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Chicago man convicted of murder on testimony of blind witness to get new trial

Man gets conviction of 2011 murder vacated
Man gets conviction of 2011 murder vacated 02:56

CHICAGO (CBS) -- After spending more than a decade behind bars for murder, largely on the testimony of a witness who turned out to be legally blind, a man has been granted a new trial.

Darien Harris, now 30, was only 18 when he was arrested for the 2011 murder of Rondell Moore. He was convicted at a bench trial in 2014, and was sentenced to 76 years in prison.

On Tuesday, Cook County prosecutors agreed to vacate his conviction and sentence, but said they planned to retry Harris, so he will be transferred from the Menard Correctional Center downstate to the Cook County Jail while he awaits his new trial.

"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, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office (CCSAO) did not object to the vacation of the original 2011 case involving Darien Harris. Our office will pursue a new trial based on the facts, evidence, the law, and witness testimony. 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. We are committed to a fair and just resolution of this case, guided by the evidence and the law," the Cook County State's Attorney's Office said in a statement.

Harris' attorney, Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, said while they are happy prosecutors agreed to throw out his original conviction, they are disappointed they want to retry him, "despite all of the evidence of his innocence."

"There's significant evidence of Darien's innocence that makes it so that we're surprised that the state is retrying the case," she said.

Myerscough-Mueller said the prosecution's star witness, Dexter Saffold, was legally blind, a fact Harris' defense attorneys were not aware of at his trial.

"There's a ton of medical evidence to support that. He couldn't see what he said he saw," she said.

The only video from the June 2011 shooting at a BP gas station at 66th and Stony Island shows a shooter, who is hard to make out, get dropped off in a car, run across the scene and then fire shots off camera.

Chicago police arrived to find a man fatally wounded, and Saffold was the main witness.

Saffold picked Harris out of a lineup. The high school senior, who had no criminal record, soon found himself charged and convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 76 years in prison, just a few weeks shy of graduation.

"And those dreams were taken away from me by the sole testimony of a blind man who said that my son committed a crime," Darien's mom, Nekesha Harris, said in 2019.

Harris' mom was talking about an unrelated federal disability lawsuit filed by Saffold years earlier in 2003 in which two separate doctors attested to the fact that Saffold is legally blind and had been for a least a decade before the shooting.

That fact never came up during Harris' trial.

"They didn't do anything wrong because they didn't know. I didn't have to tell nobody about my medical history," Saffold said in 2019.

Saffold spoke to CBS 2 under the condition that his face be hidden. He said he stands by his testimony that he saw Darien Harris pull the trigger.

When asked if he is legally blind he responded, "I got glaucoma due to an eye disease."

He confirmed the medical records obtained by CBS 2 were authentic.

Another witness said Monday that he was the one who called 911 after shots were fired that day. He also questioned Saffold's timing and positioning at the crime scene.

"Ain't no way he could have seen him unless he's Superman," the witness said.

Myserscough-Mueller said other witnesses to the shooting have said Harris was not the gunman, including the gas station attendant who identified someone else as the shooter.

"Given this kind of evidence, it seems like this would be very obvious that this is a conviction you can't stand by; that it's an unjust conviction," she said.

She also claimed that police intimidated another witness in the case. She said the driver who supposedly dropped off Harris at the gas station initially identified him as the gunman, but recanted at trial, accusing police of threatening his newborn baby. That witness later said he never saw Harris.

"We are looking forward to his day in court so that he can show his innocence, and hopefully finally be free," Myerscough-Mueller said.

The Conviction Integrity Unit recently reviewed the case, but declined to act. Now, that state is finally vacating the conviction - but instead of letting Harris go, prosecutors are going to re-try it.

"I thought I would have him home for the holidays, so it is in a way disappointing to see that they're retying him," said Harris' wife, Jessica. "But I'm going to keep a positive attitude that he'll be home soon."

CBS 2 Investigator Hickey been speaking to Harris from prison on an off for years. Harris has always maintained he's innocent. He has told Hickey he was at home watching the NBA Finals at the time of the shooting.

Harris' attorney said they will be back in court on Dec. 19, and will push again for him to be released on bond while he awaits trial.

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