of youth officers and asked Romarr to repeat the story. While eating a McDonald’s Happy Meal brought him by another detective, Romarr did. But now he said that although he and David had removed Ryan’s underpants together, he alone put them in Ryan’s mouth, and he alone put the leaves in her nose.
In another room Cassidy then told David that Romarr’s story differed from his, and he asked David to tell his story again. According to the detectives, this time David said nothing about a red car. He said he and Ryan were riding bikes, and they met Romarr behind the house near the railroad tracks. Romarr threw a rock that hit Ryan in the head, knocking her off the bike. Ryan wasn’t moving, and Romarr started to do something to her. David said he didn’t want to watch what Romarr was doing, so he turned his head. Then he rode his bike home and watched cartoons.
A different detective, Samuel Brown, and a sergeant and a youth officer then questioned David in front of his mother. The story these three officers say David told them was even more puzzling. He said he and Romarr were throwing rocks, and Romarr hit Ryan in the head with one–but Ryan was already dead. Detective Brown asked David how he knew Ryan was already dead, but David couldn’t explain. Then he said Ryan was sitting up when Romarr hit her with the rock. In their depositions the officers would maintain that David’s mother was yelling at him during this interview and that this was clearly upsetting him. At that point the boys’ mothers said they wanted to consult with lawyers, and the interview ended.
Many important questions were unanswered. When were the boys with Ryan? How big was the rock they said Romarr hit Ryan with? What did Romarr mean by “play with her soft”? Why did Romarr put the underpants in Ryan’s mouth and the leaves in her nose? Why did the boys move the bike into the weeds, and what happened to it? What was Romarr starting to do to Ryan that David didn’t want to watch? How could Ryan be sitting up if she already was dead? Sergeant Zaborac, who was supervising the detectives in the station that day, said later in a deposition he wished his detectives could have asked such follow-up questions: “What would have been an ideal situation was if they [the boys’ mothers] didn’t lawyer up and we could have gone in there and fully questioned the kids. Then we could have found out as to whether they were participants or if they were merely bystanders. The only statement that we had, and it wasn’t going to get any better, is that they were involved.”
Cassidy called Kalelkar, the medical examiner, to ask if Ryan’s head injuries could have been caused by a thrown rock. Kalelkar said no–Ryan’s head probably was bashed while it was on the ground.
To the detectives and their bosses, this meant the boys had lied about Ryan merely being hit with a thrown rock. Detectives wrote in their report that Romarr was too small to knock Ryan off her bike, hold her down, and strike her in the head with the brick, which led them to conclude that he’d had David’s help. The boys’ motive? Zaborac said in his deposition that he presumed “they intended to take the bike, and her death resulted….And I think that’s what my detectives conveyed to me also. The kids never admitted to taking the bike, but they said that they hid the bike in the weeds. I can only conclude that you would hide the bike in the weeds because that’s what you want, and you were coming back for it.”
Zaborac didn’t ask his detectives to search the boys’ homes for the bike or for bloodstained clothing, or to look for other evidence that would have corroborated or refuted the boys’ statements. Since the boys had “admitted” the crime, he said in his deposition, further investigation was “likely to be fruitless.” Romarr and David were charged with first-degree murder.
Should the boys have been charged?
Police can charge a person when they have reasonable grounds to believe he or she has committed a crime. “Reasonable grounds” is a subjective call, but in David’s case it doesn’t appear the police had anything close.
According to detectives, Romarr was the one who admitted hitting Ryan with a rock, to putting the underpants in her mouth and the leaves in her nose, and to dragging the bike into the weeds. All David admitted was witnessing some of this. Detectives apparently read between the lines of what he said and decided he’d collaborated in a murder.
Ignatius Villasenor was the assistant state’s attorney called to the station that evening to counsel police, and a sergeant asked him his opinion of the evidence against the two boys. In his deposition he said he told the sergeant there was enough evidence to charge Romarr with murder, but that the case against David was weak. His opinion was only advisory. In felony cases involving adult suspects, prosecutors decide whether charges should be lodged, but in cases with juvenile suspects at the time, the decision was up to police. (Less than two months after the charges were dropped against Romarr and David the state’s attorney’s office announced a new policy: in murder cases with juvenile suspects the decision about filing charges would be made by prosecutors.)
Villasenor allowed in his deposition that his opinion that the evidence was sufficient to charge Romarr was based on little information. A detective or a sergeant had told him two kids had implicated themselves in Ryan’s murder, and he was given a page of handwritten notes about what Romarr had allegedly said and a page about David’s statements. He scanned the file on the case and looked at the crime-scene photos.
If Romarr said what detectives claim he said, and if there was no reason to doubt his admissions, there might have been a basis for charging him. But those are two big ifs. Statements given to police by kids–especially younger ones–should be viewed with a lot of skepticism. Children tend to be eager to please authority figures in such situations, often misunderstand what’s being asked, and are more prone than most suspects or witnesses to say what they think police want to hear. Romarr has speech problems that make it especially likely that something–possibly a lot–was lost in translation that day. The first-grade teacher who taught him the year before the murder said in a deposition that she couldn’t understand him the first month he was in class and even after that sometimes had to ask other children to interpret what he was saying.
Louis Kraus, a psychiatrist who evaluated Romarr at the request of a juvenile court judge soon after he was charged, said in his deposition that the first thing he noticed when he talked with the boy was his “tremendous difficulty” expressing himself. His speech was sometimes “garbled,” he often switched in midsentence from one thought to another, and he was “particularly susceptible to leading questions.” Kraus said that most of his questions to Romarr were open-ended, but whenever the psychiatrist mentioned a particular detail Romarr would “incorporate it in his story.” Kraus said he left his interview with Romarr thinking that anyone who spent ten minutes with the boy could get him “saying he was the emperor of China” and sounding as if he believed it.
Cassidy allowed in his deposition that he noticed something unusual about Romarr’s speech, something he couldn’t quite describe. But he said the boy spoke in “complete thoughts” that he had no difficulty understanding–he never had to ask Romarr to repeat anything–and he and Detective Nathaniel certainly never prompted the boy with crime-scene details they knew. Cassidy said that when Romarr began confessing “there was a certain shock…listening to a seven-year-old recite these facts to us.” He was stunned to realize that a boy so young was “actually telling us that he was involved in the killing of an 11-year-old girl.” He and Nathaniel were so dumbstruck that they found themselves unable to summon a youth officer–as regulations require when a juvenile starts to incriminate himself–until Romarr had finished confessing.
This wasn’t the first time a confession from a youngster had immobilized Cassidy. In 1994 an 11-year-old boy confessed to him that he’d murdered the 84-year-old woman who lived next door, beating her with her cane and stabbing her in the throat. According to Cassidy’s trial testimony, the boy at first told one story and, after Cassidy said he didn’t believe it, blurted out a full, detailed confession. Cassidy said he just sat there shocked as the boy confessed–and didn’t stop him to summon a youth officer or advise him of his Miranda rights. The boy testified that he falsely confessed after Cassidy cursed and yelled at him, but a juvenile court judge convicted him anyway. In 2002 a federal district judge ruled that the confession had been coerced and directed that the conviction be expunged from the boy’s record.
Cassidy, a police officer since 1973, has strong opinions about juvenile crime. In a letter to the Chicago Tribune in 1994 he asserted that juvenile offenders were “far more dangerous” than 30 years ago, when they were mainly stealing hubcaps. He urged legislators “to put teeth behind the juvenile laws” to protect society from “this onslaught of juvenile crime before it gets entirely out of control.” He added, “The danger is real and cannot wait for more study and psychoanalyzing on what is wrong with some of our young people.”
Nathaniel, an officer since 1986, has been the subject of numerous disciplinary complaints, including charges that he conducted illegal searches and made illegal arrests, used excessive force, and was verbally abusive. None of the complaints has resulted in a finding against him. In 1996 he was suspended for allegedly planting drugs on a man, but he was cleared by the police board when his principal accuser, a former police sergeant, moved out of state to avoid testifying against him. The former sergeant later told the Tribune he didn’t want to testify because he’d been threatened by other officers.
If there wasn’t enough evidence to charge David, and Romarr’s “confession” was tainted, does that mean they had nothing to do with what happened to Ryan?
“Wrongly charged” doesn’t necessarily mean innocent, though the media often equate the two. The boys were also “cleared” when the state’s attorney’s office dropped the charges. But that means only that the evidence was insufficient to keep the charges pending. It wasn’t a declaration by the state that the boys had nothing to do with what happened to Ryan.
The boys’ lawyers suggested that Cassidy and Nathaniel had put words in the boys’ mouths–but Cassidy and Nathaniel weren’t the only detectives who said the boys told them details other people hadn’t. According to detectives Drozdek and Luera, Romarr and David said in separate interviews on August 5 that they’d seen Ryan lying in the yard with a bike near her. (No bike was in the yard when police arrived.) Did Drozdek and Luera also put words in their mouths?
That’s what David said when he testified during the trial of his civil suit: he denied ever telling Drozdek and Luera that he saw a bike lying on the ground next to Ryan. That would seem to make not two malevolent detectives but four.
During his testimony David also denied telling any detective that Romarr hit Ryan in the head with a rock, or that Ryan was riding her bike in the back of the house and fell off, or that Romarr did something to her body that made him turn his head because he didn’t want to watch. He said detectives at Area One screamed at him, saying he killed Ryan.
“I don’t believe that the detectives put any words in those kids’ mouths,” Durr defense lawyer Kull says. “Why are police going to pick on a seven- and an eight-year-old? If they just wanted to put the murder on someone, all they had to do was reach out the door of the station and grab some guys off the street in Englewood. Chances are two of them would be sex offenders, and one of them would be willing to confess to it.”
And if lazy, sloppy, or malicious detectives were to blame, why did the boys contradict each other in their depositions? In his 2002 deposition David gave a version of his original story, saying he was riding bikes with Ryan on his block when two men in a red car drove up and called her over. Ryan said she knew the men and got in the car. The men put her bike in the trunk and drove off. David added that later that day he was playing with a dog in the alley behind his house when Romarr approached. “He told me, ‘You wanna go and see a dead body?’ I told him he was lying. He say, ‘Come here and watch.'”
David said Romarr led him to the lot on Parnell. He was on his bike and Romarr was walking. Neither he nor Romarr touched Ryan’s body, but Romarr threw a small rock at it and hit it. “It ain’t move,” David said. The boys soon left, and David said he never returned to the lot.
In his 2002 deposition Romarr said he never saw Ryan’s body, never told David he did, never took David to see it, never threw a rock at it.
“Yeah, it was a contradiction,” allows Flint Taylor, one of Romarr’s lawyers. He argues that the trauma Romarr suffered from being falsely accused could have caused him to “block out of his mind” some of the events surrounding Ryan’s death. “Any connection he made to the body before ended up ruining his life,” Taylor says, “so you could see where Romarr might say he never saw the body even if he did.”
Or maybe he had something to hide. Romarr, David, or both of them could have taken Ryan’s bike after someone else killed her. They could have found the body and played with it. They could have seen the murder and been unwilling to tell who did it, because the killer was someone close or someone they feared.
David’s father was a suspect for a time. According to police memos, an anonymous 911 caller claimed she’d heard that the boys had knocked Ryan off the bike and stolen it but that it was David’s father who killed her. The father had a long arrest record–drug, theft, assault, burglary, and robbery charges. Detectives were already suspicious of him; most of them didn’t believe the red car story and thought he’d helped his son and his son’s two cousins “in spinning the tale,” as one police report put it. Diane Arrington told police late in August, while the boys were still under arrest, that David’s father had recently threatened to kill her. A year after Ryan’s murder a 20-year-old woman accused him of putting a gun to her head and threatening to blow her “motherfucking head off.” The aggravated-assault charge was dropped when the woman didn’t show up in court.
Kraus, the psychiatrist who evaluated Romarr shortly after he was charged, said Romarr told a fragmented story about seeing “two men at the body,” one of whom stuck Ryan in the eye and heart with a screwdriver. Durr’s lawyers found that story intriguing, especially because Kalelkar said in her deposition that the injury to Ryan’s vagina could have been caused by a screwdriver and because a screwdriver had been on the floor of the backseat in the red car. A police photo showed the screwdriver, a white belt, and a piece of rope together on the floor. According to police records, the belt and the rope were impounded, but the screwdriver wasn’t. Prosecutor Egan says he has no idea what happened to it.
What led police to Durr, and what did he say?
In the summer of 1998 detectives investigating three separate rapes of young Englewood girls came to focus on Durr and, for one of them, Durr and his brother Eddie. On August 28 Floyd Durr was arrested and brought to Area One. A ten-year-old girl who’d been raped that January picked him out of a lineup as her attacker. Durr gave a blood sample, was charged, and jailed.
On September 14 Angela Petrone, the prosecutor handling the two cases in which Durr had been charged–the one involving the 10-year-old and another involving a 15-year-old–advised a detective working Ryan’s case to consider Durr as a suspect. She told the detective the crime lab already had a blood sample from Durr it could use in a DNA comparison with the semen evidence in Ryan’s case. The detective called the lab the following day and requested the comparison.
In the late afternoon on September 16 an Area One lieutenant got the news from the lab that Durr’s DNA was a match. The next morning detectives brought him from the Cook County Jail to Area One. He was at the station a day and a half, during which time six detectives and two prosecutors questioned him about Ryan’s murder.
According to police and prosecutors, detectives began by telling Durr that his semen had been found on Ryan Harris, but they didn’t tell him where. Durr first said that was impossible–he’d never been in the area and didn’t even know where Ryan’s body had been found. Later he admitted that wasn’t true and said that one evening during the summer he’d gotten a blow job from a prostitute in a yard on Parnell, and she’d spat his semen onto the grass. Detectives told him that didn’t explain how his semen got on Ryan.
Durr then admitted he’d seen Ryan in the yard–but only after she was dead. He said it was 7 or 7:30 in the evening, the day before Ryan’s body was found. That’s when he said he was drawn to the yard because he saw two “shorties” leaving it with a bike and wondered what they’d been up to. Ryan’s body was lying faceup on concrete. Her head was bloody, and she was mostly naked. He got excited, unzipped his pants, and masturbated over the body, then wiped himself off with the underpants that were lying next to the body and left them on the ground. He didn’t know how they got in her mouth and said he never so much as touched the body.
How sure can we be that Durr told this story?
When I spoke with Durr in July he denied telling it. According to him, detectives told him they weren’t trying to get him for murder, because they already had the kids saying they killed her; they wanted him to say that he gave the kids candy to knock Ryan down and that he raped but didn’t kill her. He said he just kept denying any involvement, even though one detective kneed him in the groin.
The evidence that Durr did make the statement consists of the word of the detectives and the prosecutors. Since 2005 Illinois law has required that interrogations of suspects in all murder cases be videotaped, but in 1998 they almost never were. Statements often were given in front of a court reporter, who recorded all the questions and answers, but not in Durr’s case. Instead the nine-page account of him masturbating over the body was written up by Petrone. Statements written by a prosecutor usually were signed by the suspect, but Durr didn’t sign this one.
There are more reasons to question the statement. In a November 1999 memo Petrone disclosed that at one point Durr agreed to sign it, and she handed him her pen. But instead of signing he wrote on the final page that he’d been beaten by police. Petrone maintained that Durr almost immediately recanted that allegation, and so she rewrote that page, saying he’d been treated fairly by police and by her and hadn’t been threatened or promised anything for his statement. Durr refused to sign.
Petrone didn’t say in her memo what she did with the original last page. Prosecutors are required to preserve any potentially exculpatory evidence so the defendant’s lawyers can review it and possibly use it at trial. Durr’s written claim that he’d been beaten certainly qualified as potentially exculpatory evidence. In a deposition in 2001 Petrone said that after Durr’s interrogation she put the page in a trash can.
Petrone also said in later testimony that Thomas Epach, then the state’s attorney’s chief of criminal prosecutions, was supervising her at the station that day and that she showed him what Durr had written and asked what to do. She threw the page away but told no one except Epach what she did until sometime after Durr was indicted in April 1999, and then she told the other three prosecutors who were handling Durr’s cases with her. One of the prosecutors was David Erickson, the first assistant state’s attorney, and he ordered her to write the memo.
If the defense can show that a failure to preserve evidence was done in bad faith, the judge can dismiss the indictment. In 2002 Durr’s lawyers asked Judge Stanley Sacks to do just that. During an extended hearing Petrone testified that she rewrote the page and threw away the beating claim because that’s what Durr wanted her to do. Epach testified that he directed Petrone to do whatever Durr wanted her to do with the beating claim. Durr’s lawyers found that laughable. In arguing to dismiss the indictment, Kull wondered aloud to Sacks whether the state would also discard the semen evidence against Durr if Durr requested it.
But the chance of a judge dismissing an indictment in such a big case was almost nonexistent. Sacks denied the motion, saying Petrone had testified “credibly” that she’d discarded the beating allegation at Durr’s request. Egan has served several times as head of felony review, the unit that takes statements from suspects and considers charges, and he says that if he’d ever learned that one of his prosecutors had thrown away a page on which a suspect had made a beating claim “I’d have wrung their neck.”
The statement Durr wouldn’t sign was actually convenient for him–an explanation for how his semen could have gotten on the underpants without him killing Ryan. (And it wouldn’t be surprising that he would now deny having made it, given how repugnant the explanation was.) The statement was also convenient for police, since Durr didn’t admit doing any of the things they’d accused the boys of doing–bludgeoning Ryan and putting the underpants in her mouth and the leaves in her nose. But just because it was convenient doesn’t mean it couldn’t be true.
The girl Durr was convicted of raping with his brother Eddie, an 11-year-old, identified Eddie as the man who abducted, beat, and raped her–but it was Floyd’s semen that was found in her vagina and rectum. She’d been beaten unconscious, and it was the state’s theory that Floyd had raped her after she was unconscious.
“I know that some of the things that I do are outside of normal,” Durr told a psychiatrist in 2000, according to the psychiatrist’s report. “Seeing other girls’ genitals excites me. Like when they’re unconscious, or that dead girl. I need to masturbate.” Was he just bolstering the story police said he told in the station, or was he telling the psychiatrist the truth? And if he does get excited by unconscious or dead girls, did he come upon Ryan when she was unconscious or did he knock her out himself?
Were there other theories about how Durr’s semen got on the underpants?
For almost a month after the semen stains were discovered detectives
considered the possibility that they already were on the underpants Ryan put on the morning she disappeared and that they therefore had nothing to do with the crime. Detectives asked Pfoser, the forensic biologist who discovered the stains, if they could be old. Pfoser said it was possible.
According to this theory, Ryan had put on someone else’s underpants by mistake or had run short of her own and borrowed someone else’s. The pair found in her mouth were size 14. Ryan’s mother, Sabrina Harris, told police Ryan normally wore a 10 or 12, though she said it was possible she’d bought her a 14. One of Ryan’s aunts later gave police three pair of underpants she said Ryan had at Arrington’s apartment. Two were size 10, one 12.
Police believed the underpants in Ryan’s mouth were ripped off her–they were torn from the waistband through a leg hole. But the underpants were torn through the left leg hole, and Ryan’s shorts were still around her right ankle. Police could never figure out why. Maybe Ryan had put them on backward, maybe because they weren’t hers.
On September 8, five days after police learned about the semen stains but before anyone knew they were from Durr, Area One lieutenant Robert Cornfield asked the crime lab if it could search Arrington’s apartment–the clothes, the furniture–for semen stains. If a semen stain were found and if its DNA profile matched that of the semen on the underpants, it would support the preexisting-stain theory. Such a search would be daunting, a lab supervisor told Cornfield, but it could be done.
Cornfield held off requesting one while his detectives asked around about the Arrington household. From various sources, they found support for the theory. According to police reports, several people said Arrington was a drug addict who allowed other addicts to smoke cocaine in the house; one said Arrington had been turning tricks for drugs in the apartment. The reports also indicated that a half-dozen male acquaintances of Arrington’s, at least four of them felons, periodically stayed in the house.
Detectives continued checking the theory even after they had Durr’s statement. Sometime in September an anonymous source maintained that both Floyd and Eddie had visited Arrington’s home several times while Ryan and her siblings lived there. On September 24 Arrington denied knowing the Durr brothers or ever having them over to her house. That same day detectives showed Ryan’s sisters a photo spread that included a photo of Floyd and one of Eddie. Three of the sisters said they didn’t recognize anyone in the array. But the youngest sister, a six-year-old, picked out both as men she’d seen in Arrington’s house.
The statement from Durr might have made police wary of ordering the crime lab to search Arrington’s apartment. The semen stains on the underpants had already brought scorn down on detectives for the statements they said they got from Romarr and David. If semen stains from Durr were found in Arrington’s apartment, it would raise questions about the circumstances leading to his statement. At a September 29 meeting at the crime lab, police said they no longer needed the Arrington home searched for semen stains.
Did the crime fit Durr’s MO?
Yes and no. None of the three other Englewood girls Durr sexually assaulted in 1998 was killed. Two sustained no other injuries; the third was the one apparently beaten by Eddie. All three girls were abducted at gunpoint, but there’s no evidence Ryan was–and the bloody brick suggests that a gun wasn’t available to whoever hit her. None of Durr’s other victims had their underpants stuffed in their mouth or leaves in their nose. Two of the girls were raped in abandoned buildings, the third in a stairwell, then a garage. Durr “had a habit of raping girls in abandoned buildings,” Area One detective Devon Anderson said in his deposition. “If he was going to rape Ms. Harris, there was an abandoned building about 25 to 50 feet away from where she was found.”
Besides the semen stains, what other evidence is there that Durr killed Ryan?
There was no other physical evidence of contact between Durr and Ryan. No semen was found in her pubic hairs or anywhere else on her body. Nor was there any semen on her shirt, bra, shorts, or shoes. Numerous head hairs were found on these clothes, but the hairs that weren’t Ryan’s weren’t Durr’s either. A pubic hair on this clothing was also neither Ryan’s nor Durr’s. A pubic hair on the underpants could have been Durr’s, but a comparison was inconclusive.
The only other significant piece of evidence against Durr came from a 15-year-old Englewood girl named Amira Major, who claimed she saw Ryan walking with a man in the neighborhood around 9 PM on the day she disappeared. In October 1998 Major picked Durr out of a photo array and a lineup as the man she’d seen. But Major had been with two youngsters who also claimed to have seen Ryan with a man at nine that evening, and they picked other men, not Durr, out of lineups.
There were other reasons to be skeptical of Major’s claim–one being that the entomologist’s report on the time of death indicated that Ryan had died during the afternoon. Around the time Major identified Durr police asked the entomologist to reconsider that finding. Ten days after Major made the identification he wrote in a letter to police that the time of death could have been a few hours later, though he added, “I do not have any scientific evidence to support this conclusion.” Moreover, Major identified Durr less than three weeks after a neighborhood group announced a $5,000 reward for information that helped solve the case. Early in 2005 Major was accused of cashing bogus checks at a bank. She pled guilty to theft by deception in March of this year and was sentenced to probation.
Why did it take so long to indict Durr?
The task force formed after the charges were dropped against the boys was made up of Area One detectives who’d been involved in charging the boys as well as detectives from other areas. The boys’ lawyers thought the Area One detectives had an obvious conflict of interest and shouldn’t have been included on the task force. After Major identified Durr the task force was split along predictable lines on whether the evidence was sufficient to indict him–most of the non-Area One detectives favored indicting him, and most of the Area One detectives opposed it.
R. Eugene Pincham, one of David’s lawyers, seemed eager for Durr’s indictment. When Major picked him out of the lineup, Pincham told reporters about it, and three days after the lineup the news was in papers across the country. “The public needs to know why Durr has not been charged,” the Chicago Sun-Times said in an editorial. In November 1998 Pincham took David’s parents, grandparents, and an aunt to a routine pretrial hearing for Durr in one of Durr’s other rape cases, and outside the courtroom he wondered aloud to reporters why Durr hadn’t been charged with Ryan’s murder. In his letter to the Sun-Times the following month Pincham pointed to the evidence against Durr and said the identity of Ryan’s killer “appears to be no longer a mystery.” Sabrina Harris also called press conferences at which she demanded Durr’s indictment. “If DNA evidence is good enough to get people out of jail it should be good enough to put them away,” she said in November.
Pincham, now 81, served as a criminal court judge and an appellate judge, and in both roles he was an unyielding defender of the presumption of innocence. But now he was a lawyer preparing to sue–and, as he told me later, the case for David’s wrongful conviction would be more convincing once someone else was charged with the crime.
In February 1999 Pincham and cocounsel Andre Grant filed David’s suit, alleging in it that detectives “with evil and malignant hearts” had tried to frame David and Romarr. (Romarr’s suit was filed three months later.) Durr still hadn’t been indicted, and in March Pincham petitioned for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Ryan’s case, accusing the state’s attorney of being unwilling to indict Durr because it would repudiate the work of the detectives who’d initially charged the boys. The petition was ultimately rejected, but it kept the pressure on. A Tribune editorial in early April wondered why Durr still hadn’t been charged. On April 22, 1999, even though no significant new evidence against him had been found in over half a year, he was.
Why did it take seven years to resolve Durr’s case when it didn’t even go to trial?
Soon after Durr was indicted prosecutors said they planned to seek the death penalty. They tried him on his other cases first, aiming to win convictions, which they hoped to use against him in the murder case. “They wanted to be able to say, ‘Floyd Durr, convicted sex offender, killed Ryan Harris,'” Durr told me. In 2000 a jury convicted him of the January 1998 abduction and rape of the ten-year-old girl, and Judge Sacks gave him 75 years. He got another 75 in 2001 after he pled guilty to sexually assaulting the 11-year-old with his brother Eddie in May 1998. In 2001 he also pled guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse for having consensual sex with a 14-year-old, who’d given birth to their baby in 1998. Sacks gave him 14 years for that. And in 2002 he was convicted of kidnapping and raping the 15-year-old in January 1998. Sacks gave him 50 more years. The first three sentences were concurrent, the last consecutive, making Durr’s total term 125 years. With day-for-day credit, he would have to serve half that.
With those cases out of the way, Judge Sacks began pushing the lawyers on both sides to bring the Ryan Harris case to trial. But Durr’s lawyers kept finding issues that had to be resolved first. Sacks’s patience–not his long suit–quickly wore thin. “I’m not waiting another year or two to try this case,” he said during a hearing in September 2002.
He wound up waiting much longer. The state appealed a ruling, and both sides made motions to reconsider and motions to reconsider the reconsideration. “What are we waiting for, the Messiah?” Sacks chided the lawyers last October. “I’ve never seen a case where neither side wants to try it.”
“That was Sacks giving his opinion, which was not really accurate,” Egan says. “Both sides wanted to try the case.”
The defense’s deliberate pace made strategic sense. Durr wasn’t going anywhere once Ryan’s case was over, except maybe death row. As cases age they tend to make the prosecutor’s job harder–witnesses die or pick up criminal charges, hurting their credibility. Of course this can happen to defense witnesses too, but it’s a bigger problem for prosecutors, who have the burden of proof. So for Durr, the longer the pretrial proceedings took the better. And since the state wanted to put him to death, his lawyers were going to pull out every stop. “What delayed this was a very zealous defense,” Egan says. “If there were issues that should have been brought up, Coyne and Kull found them. It’s hard to argue with that.”
Actually prosecutors usually do argue with that, but in this case Egan and his cocounsel were usually agreeable whenever the defense asked Sacks for more time. The lawyers who brought the civil suits against the city think they know why–they believe prosecutors were trying to help their political bedfellow, the city. “The civil suits would have been much stronger if Durr was convicted first,” Flint Taylor says. “That would have been a big piece in the puzzle showing that our kids were not involved. It would have helped at the bargaining table and in terms of public opinion.” He adds, “What they should have really cared about was getting the conviction of Durr, and letting the chips fall where they may in the civil case.”
If the evidence against Durr was weak, why didn’t he go to trial?
The admissibility of his child-rape convictions was the key pretrial issue. If a defendant testifies, his record can be admitted, since his criminal background is considered relevant for the judge or jury assessing his credibility as a witness. (That’s a key reason many defendants don’t take the stand.) If the defendant doesn’t testify, evidence of his other crimes is generally inadmissible–which has been the norm for ages. In 1901 the New York court of appeals proudly observed that the rule precluding evidence of other crimes “is rooted in that jealous regard for the liberty of the individual which has distinguished our jurisprudence from all others, at least from the birth of Magna Charta.” In 1977 a federal appeals court noted that “a concomitant of the presumption of innocence is that a defendant must be tried for what he did, not for who he is.”
Evidence about other crimes can be admissible if it shows something more than the defendant’s propensity for crime–his motive or intent, for example. But even then a judge is supposed to exclude it if he thinks its value is substantially outweighed by the possibility that it will prejudice jurors against the defendant. That’s what Judge Sacks found initially when prosecutors sought permission to use Durr’s other child-rape convictions in his trial. In 2002 Sacks said that child rape creates a “highly charged feeling” toward its perpetrators. Durr’s record would make the jury “focus less on whether Durr committed the crime for which he’s on trial” and “more on whether he is a person deserving of punishment because he’s a child rapist.” The state appealed that ruling, but in 2004 the appellate court agreed with Sacks. Evidence of Durr’s child rapes, it wrote, was “likely to greatly prejudice defendant and deprive him of a fair trial.”
That dimmed the chances of convicting Durr, and in 2005 prosecutors asked Sacks to reconsider, citing a law they hadn’t originally. The law, which went into effect in 1998, applied only to sex cases, and it loosened the restrictions against admitting evidence of other crimes. In May 2005 Sacks decided the evidence was admissible after all.
Now prosecutors suddenly had the upper hand. They told Sacks they intended to put several of Durr’s victims on the stand. Coyne and Kull thought it would be nearly impossible for jurors to hear those anguished tales and acquit Durr in Ryan’s case, regardless of the other evidence.
If prosecutors now had the advantage, why were they willing to deal?
According to John Gorman, spokesperson for the state’s attorney’s office, prosecutors decided it would be futile to seek the death penalty because evidence that Durr was mentally retarded would make him ineligible. He also says it would have been “disingenuous” and unfair to Sabrina Harris for prosecutors to continue pressing for Durr’s execution “when we would not prevail in the end.”
Sabrina Harris considers that explanation disingenuous. She knows about both Durr’s low IQ test scores in 2005 and his higher one in 2000. “Of course he’s gonna play dumb and answer questions wrong so he won’t get put to death,” she told me. “I would. So I ain’t going for that garbage. Ain’t nothing wrong with him.” If the case had been tried, she said, “Everything would have come to light again as far as how they charged those two little boys, and how the police lie. The state took this sorry-ass plea bargain because they wanted to save the city the embarrassment.”
She went on, “Natural life–what’s that mean? It means he’s gonna wake up tomorrow and he’s promised three meals a day. I’m paying for this motherfucker who killed my daughter–my taxes are helping take care of him. But me and my kids have bills to pay. I despise that.”
Harris tried to block the deal, getting her lawyer, Steven Decker, to petition, as Pincham had, for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Decker argued that the state’s decision to plea-bargain was motivated by a conflict of interest: “Only a special prosecutor could determine if the State’s Attorney’s decision to accept a plea agreement was done to avoid embarrassment to its principal client, the Chicago Police Department.”
In court on April 10, 2006, Decker reminded Judge Sacks that in Illinois, when a party asserts that a defendant is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, a judge is supposed to determine in a hearing whether the defendant is indeed retarded. Decker claimed the state was capitulating instead of insisting on that hearing because it didn’t really want to try the case.
Egan told Sacks that claim was simply wrong. He added that if crime victims were entitled to a special prosecutor every time they disagreed with an act of the state’s attorney “the criminal justice system would cave in upon itself.”
Judge Sacks said that while he sympathized with Harris, she had no power to demand a special prosecutor who’d seek the death penalty for Durr. This ruling, clearly correct, meant Sacks didn’t have to address the issue she’d raised: was Durr’s “retardation” the reason the state agreed to the deal, or was it a pretext?
To be ineligible for the death penalty in Illinois because of mental retardation, a defendant must show that the retardation was apparent by age 18. This past January Durr’s lawyers strengthened their retardation claim considerably when they found records showing that from ages 8 through 14 he’d scored in the bottom one percentile on the Iowa tests of basic skills. But did he perform poorly because he was retarded?
A psychiatrist who examined Durr in 2000 said his difficulties in school may have been a product of his chaotic home, and Durr told me he couldn’t focus on his schoolwork as a child because of what was happening at home. He claims he and his siblings were brutalized by their father–allegations his father, Monroe Durr, denies. (“Ain’t nothing I can do but pray on that,” he said when I told him of his son’s accusations. “Floyd has got that to repent for. At his day of resurrection Jesus Christ will whup him for telling a lie like that.”) Durr’s mother fled from Monroe when Durr was nine, taking the kids to a relative’s home in Mississippi, where Durr says he was sexually abused by a couple of older cousins.
The state’s attorney’s office had evidence to dispute the claim of Durr’s lawyers that he was retarded–and not just his 86 score on the 2000 IQ test. There was also the psychiatrist and the psychologist who concluded that he’d tried to fake symptoms of mental illness in their meetings with him; the psychologist labeled him a “sophisticated malingerer.” Which suggests that what Durr told me–that he did poorly on purpose on the 2005 IQ tests–may have been true, even though it’s not easy to intentionally score low.
“The retardation evidence wasn’t clear-cut, and it could have been litigated,” Egan allows. Sabrina Harris wonders why it wasn’t. She wonders why prosecutors didn’t wait to plea-bargain until after the hearing that would have determined whether Durr was retarded.
But there was a strategic reason for prosecutors not to wait. If Sacks found Durr to be retarded, they would have lost their only bargaining chip. Durr would have had little incentive to plead guilty, since the worst he could have gotten if convicted at trial was natural life–about what he was doing already.
If the case had gone to trial it would have put prosecutors in an uncomfortable position. Police witnesses usually testify for the state, and defense lawyers try to poke holes in that testimony on cross-examination. When those witnesses are detectives who got an incriminating statement from the defendant, the defense lawyers often will suggest that the detectives coerced the statement, or misunderstood the defendant, or jumped to conclusions. The facts of the Ryan Harris case flipped that script. Kull and Coyne were planning to call detectives Nathaniel and Cassidy, and other Area One officers, to tell the jury about the boys’ incriminating admissions. This would have put the prosecutors in the position of grilling veteran Chicago police detectives and of painting them as bullies who’d preyed on innocent children. And that would have provided some spicy meals for reporters. Complicating matters was the fact that Cassidy’s brother Scott is chief of special prosecutions in the state’s attorney’s office.
But Egan says, “I wouldn’t have pulled any punches. There would not have been one cross-examination question I would have held back on because of who the witnesses were.”
Sabrina Harris wishes she could have seen that. “From day one they had been telling me, ‘Miss Harris, we’re fighting for the death penalty–is that what you want? Mr. Devine wants to know how you feel about this.’ I’m like, ‘I’m all for it.’ But they knew what they were gonna do years ago. They were just trying to keep me quiet.”
One can only guess at the state’s motives. But it should be noted that state’s attorney Dick Devine has limited bad press for police and prosecutors with plea bargains before: twice he’s used sweet deals to persuade defendants to drop their claims of torture by Area Two cops.
What should we learn from the case?
“A shocking crime puts law to its severest test,” U.S. Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in a 1946 opinion. In the Ryan Harris case the law didn’t do very well–but it wasn’t alone. Everyone condemned the detectives for leaping to conclusions about the boys. And then everyone leaped to conclusions about Durr.
It’s natural to want a certain, definite answer to a mystery, especially a mystery involving a horrible crime. Answers help comfort the grieving, help restore the social balance. But false answers are dangerous, and not just because the wrong people may be accused and the real culprit or culprits may never be determined.
Sabrina Harris told me she’s now sure Durr killed Ryan and that she wants him dead “with every breath of my body.” But earlier she was positive the two boys had killed Ryan–and then she wanted them dead. When she first saw Romarr and David in juvenile court she thought they were just too small to have killed Ryan. She said she told herself, “My baby would have whupped their ass. She would have beat one of ’em up and chased the other one home.” She told the state’s attorney as much after the hearing. “But he said, ‘Now, Miss Harris, they know what only the perpetrators would know.’ The state had me so convinced that those two little boys killed my daughter, and so I hated those boys.” When the charges against Romarr and David were still pending and they’d been released on house arrest, she drove down their block several times, hoping to see them outside. She told me she planned to hop the curb with her car and “pin ’em up against the wall.” She pictured herself choking them, “seeing them foam up around the mouth like a dog.” She added, “You would have never dreamed of me being a parent for the hatred I had for these little kids. When I think about it now it makes me cry.” She blames the state’s attorney’s office for misdirecting her hatred.
Is she now right to hate Durr? Despite his record and the semen stains, the truth is that we still don’t know for certain who killed Ryan. And we probably never will.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph (house), Steve Liss/Time Life Picture/Getty Images (boy).