Teshome Campbell walked out of prison a free man on January 29, 2016, after being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned 18 years for a murder he did not commit.
On Christmas morning 1997, a group of men fatally beat another man in Champaign, Ill. Teshome, who was 21 at the time, was implicated through faulty eyewitness testimony. Despite maintaining his innocence from day one, and the fact that no physical evidence linked him to the crime, Teshome was tried for first-degree murder.
At trial, the state’s evidence included testimony from two co-defendants who were charged in the same case and granted full immunity in exchange for their testimony against Teshome. In addition, the state presented a third “eyewitness” who selected Teshome as the person who started the fight despite the fact that said she “saw the fight from inside a van that was parked around the street corner and facing away from the brawl” during the dark of night.
Teshome’s trial attorney did not present a case in his defense. In fact, it was later discovered that the trial attorney did not investigate the case, interview witnesses, review reports or locate evidence. On November 28, 1998, at the age of 22, Teshome was sentenced to 55 years in prison, five years short of the maximum sentence.
Over the next 17 years, Teshome attempted every legal avenue to prove his innocence. In 2012, then-IIP staff attorney Erica Nichols Cook and students from UIS, University of Illinois College of Law and Southern Illinois University School of Law, began investigating his case with the support of a federal Wrongful Convictions grant. Led by Ms. Nichols Cook, the team did much of the foundational work for the collateral attacks, including locating one of the key witnesses. Ms. Nichols Cook and UIS students also compiled, filed and argued (in early 2015) a clemency petition on behalf of Teshome to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. That petition is pending.
Around the same time, Teshome filed a habeas petition in federal court. When this was denied, Teshome appealed and was given appointed counsel to represent him in federal proceedings. The Madison, Wis., office of the international law firm Perkins Coie accepted a pro bono appointment to represent Teshome in federal court. After the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals remanded Teshome’s case for an evidentiary hearing in the federal district court, a full hearing was held.
The district court ultimately ruled on December 30, 2015 – just over 18 years after the crime – that Teshome
received ineffective assistance of counsel at his original trial. His trial lawyer had overlooked evidence that established Teshome’s innocence at the time of trial (e.g., a witness who had reported she had stood talking with Teshome at the time of the beating and he could not have been involved). Campbell District Court Order 12.30.15
The federal district court reversed Teshome’s convictions and ordered the state to determine if it would seek to retry Teshome for the murder. On January 29, 2016, the State’s Attorney moved to dismiss all charges. Teshome, with only an hour’s notice, packed his belongings into four boxes and stepped out of Danville Correctional Center, back into the world a free man.
Teshome’s case highlights some of the most common causes of wrongful conviction: erroneous eyewitness identification, incentivized witnesses, and inadequate defense.