CHICAGO — A Cook County judge overturned the murder conviction Tuesday of a man who was found guilty in a fatal shooting at a South Side gas station primarily based on the testimony of an eyewitness who turned out to be legally blind.
Darien Harris was an 18-year-old high school senior with a clean criminal record when prosecutors charged him in an ambush-style shooting that left one man dead and another seriously injured in June 2011.
Now 30, Harris has long maintained his innocence, saying he was at home watching LeBron James play in the NBA finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks. But a now-retired judge found Harris guilty in 2014 and sent him to prison for 76 years.
More than four years ago, his legal team, family and friends began urging the conviction integrity unit of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to take another look at the case. Among other arguments, they said the key witness had failed to disclose to the trial judge that the witness was legally blind because of his glaucoma.
Though those efforts did not yield immediate results, Cook County prosecutors agreed with Harris’ post-conviction request to vacate his conviction and sentence, clearing the way for a new trial. On Tuesday, Cook County Judge Diana Kenworthy granted Harris’ request, saying simply: “So we are going to start over.”
The judge, citing the serious nature of the charges, declined to free Harris while he awaits his new trial. Harris is charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm.
Shackled at the ankles and dressed in blue jail garb, Harris did not speak during the brief court hearing. He waved to his wife and mother and an uncle seated in the courtroom gallery before being led back to jail.
His mother, Nakesha Harris, told reporters afterward she is disappointed prosecutors decided to retry the case.
“They’re wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” she said. “We’re retrying a case with no physical (or) DNA evidence. All the witnesses recanted (and) changed stories, and the judge based his verdict off the testimony of a blind man.”
Members of the victims’ families did not attend Tuesday’s court hearing.
The judge who found Harris guilty in 2014 was unaware during the trial of the witness’s medical diagnosis, according to Harris’ attorney, Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, who said in court filings that Harris was wrongfully convicted based on mistaken eyewitness testimonies and without physical evidence tying him to the crime.
The victim in the shooting, 23-year-old Rondell Moore, had pulled into a BP gas station in Woodlawn because of car troubles after 8 p.m. on June 7, 2011.
Moore put up the car’s hood to inspect the problem, assisted by a local mechanic who arrived at the station on his bike shortly afterward. Moore’s older brother and a friend also were there.
The station’s surveillance system did not capture the shooting, but prosecutors said the video did show an individual walking away from a black Lexus and around the gas station building toward the area where the shooting occurred, then running away shortly afterward.
The video showed a man whose thin build and short hairstyle generally fit Harris, but the suspect’s face was not visible.
Moore, who was shot three times, ran from the gas station and died in a nearby parking lot. The 51-year-old mechanic survived bullet wounds to his back and an arm.
Harris was arrested days later. He opted to have a judge rather than a jury decide his fate at trial. At the time, Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford said he based his ruling primarily on the testimony of Dexter Saffold, a man who testified that he witnessed the shooting while on his way home from a fast-food restaurant.
Saffold testified that he was riding his motorized scooter north on Stony Island Avenue near the gas station when he heard gunshots and saw someone about 18 feet from him holding a dark handgun. Saffold testified he saw the shooter aiming the gun at a person near a car with its hood up. He could see the muzzle flashes and heard more than two gunshots, Saffold testified. He also said the shooter bumped into him while running away, nearly dropping the gun while trying to put it into a pocket.
Saffold picked Harris out of a police lineup and also identified him in court during the trial.
Saffold’s eyesight came up only briefly during the trial, court records show. Harris’ attorney asked Saffold if his diabetes affected his vision. He replied yes, then paused and changed his answer, denying he had vision problems.
But Saffold’s doctor had deemed him legally blind some nine years before the murder, records show. As part of Harris’ 2022 post-conviction petition, his legal team cited medical records dating to 2002 that Saffold had publicly filed in various lawsuits regarding his disability. Harris’ attorneys also presented to the court an expert opinion from an ophthalmologist regarding Saffold’s impaired vision.
“He has very, very poor vision,” Myerscough-Mueller told reporters Tuesday. “He really couldn’t see anything.”
In rendering his guilty verdict in 2014, Judge Ford said he found Saffold credible. Ford called him an “honest witness” and said he’d given “unblemished” testimony. The “inconsistencies” in the testimony did not rise to the level of reasonable doubt, said the judge, unaware of Saffold’s medical diagnosis. Saffold could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Harris case was the subject of a 2019 investigation by the local journalism organization Injustice Watch.
Though prosecutors maintain they have credible evidence from other eyewitnesses that point to Harris’ guilt, Myerscough-Mueller alleged police misconduct played a role in those identifications. She said the alleged getaway driver, who has since died, took the stand during Harris’ trial and recanted his initial identification of Harris. He said Harris was never in his car and that police officers coerced him into making a false identification, threatening to “put (him) in jail for the rest of (his) life” if he did not cooperate, according to court records.
The police detectives also testified, denying they pressured the man to identify Harris. Ford noted the man’s recantation might be due to fear rather than the truth. Though prosecutors aren’t required to provide a motive, they theorized during the trial that there was bad blood between Darien Harris and the Moore brothers.
Harris’ attorneys also said in court records that they have uncovered evidence identifying the actual shooter as another teenager who was killed several months later, also during an ambush-style shooting at a South Side gas station.
Myerscough-Mueller, an attorney with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, said a gas station employee who did not testify during Harris’ 2014 trial has identified that man — not Harris — as the shooter in the earlier incident. The employee alleged police tried to coerce him into making a false identification, according to the attorney.
In a statement, Foxx’s office said prosecutors did not object to vacating Harris’ conviction “due to shifts in witness testimony and available evidence, in the interest of justice and to ensure that the principles of fairness and due process are upheld.”
“This decision is not made lightly, but with a profound sense of responsibility towards the integrity of our legal system and the community we serve, and securing justice for the victim,” the statement read. “We are committed to a fair and just resolution of this case, guided by the evidence and the law.”
Prosecutors pledged to pursue a new trial.
The defendant’s wife, Jessica Harris, also attended Tuesday’s court hearing. She told reporters they married more than a year ago. She and his family regularly visited him while he was incarcerated in downstate Menard Correctional Center, they said.
“That’s a good thing about Darien. He’s very positive,” his wife said. “You will never see him not smiling. So he has very high hopes for his case.”
He’ll now be held at the Cook County Jail pending his new trial. Harris is due back in court Dec. 19, when a trial date may be set.
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This story was originally published December 5, 2023, 6:51 PM.