- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - A suburban Chicago man was freed from prison Thursday after his conviction for a 1999 murder was thrown out because much of the evidence used against was deemed invalid.

Jason Strong, 39, said he was very happy to be going home after he walked out of Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois.

“I just want to say I’m an innocent man,” Strong said.

Strong was accused in the death of Mary Kate Sunderlin, 34, of Carpentersville, whose body was found in a Lake County forest preserve.

Strong was cleared of Sunderlin’s death after the Lake County state’s attorney’s office and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office agreed to conduct a review of Strong’s innocence claim. His attorneys told him Wednesday he would go free.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly signed an order mandating Strong’s release at a hearing Thursday.

“He was … very grateful that this case is coming to an end, that he’s going to be released very soon, and he expressed his gratitude to the (authorities) and to us,” said Thomas Geraghty, one of Strong’s lawyers and director of Northwestern University Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic.

Lake County prosecutors agreed to throw out the case after pathologists concluded recently authorities had been wrong about the time of the victim’s death. Pathologists also concluded that contrary to the state’s original contention that she was tortured, killed and dumped on the same night, she had injuries weeks or months old.

In addition, witnesses who said they saw Strong commit parts of the crime recanted and said authorities pressured them into blaming him.

Strong was convicted in 2000. The victim wasn’t identified until 2006 as Sunderlin, who was described as mentally disabled.

Strong asserted for years he was innocent, but his claims were rejected by Lake County prosecutors. His case is the latest prosecution to fall apart in Lake County. He is sixth inmate cleared of a major felony in the county since 2010. Five others spent a combined total of 80 years behind bars.

Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim took office in 2013 promising reform. He said Thursday he will continue to examine innocence claims.


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